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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

The Latent Heat of Fusion of Ice by Mo Srivastava

“Allahu Akbar ... “ . The muezzin’s call to the dawn prayer floated on the Harmattan wind. Red dust and a faint whiff of baking bread.

I woke and heard the silence; the generator wasn’t running. I cursed the neighbour who’d conned me. A year of living in sub-Saharan Africa, and I still hadn’t mastered the art of deal-making.

I hurried to the kitchen, praying that the generator had not died too early. I checked the fridge’s freezer compartment. To my relief, I had my treasure: three trays of ice cubes.

I was one small piece of Canada on the edge of the world’s greatest desert, a CUSO volunteer teaching high school science. To graduate, students had to write the “WASC” , the West African School Certificate exam. My job included preparing them to perform the standard WASC experiments, lab rituals with little relevance to life in northern Nigeria, exotic science made frustrating and pointless without necessary equipment.

I had studied the list of experiments, trying to find one that could be done with our gaunt collection of ancient thermometers, chipped beakers and a single weigh scale. Sadly, there was only one we might pull off: “Measurement of Latent Heat of Fusion of Ice” . It called for bunsen burners, which we didn’t have. But these simply accelerated melting; only a few degrees from the equator, the mid-day sun would be a fine substitute.

Ice was the tricky part. I had a fridge, but no electricity; so I bartered with my neighbour, the one with more generators than wives: maple syrup for use of a generator. One night, ten hours, just long enough to freeze water.

I moved the ice to a makeshift thermos, a can insulated by pages from the international edition of The Guardian. In the classroom’s shaded corner, I covered the thermos with a wet cloth, one more desperate attempt to preserve cold in a land where it had no right to exist.

By the start of class, the ice cubes were half their original size, swimming in water, but still viable. With military precision, I led the class onto the field of experimental discovery, keeping the ice in the thermos as long as possible. Instructions were issued. Boys stopped horsing around with the thermometers. Beakers were weighed. Groups chose who would stir, and who would record temperature as I called out time every ten seconds.

I gave each group a beaker with three struggling ice cubes. They all needed to drop the ice into the water at the same moment, on my mark. Walking back to the front, I turned my back momentarily as I counted down to t=0. At “3, 2, 1” , I turned back to the class to give the order—

—and saw the boys beaming, thrilled by the once-in-a-lifetime joy of ice in their mouths.

My favourite prefect, Mohammad Maiyaki, grinned and mumbled as ice numbed his tongue, “Is good, sah. Allahu Akbar.”  The other boys echoed, “Allahu Akbar.”

God is Great.

Mo Srivastava is from Toronto, ON.

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