Between ice crystals, raindrop lenses, and a setting sun, the physics is just packed into this photograph from an airplane window somewhere over the arctic.

This really is an admittedly dorky exercise, but one of the things I love about science is that it's absolutely everywhere. I've heard accusations that endless scientific explanations take the awe and beauty out of nature, but I find the inverse is true: understanding the patterns and rhythms enhances the beauty of everyday phenomena for me.

Ice crystals on airplane windows are frequently strange shapes, the crystal growth dictated by scratches and flaws on the window surface. The feathering growth is fractal with the pattern related to the mass and area of the aggregates.

Usually, anywhere that you find ice you don't find water, but in this particular photo the double-pane windows have a layer of ice outside and water droplets within. On the inner pane, each raindrop acts as a convex lens, replicating a miniature inverted copy of the view below.

Rayleigh scattering through the thick atmosphere sheds the shortest wavelengths of light, scattering blue for the skies above, while allowing longer wavelengths light to pass through and tint the sunset red.


And finally: the landscape itself. Assuming a typical airline cruising height of 12,000 m, a bit of math reveals the distant horizon is just under 400 kilometers away.

Image credit: Mika McKinnon