Friday, January 31, 2014

`Water Betrays the Spirit That Is in the Air'

On a spring morning twenty year ago I was counting ospreys and other birds with a biologist, Carl George, now retired from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Carl possesses a “Bodleian mind,” as a poet once said of Dr. Johnson. He seems to know something about everything and catalogs it systematically for ready retrieval. As we sat on the shore, binoculars and notebooks in hand, he nodded at the lake’s riffling surface and said, “Langmuir circulation.” Rather gnomic, even by Carl’s standards, but he supplied footnotes. 

Irving Langmuir was an omnivorously curious chemist and physicist best known for his concentric theory of atomic structure. He worked for the General Electric Co. in Schenectady from 1909 to 1950, and in 1932 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The American Chemical Society’s journal devoted to surfaces and colloids is named Langmuir. In a biographical memoir published in 1974 by the American Academy of Sciences, C. Guy Suits and Miles J. Martin describe Langmuir’s interest in “the streaks or windrows of seaweed and bubbles which form on the ocean parallel to the direction of a moderate wind.” They continue:  

“He had noticed this phenomenon especially during an Atlantic crossing in August 1927, and he studied windrows for several years at Lake George, New York, where he had a summer cottage. By simple but carefully planned experiments, using such apparatus as oriented umbrellas and lamp-bulb floats, Langmuir was able to establish that the windrows were caused by wind-induced circulation of the surface water, the water on the surface flowing toward the windrows, downward under them, and up again at a point halfway between them.” 

The surface of a lake is a complex system, not a Lockean tabula rasa. For centuries, people had noticed the arrangement of streaks or miniature waves. It took Langmuir, a limnologist before there was such a discipline, to explain it. As the Nobel Foundation says, “Dr. Langmuir's hobbies were mountaineering, skiing, flying, and, most of all, to understand the mechanism of simple and familiar natural phenomena.” Thoreau had described this unignorable natural phenomenon but couldn’t explain it. In a 1983 article in the journal Marine Environmental Research, “The Ecology of Langmuir Circulation: A Review,” S.F. Barstow writes: “Reference was first made to the apparent alignment of streaks with the wind direction by Thoreau, as long ago as 1857.” In a journal entry from July 16, 1850, Thoreau writes: 

“A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes across it by the streaks or flakes of light.” 

On Nov. 12, 1841, he writes: “I seem to discern the very form of the wind when blowing over the hills it falls in broad flakes upon the surface of the pond…” [Note his repetition of that unlikely word "flakes."]  

And in Cape Cod (1865) he notes: “On another day, [the surface of the ocean] will be marked with long streaks, alternately smooth and rippled, light-colored and dark, even like our inland meadows in a freshet, and showing which way the wind sets.” 

Irving Langmuir was born on this date, Jan. 31, in Brooklyn, in 1881, and died on Aug. 16, 1957, in Woods Hole, Ma.

[Go here to read a story about the retirement of Carl George and his biology department colleague, the marvelously name Twitty Styles.]

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