Of course, before we had fridges, ice was the only way we could keep our food cold. We couldn’t make the stuff ourselves, so we had to harvest it and store it in ice houses, which sound rather exciting, like that huge melting ice palace James Bond has to escape from in Die Another Day, but are really just small, very cold rooms. Perhaps you’ve seen one in a National Trust property somewhere.
Under a microscope, the structure of ice cream is very similar to that of lava.
There are 16 kinds of ice, say the scientists. The kind in your freezer is kind number 4. Kind number 3 is actually denser than water, meaning that if icebergs and ice cubes were made of it, they would sink. Kind number 11 is ferroelectric – it exhibits electric polarization, which can be manipulated and reversed.
Aristotle was the first person to notice that hot water freezes faster than cold water. We still don’t understand why.
If you freeze water really, really, really fast then it doesn’t turn into ice at all, but into a chaotic amorphous solid called ‘glassy water’. This is pretty difficult to do at home – you have to get the water temperature down to -137°C in a matter of milliseconds. Surprising, then, that it’s actually the most common form of water in the universe. Comets are made from it.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, they brought a block of ice all the way from Lake Wenham in Massachusetts to The Strand in London, where they put it on display with the day’s newspaper behind it so that passers-by could marvel at how clear it was.
This, of course, was only after the customs officials at the ports got used to the idea. When they first shipped ice to Britain, packed in sawdust to insulate it, the officials were so confused about how to classify it that 300 tonnes of the stuff melted while they tried to make their minds up.
Sometimes I feel nostalgic because I can still remember when a 99 whippy ice cream with a flake actually cost 99p.
A mask can be used for protection, or as a disguise, or, if you’re being hunted down by a madman with an ice pick, as both.
In Ancient Greece, masks had a brass megaphone in the mouth to amplify what the actor was saying.
In Venice, the situation is pretty much the reverse. Their ‘moretta muta’ carnival masks are held in place not with straps but with a little button that the wearer holds in her mouth, rendering her unable to say much at all.
The word ‘mask’ goes back to the 16th Century, to the French masque, meaning ‘a covering to hide or guard the face’, which itself goes back to the Italian word maschera, which itself goes back to the Medieval Latin word masca, meaning ‘spectre’ or ‘ghost’ or ‘nightmare’, which itself quite possibly goes back to the Arabic word maskharah, which is to do with being ‘a buffoon’ and ‘making a mockery’ of yourself. So if you’re applying mascara around your eyes before a night out, you’re really just being a fool.
There’s also an old Occitan word masco, meaning ‘witch’, a word which still survives in some dialects; in Beziers, it means ‘dark cloud before the rain comes’.
In Indonesia, the star of a Topeng dance has around 30 to 40 masks for his exclusive use. No one else is allowed to wear these masks on fear of upsetting the spirits that reside within them. When the dancer dies, his masks are never touched again, never moved from the place they happen to be lying at the moment of his death.
The oldest mask is 9000 years old and is a death mask.
In Japanese Noh theatre, the masks are so carefully carved that they can convey different expressions and moods simply by the angle the light falls on them.
You can make a mask out of almost anything: wood, metal, clay, stone, paper, cloth, ivory, fur, shells, feathers, corn husks, human skulls and teeth. You can even make one out of ice. And, indeed, whalebone.
Blue whales are the largest creatures ever to have lived on the earth. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant, their hearts as much as a car. Their aortas are large enough for a human child to crawl through. They are one of the loudest animals on the planet, though we can’t hear them. They hunt in the deep and breathe at the surface. In the early 20th century we nearly killed them all hunting for whale oil.
Sperm whales have the heaviest brains of any animal, weighing in at 9kg. Their heads also contain a cavity, large enough to park a car inside, filled with a yellowish waxy substance called spermaceti, a substance also much sought after by whalers.
Southern right whales have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom – each pair weighs around a tonne, which is like having 1000 bags of sugar strapped down there.
When a whale sticks its head out of the water it is called ‘spyhopping’. When it sticks its tail out of the water it is called ‘lobtailing’. These sounds like crimes, but aren’t. When it leaps right out of the water it is called ‘breaching’ and when it lies just under the surface it is called ‘logging’.
A whale’s brain sleeps one half at a time, so that the other half doesn’t forget to go up to the surface and breathe. If a whale fell completely asleep, it would drown.
Fin whales pee around 970 litres of urine a day, about as much as three very full bathtubs.
Humpback whales sing strange, eerie, and beautiful songs that can last for up to 30 minutes and include recognizable sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds. This makes them the jazz musicians of the whale world.
Bowhead whales have the thickest blubber of any animal, up to 70cm thick, but then they live exclusively in the Arctic, which is fairly cold, on account of all the ice.
(This originally appeared as the “About” page of Ice Mask Whale, the predecessor of The Quiet Return.)