It’s 2 a.m. on a Thursday morning and the polar vortex is squeezing us hard in its icy knuckles. My smartphone tells me it’s minus-16 degrees, noting that with the wind, it feels more like minus-30. Powerful cold, and more than a little fearsome.

But I’m nothing to be trifled with either. I’ve got a cup of boiling water in my hand and I know how to use it. At least, I think I do. I’m going to take some sure-fire science from the Internet and turn my cup of boiling water into an instant blizzard. Yes I am. Unless I scald my sorry self and end up in the hospital as someone else’s science experiment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  It all began with the polar vortex, that fearsome cyclone of frigid air that swirled into Maine not that long ago with no other purpose than to utterly mess with me.

At the height of it, people everywhere were making the best of sub-zero temperatures by having fun. Fun with science! Drunk guys in dorm rooms, professional YouTubers with fancy cameras, kindergarten students in schools across America — all performing exotic cold-weather experiments and posting the results for all the world to see.

Everywhere on the Web they were crowing: Look at my photo of a frozen soap bubble! Behold the perfectly edible taffy produced in just seconds in my backyard! Check out my frozen towel sled, my magic balloon, the mystical snow produced out of thin, empty air!

All thanks to Mother Nature’s frigid personality.

Well, I wanted a piece of that action my friends, and so I went shopping. A jar of soap bubbles here, a bottle of faux maple syrup there and about a dozen other things found hiding in the back of junk drawers or in dusty basement corners.

I’ve never been much of a scientist – don’t even ask about the failed experiments in static electricity of 2007 – but the good people of the Internet assured me: These experiments are practically fail-safe. Even a dim-witted child could do it, or a half-blind zoo monkey stoned on Nyquil.

I was confident. I was psyched. I wormed into six layers of clothing, grabbed my stuff and headed into the frigid unknown, now two weeks ago, like so many polar explorers before me, with scientific greatness awaiting. Not once did it occur to me that I might fail at these feats already mastered by thousands of 3-year-olds across the globe.

The Internet told me everything I need to know. What could possibly go wrong?

Making snow

It started when somebody mentioned – in passing – that if I were to fling a cup of boiling hot water into the frigid night, I would produce a kind of snow, the result of hot water giving off vapor that clings to the blah, blah, blah, scientific babble, blah, blah. This is just the kind of experiment I can’t resist because: A. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not true, and, B. I get to throw stuff.

So, I boil some water, a task I’m able to perform two out of three times these days without scalding myself. With the bubbling water in a big red cup, I simply step outside where the cold lunges like a predator. Stars are twinkling. Wind is stirring. I pick a nice dark section of sky and fling my scalding water toward it, hoping for something, expecting nothing. WHOOMP! goes the water when it meets the cold air. The whoomp was my favorite part, although what followed was pretty damn cool, as well. The Internet called it snow, but the stuff that filled the air over my driveway was more of an overly white mist, a floating phantom of hissing steam that rode on the wind like a banshee.

Did it fall back to the earth in plump white flakes? Nossir. You wouldn’t build a snowman out of this stuff. This is more of a free-roaming snow, blowing off into the night like an untamed genie happy to be free of its bottle. I watched it swirl toward the trees across the street, my mouth open and eyes wide. I was astounded that this experiment had worked and with such little effort. And I was absolutely sure that every single experiment to follow would be a smashing success, as well, and I’d be written up in all the scientific journals.

I turned water into snow! How could I fail at anything?

Nerd alert: According to the brainiacs at livescience.com, “colder air holds less water vapor than warmer air, while the boiling water is giving off lots of water vapor (that’s the steam you see rising from the pot). When the hot water is thrown into the cold air, the air gets more water vapor than it can hold, Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minnesota, explained previously to LiveScience’s Life’s Little Mysteries, so the water vapor clings to tiny particles in the air, crystallizing into snow. Seeley says it has to be quite cold to attempt this one, somewhere in the region of minus 30 F (minus 34 C) or lower.”

Bonus science flop: In Chicago, one aspiring Bill Nye tried to impress his girlfriend by hurling hot water off a high-rise balcony. I don’t now if he was able to produce snow, but he did manage to involve his most sensitive parts and splashed a pedestrian on the sidewalk below, to boot. The link is from Gawker, so it’s absolutely not safe for work. http://gawker.com/polar-vortex-cant-keep-man-from-burning-penis-he-clai-1495893102

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

With the God-like power of snow-making behind me, I alerted my editors that bigger feats were on the way. Assign photographers, I advised. We’ll want video and still shots and maybe even a graph or two attempting to explain my brilliance. While the editor peons went about their business, I went shopping. Up first? Soap bubbles.

They say if you blow a simple soap bubble into extremely cold air, incredible things will happen. Your bubble will form extravagant, crystalline patterns as it freezes solid, transforming itself into a sight so dazzling, you’ll want to put up a red velvet rope and charge people hefty fees just to look at it. I would have doubted the veracity of this claim if not for the photographs – thousands upon thousands of high-resolution photographs of soap bubbles in frozen splendor posted around the Internet.

I paid a mere buck for a 16-ounce bottle of the proper soap at the local dollar store. I was so excited to freeze my first bubble, I awoke the following morning at the crack of noon and, after just three cups of coffee, I raced outside to greet Sun Journal photographer Amber Waterman, who had been assigned to record my mastery of the elements.

“Make sure you get shots from various angles,” I instructed her (photographers love it when you tell them how to do their jobs). “I expect a multitude of magnificent effects from my very first bubble, so look alive.”

In my excitement, I didn’t notice right away that one key element was missing – namely, the polar vortex itself, which had slinked away like a cold-hearted paramour in the night. The day was bright, it was 25 degrees and the temperature was still rising.

“But it’s still below freezing,” I assured Amber, stroking my imaginary mustache. “My bubble will freeze just fine.”

Only, it didn’t. It took me a half-hour to blow a single bubble (“Stop blowing so hard!” Amber yelled at me. “You’re spitting all over it!”) because apparently the act of blowing is beyond me. When I finally DID make a bubble, it was no larger than a quarter and it simply hung from the plastic wand like a sick thing that is about to die. Which is exactly what it did. That bubble died as did the next six to emerge from my not-so-magical one-dollar wand.

“It’s not cold enough,” Amber said, packing away her equipment. “You’ll have to try again late at night, when the temperature is down to zero or below.”

“You’ll come back, right? You’ll come back to record the grandeur of my frozen soap bubble, won’t you?”

Amber didn’t come back.

She didn’t miss much. Standing in my driveway at midnight, the air a respectable minus-4 degrees, I managed to blow dozens of perfectly good bubbles . . . which stubbornly refused to freeze. They quivered. A couple of them kind of wilted and one malevolent bubble floated right into my eye. Not one of them formed awe-inspiring crystals or complex patterns never before seen in nature. My bubbles sucked even after I whipped up a new batch of soap.

For those of you who think you can make it work, here’s what the liars at boredpanda.com have to say about the whole stupid experiment: “Soon the two adventurers found themselves in awe while watching the frost create magical patterns in the freezing bubbles. The smaller ones would freeze momentarily, simply mid-air, and then they would fall down and scatter like thin glass chips. The bigger ones would manage to freeze more slowly on the surface, giving the photographer a chance to catch the artworks of the frost on camera.” They also have numerous photos of beautifully frozen bubbles. Clearly, they cheated somehow. http://www.boredpanda.com/frozen-bubbles-winter-photography-angela-kelly/

Frozen towel sled!

This one was kind of a no-brainer. Soak a towel in water, lay it out flat and let the awesome power of the polar vortex freeze it into a working sled within minutes. This works, I’m happy to say. After just a few minutes, your towel will be solid enough so that you can shape an end of it into a classic toboggan curl. Great fun! Only, I left my towel sled outside overnight and when the polar vortex departed like a dirty cheater, what I was left with was basically a soggy towel with a few crusty spots. I never got to slide down a hill on the thing. I never got to wow other sledders at the bottom of a snow-covered hill. All of my effort and high hopes amounted mainly to another piece of dirty laundry to feed into the hamper. If the polar vortex were a man, I would kick him in the dangly parts.

Daffy taffy

“It’s very easy to make maple syrup taffy!” gloated the fine people of thekitchn.com. “Here’s how you do it.”

Four steps. There are just four steps to making maple syrup taffy, combining a readily available household ingredient with the sorcerer-like abilities of the polar vortex. Four steps and the videos made it look about as easy as spilling a cup of coffee. Which I do all the time!

I didn’t have any maple syrup — that common household ingredient — because I haven’t eaten pancakes since the incident of 1997. Back to the dollar store I went, to shell out another crumpled dollar bill for a bottle of syrup. Easy peasy, am I right?

Not so much. Because by then, the polar vortex was long gone, having gone to live with its mother for a while. The temperature was still rising and the days were unseasonably warm. To perform the taffy experiment, I had to wait until deepest darkest night when the temperatures would be back to dangerous (and fun!) levels. No problem. No sweat.

Only there was a problem. In particular, the brown-syrup-like stuff I had bought at the dollar store, as it turned out, had not so much as a nodding acquaintance with authentic maple syrup. Apparently (they really should teach this stuff in school) just because something is labeled “pancake syrup” doesn’t mean it came out of a maple tree. 

Not that I was deterred by this.  When done right, the alchemical task of turning syrup into taffy is as quick as it is simple.

You get some snow. (They said to pack some onto a pan or baking sheet, but a glance out the window promised all the fresh white stuff I needed.) Check.

You heat some maple syrup — did I already mention that the instructions changed sometime after I first read them to insist you use real maple syrup? — to 235 degrees on the stove, which in my estimation, takes about six seconds.

With the properly heated syrup in hand, you pour it onto your snow — I dashed outside, found a clean patch and simply dribbled the syrup upon it. And violin!

Peel your hardened syrup off the snow and there you have it, a delicious taffy-like substance strong enough to yank every filling out of your mouth. Or as the thekitchn.com people put it: “The taffy itself tastes just like maple syrup, of course, with a deliciously chewy texture that melts in your mouth.”

Not in my backyard, however. The napalm-like substance I dribbled from my pan didn’t interact with the snow, it pretty much nuked it. As far as I could tell, the “pancake syrup” melted its way through three feet of snow and pooled on the frozen ground below. Come spring, I will no doubt step in a warmed pool of the viscous muck and be victimized all over again.

More from thekitchn. http://www.thekitchn.com/snow-day-treat-how-to-make-map-106130

Magic balloon!

I was hurting, my ego flaccid as a deflated balloon. So, with that image in mind, I decided to go for the simplest cold-weather experiment of them all to end on a winning note. LiveScience assured me that the Magic Balloon experiment is practically guaranteed to succeed. Only a simpleton could bungle this one, they implied.

I wish I’d made them sign a contract so I could sue for emotional damage.

“Just inflate and tie up a balloon,” goes the LiveScience instructional, “then stick it outside and watch it deflate. Bring it back inside to warm up and watch it re-inflate. This is a nice lesson in the volume of a gas – in this case, air volume changes with temperature, shrinking in the cold, as its density increases, and expanding in the heat, as its density decreases.”

I produced a bright orange balloon, figuring it would photograph well and that it would come in handy if I got lost in the woods while blowing it up. Once inflated, it took me at least 10 minutes to tie the knot because I have the dexterity of a thumb-less speed freak with a Rubik’s Cube. After that, I set the balloon out there in the cold and watched it, waiting for the magic to happen.

And waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

You can probably predict how this went. I watched the balloon for 20 minutes before deciding it wasn’t going to deflate before my eyes. I went inside and returned an hour later to find the balloon still plump and full, not awesome in any way. It was the same an hour later and an hour after that. I tried stuffing my balloon into the freezer and I tried begging it to give up its air. No go.

It’s as if in departing, the polar vortex created some sort of quantum vacuum that allowed inanimate objects, such as pancake syrup and balloons, to forgo physical laws. What’s the alternative? I didn’t blow up the balloon correctly?

It’s a stupid experiment and you should never try it.

The polar vortex surrenders

So, what happened to the awesome force of nature that was supposed to descend on the area, turning breakfast ingredients into delicious candy and soap bubbles into works of art? It came, it saw, it fizzled. At least in this area. According to the fine forecasters at Accuweather: “The arctic blast was given extra momentum by a southward shift of a large cold storm that most of the time hangs out near the Arctic Circle. That storm is called the polar vortex. Because of the indirect path the air mass took relative to New England, the northeastern corner of the U.S. and neighboring Canada was spared the worst of it.”

They pointed at my soggy towel sled and laughed as they said it, too.

Pure, clean, simple

What’s next for me? I’m still working on a Theory of Everything, which will unify relativity with quantum mechanics and absolutely stun the physics community. Since I can’t blow up a balloon or correctly pluck maple syrup off a shelf, you’ll probably have to wait a while before you see me on the cover of Scientific American. I’m thinking six months, at least.

Meanwhile, I hear that if you stick a bar of Ivory soap into the microwave, it will swell to six times its original size. Six times! We’re talking a fresh, clean-smelling monstrosity that could easily kick the Pillsbury Doughboy’s squishy backside. Count me in, my friends. I’m off to the dollar store for a bar of the stuff this very day. I mean, it’s a bar of soap in the microwave. All I have to do is press a few buttons to set this thing in motion. Easy peasy, am I right?

What could possibly go wrong? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1hzatoE1tg

See more experiments at: http://www.livescience.com/42371-cold-weather-science-experiments.html#sthash.WHAV5ByN.dpuf


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