School: Plainview Old Bethpage Middle School, Plainview, NY
Teacher: Joseph Morello
"Have you ever played this game where you gaze up at the clouds and try to imagine which animal each passing cloud depicts? Look, I think that looks like an elephant. But my friend may think that it looks like a dragon! We can conjure up different shapes because the clouds we see on Earth form no regular or fixed shape. However, what if I told you that there are clouds in our solar system that have worked together to maintain a perfect hexagon since we discovered them in 1981? You may be surprised and so were the scientists reviewing data from NASA's Voyager. This was no game anymore and indeed, they had discovered a hexagonal cloud formation surrounding Saturn's North Pole, a phenomenon that intrigues scientists even today.
Saturn's hexagon is nothing like any cloud system seen on Earth and defies our notion of clouds, making it an attractive target for further investigation. Earthly clouds are aimlessly drifting, temporary formations in the sky. On a stormy day, they are dark and loud, but that is as dramatic as it gets. Conversely, Saturn's clouds have been a hexagon for as long as we've known. Each side of the hexagon is 13,800 kilometers, which is more than the diameter of Earth itself. This giant rotating hexagon resembles a hurricane with a churning storm at the center and winds ranging up to 322 kilometers per hour taming their counterparts on Earth. The largest wind system recorded on Saturn is 3540 kilometers wide, also almost double the record on Earth.
A big mystery is how the hexagon formed and what has preserved this shape over the decades. I wonder if what we already know about its size, storms, and the wind system can guide our understanding of its shape. Using this information, scientists at Oxford University tried to recapitulate the conditions on Saturn's North pole and observed what shapes can arise in the laboratory. They rotated a cylindrical tank of liquid at various speeds and noticed that this resulted in the formation of a six-sided shape. Scientists realized that the faster they spun, the less sides the polygon had, and vice versa. Although this experiment lends us insights into the mechanics of hexagon formation, many questions remain. For example, how is the hexagon maintained? Has it always been a hexagon, or did it evolve from another shape? Will it ever change shapes? Why is there no hexagon on Saturn's South pole? Do similar cloud formations exist elsewhere in the universe?
Efforts to understand Saturn's hexagon also inspire the study of hexagons much closer and more relevant to us. Hexagons are plentiful on Earth, but they exist in the microscopic realm compared to Saturn's. Viruses evolve rapidly, but continue to enclose their genomes in a hexagonal coat. Similarly, bees have evolved to build honeycombs with hexagonal cells to maximize space. Snowflakes and aromatic rings in molecules spontaneously form hexagons. This target launches us to uncover evolutionary parallels underlying diverse hexagon formations in the universe."