It’s winter where I live. Already we’ve had some substantial snows. Whenever I walk through snow or gaze at mounds of snow piled high near driveways and parking lots, I always remember: “It’s nothing more than flakes! Millions and millions and millions of tiny, little snowflakes!”
Though a heavy snow can impede walking, close schools, and cause highways to shut down, snowflakes themselves are very pretty and very fascinating. Much of what I share here today I gleaned from Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at Caltech who has devoted years to studying snow crystals (another term for snowflakes). He is originally from North Dakota where, he says, “Snow wasn’t just part of the landscape; it was part of our heritage.” His book, The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty, contains not only some of his research, but also many beautiful pictures of real snowflakes by photographer Patricia Rasmussen. Some of her photos accompany this reflection.
Throughout history snowflakes have intrigued people. The first medieval scientists to examine snowflakes, for example, were so amazed by their symmetry that they wondered if they had souls! French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (better known for his dictum, “I think, therefore I am”) studied snowflakes and was impressed by their geometrical perfection of form. In the early 17th Century the famous German scientist Johannes Kepler also scrutinized snowflakes—without the aid of a magnifying glass. One of the first books devoted to snowflakes was published in 1864 by a woman, Frances Knowlton Chickering, a minister’s wife from Maine. She examined snowflakes as they fell on her windowsill and quickly cut paper outlines of their various forms. In the 1880’s a Vermont farmer named Wilson Bentley began taking actual photographs of snowflakes, a project that became his life-long passion. In the course of 46 years he took over 5,000 pictures of snowflakes! He also began to catalog snowflakes. In the 20th Century the Japanese snow-crystal researcher Ukichiro Nakaya continued the classification. Today scientists tell us there are 80 different kinds of snowflakes. The classification chart looks something like the Periodic Table. Here are a few more facts about snowflakes that I found particularly interesting.
1) “A snowflake is a temporary work of art,” says Libbrecht. To photograph a single snowflake, it must be plucked from the air as it falls and photographed immediately. A fallen snowflake starts to lose its shape within minutes or even seconds.
2) The real mystery of snowflakes is how they are formed into such complex and symmetrical shapes. Science has not yet solved that mystery. Some people mistakenly think snowflakes are simply frozen raindrops. But that’s not so. That type of precipitation is called sleet. Snowflakes are different. Says Libbrecht, “Snowflakes are the product of a rich synthesis of physics, mathematics, and chemistry.”
3. Is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike? Libbrecht says yes. He explains why. Here’s the condensed version: A typical snowflake contains a billion billion water molecules. In addition each snowflake follows a different path to earth which creates their unique design. So the chances of finding two snowflakes exactly alike are nearly impossible. He says, “It could snow all day and all night until the sun dies before two snow crystals would be exactly, precisely alike.”
4. How are snowflakes formed? Clouds are the nursery for snowflakes. Ice crystals form in clouds when the temperature is below freezing. As they move through the cloud, they bump into other ice crystals. This process of bumping into each other plus the changes in temperature and humidity they experience as they fall to the earth cause their complex and unique designs. (I see a metaphor here: our beauty and uniqueness too are the result of our particular life’s journey—a journey that includes a lot of “bumping” into each other and experiencing many significant changes along the way!)
5. The snow manufactured at ski resorts is not composed of snowflakes. Rather their “snow” is really sleet. Ask skiers. They can feel the difference.
6. “Snowflakes are diminutive ice sculptures,” says Libbrecht. He is in awe of the “creative genius” that is capable of designing snowflakes in an endless array of beautiful patterns. I think we would call that creative genius God!
So, the next time you are tempted to complain about snow, consider the snowflake. In fact, the next time you’re surrounded by a gentle snowfall, grab a magnifying glass, go outside, and observe a few flakes close up. And while you’re there, catch a few flakes on your tongue or lie down on your back and flap out a snow angel or two!
How do you feel about snowflakes or snow?