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Brainiac

A snowball’s chance...in the Arctic

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

A record-breaking cold front moved through the country last week, and here’s one surprising consequence of the ultra-low temperatures some regions experienced: It’s nearly impossible under those conditions to make a snowball.

In a post on the “physics of a snowball” on Northeastern University’s research blog, J. Murray Gibson, dean of the university’s College of Science, explained that snowball formation depends on a degree of melting that’s hard to achieve in extreme cold.

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When you pack together snow, he explains, the pressure you apply actually causes some of the snowflakes to melt. (Unlike most materials, water liquefies under pressure.) Then, once the pressure’s off, the liquefied snow refreezes in its new, hopefully spherical state. But when it’s really cold outside, the amount of pressure you need to apply to snow to make it melt, and thus stick together as a snowball, is beyond the capacity of most human hands.

What happened to the ‘mill girls’?

On Dec. 15, I wrote a story for Ideas about new research suggesting Charles Dickens may have found inspiration for “A Christmas Carol” in an unexpected place: a literary journal written by young female mill workers Dickens encountered on an 1842 visit to Lowell. The researchers, Natalie McKnight, a professor at Boston University, and Chelsea Bray, a graduate student at Boston College, have found good evidence to support the connection, but literary influences are always hard to pin down completely. What’s beyond dispute, though, is that Dickens was highly impressed by Lowell and its cultured millworkers—particularly in contrast to the dreary industrial cities he knew in England.

Lowell Historical Society

A week after the article ran, I received an e-mail from Elizabeth von Klemperer, a retired English professor at Smith College. She explained that the cheery working conditions Dickens saw in Lowell proved to be short-lived. In 1845, a potato famine struck Ireland and triggered a wave of immigration to the United States. New England cities were flooded with poor, often illiterate Irish laborers who were willing to endure longer hours and lower pay than the Yankee women who’d staffed the Lowell mills at the time of Dickens’s visit. Working conditions plummeted as a result, and it wasn’t long before conditions in Lowell more closely resembled the abject factories Dickens was so critical of in his native country.

That e-mail led me ultimately to Thomas Dublin, a professor of history at Binghamton University who has written perhaps the authoritative book on the subject, “Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell,” and we spoke over the phone just after New Year’s.

“I think it’s safe to say Dickens caught Lowell at about its high point,” he says. “Had he come six years later, he would have observed a much more mixed picture in the mills.”

In the 1830s, native New Englanders accounted for nearly the entire labor force in Lowell. By the outbreak of the Civil War, though, they’d become a minority of the millworkers. One quick consequence of this transformation was that The Lowell Offering, the literary journal that had so impressed Dickens, shut down. It’s unknown whether the women authors simply lost interest in the project, or whether the mill owners no longer felt the need to support their workers—making The Lowell Offering a casualty of the economic shifts taking place at the time.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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