Snowflakes reflect light like a mirror to create their white color.

Liquid water is clear, but snow is white. Why is that?

Well, the snow crystals have many surfaces at different angles and each one of these surfaces acts like a tiny mirror which bounces back the light.  So, the white color you are seeing is actually the light that is being reflected.  The light bouncing off the surfaces contains all the colors of the rainbow combined together, to make white light.  This white light lands on a snow crystal’s surface and then reflects back off, like a flashlight beam on a mirror.

This act of bouncing light is what scientists would call scattering. The surface of the snowflake scatters  light in many directions, causing us to see the white color.  In an earlier podcast, we learned why snow has six sides. Snow is a crystal, with facets just like a diamond. Each one of these facets bounces light back to give it the color we see.

Now, snow is not the only thing that bounces light back. Water droplets can scatter light back too. This is why clouds, steam, and fog look white.

So, the colors you see, well, they  are just the surface.






Warm lakes and cold Canadian winds create the perfect (snow) storm.

In the early winter (from November to January), there is a chance for large winter storms because lakes help to produce more snow.  When cold dry winds from Canada blow over the Great Lakes, the winds pick up moisture that is evaporating from the lakes.  That moisture is turned to snow and then dumped on some poor city. This is called Lake Effect Snow and it occurs when there isn’t any ice on the lakes. As soon as the lakes freeze over, the lake effect snow season is over.

You might have heard stories of snow storms where feet of snow are produced in a few days. The lakes enhance the snowstorm by providing more moisture to the system.  Cities along the Great Lakes are most effected. However, Buffalo, NY has been a sweet spot for lake effect snow in recent years.

So, be on the look out for mega-snow storms early in the winter season. Without ice to capped off the moisture, there will be more precipitation.

Rain is also increased by lakes and oceans, but the amounts are not as much as the snow. This is because 1 inch of rain is equal to 10 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. (That ratio depends on the temperature and the fluffiness of the snow, by the way.)

No matter how you measure it, increased precipitation by lakes is snow joke and will make one wish for an early spring.


The Gateway Arch turned 50 with the help of modern materials and math.

When creating a monument for future generations to behold, there are two features it must possess—simplicity and permanence.  This was the thinking that architect Eero Saarinen used when designing the “Gateway Arch to the West,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary October 28, 2015. Saarinen gained inspiration by looking to the nation’s capital. He surmised that timelessness arose from geometric forms—the Washington Monument is an obelisk; the Lincoln Memorial is a rectangle; and the Jefferson Memorial is a circle in a square. So, Saarinen selected an arch.

However, this arch would be no ordinary arch. Aloft at 630 feet, it had a special geometric form that moved mathematicians and masons—the catenary arch.  A catenary arch appears when a chain hangs freely from two supported ends and occurs in everyday life from draping power lines to necklaces.  When inverted, this arch supports its own weight and differs from a parabola. A catenary arch has steeper legs, a flatter peak, and greater strength. With this appointed shape, Saarinen next sought to find the right building materials to make it.

He chose a material that would represent the modern age—stainless steel. This metal was first created in the 19th century, but perfected in the 20th. It is composed of steel (a combination of iron and carbon) with a dash of chromium. The mix of iron and carbon gives the metal strength, but chromium provides longevity by overcoming iron’s weakness of rusting.

Rust never sleeps, as songwriter Neil Young once penned.  So, the best way to stop it is to prevent it. Paint is one way to halt rust, but an atomic layer of protection helps too. This is where chromium comes in. Chromium makes a thin layer of chromium oxide on the surface, which hinders water from combining with the iron to create rust.

The path to developing the metal for the Gateway Arch was circuitous at best. Stainless steel wasn’t a creation, but an evolution. The discovery of chromium occurred in the 18th century by French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin.  However, the secret to making lasting metals would take some time, as it puzzled some of the world’s greatest minds. Michael Faraday, one of history’s best scientists, began his career investigating new kinds of steel in the 1820s. He had limited success.

Other delays occurred. There were unfiled patents in the 1870s on weather-resistant metals. Then efforts stalled. Two decades later, there was a renewed interest to create stainless steel, but it took a wrong turn. A famous scientist, Sir Robert Hadley, erroneously concluded in the 1890s that chromium lessened steel’s ability to fight corrosion. His unfortunate claim curtailed future work, until Harry Brearley serendipitously uncovered that chromium makes steel “rustless” and commercialized it as cutlery, which was announced in The New York Times in 1915. All these steps together made Saarinen’s Gateway Arch possible.

The stainless steel in the Gateway Arch is the same in a household fork. Metal plates (as thick as four nickels) are held together with miles of welds making the arch’s exterior nearly 900 tons. (For comparison, the Chrysler Building has a 27-ton stainless exterior.) The arch is perched on the edge of the Mississippi where an early trading outpost stood, which was frequented by pioneers, fur traders, and explorers before heading westward. In the 1930s, city leaders wanted to transform this decaying site with a monument to honor those who “won” the west, the Louisiana Purchase, and Thomas Jefferson.

Saarinen’s application in 1947, one of 172 entries including one from his famous architect father, captured what these leaders had envisaged—a message to the future, with modern materials, and a wink to the past, with a simple geometric form. Construction did not begin until 1962. Sadly, Saarinen died of a brain tumor in 1961 and never got to see his structure.

Today, the arch stands strong, although it contends with dirt and chemical pollution from industrial emissions from the arch’s early years. These practices are no longer permissible with the establishment of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s. The survival of the arch is not only a testament to stainless steel but to progressive legislation.  The Gateway Arch continually serves as a material, design, and cultural zeitgeist—relevant to the present, but also connecting us to the past as it propels us upward and forward.

Our expanding waistlines result from the  competition between our modern diet and our ancestral genes.  The book Newton’s Football (Random House) spells in out:

Cheap and easy access to calories is a very recent development in the human condition. The hunting and gathering that early man did was a boom-or-bust business. One day there’d be a feast in the form of ripe fruits and vegetables or a freshly killed ox. And there were, of course, no Ziploc bags or Sub-Zero refrigerators in which to store the leftovers.

When the harvest was over and the hunters hit a dry spell, it was famine time. Attempts to store food were generally unsuccessful, and even when it did work, it still required an early human to defend the food against those who’d steal it, human or otherwise.

Storing excess calories as fat was an elegant solution to these problems.

“Fat is the best defense against a rainy day, and throughout human history there were lots of rainy days,” explains David Katz, founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center.

Additionally, there is a new ingredient in our diet that our ancestors rarely enjoyed, and that is processed sugar.  Sugar is surprisingly prevalent in our modern diets and is found in bread and crackers and salad dressing and tomato sauce. And, that’s more calories to burn.

Sugar in moderation is a good thing and serves as a fuel for our bodies, but if we don’t use sugar, it gets stored. “It’s subject to the laws of thermodynamics,” says Katz. “If you don’t burn it, the body will store it as an excess of calories.”

As one can see, fat was a Stone Age solution for a rainy day when there wasn’t any food. Unfortunately, in our modern day, that rainy day never comes.

So, blame those extra pounds on your ancestors.