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The Poetry and Science of Snowflakes

abstract:Snow. When you live in a mountain community you see a variety of it. The temperatures that precipitation falls at along with the atmospheric conditions conspire to produce magical landscapes, or like this year in the Pacific Northwest, dangerous avalanche conditions. The natural progression from just living and playing in the snow is to explore the subject from the artistic and the scientist's perspective. Caltech physicist, Kenneth Libbrecht has published several books with images of snowflakes captured by a special photo-microscope that are exquisite. He says, "The most symmetrical crystals are usually found during light snowfalls, with little wind when the weather is especially cold." Libbrecht follows upon the tradition of scientific study of ice crystals that runs back to Johannes Kepler and includes René Descartes, Robert Hooke, the Vermont farmer Wilson Bentley (who recorded 5,000 different snowflakes) and the Japanese snow scientist Ukichiro Nakaya. Lastly, there are some works of literature whose main character is snow. Join us on the subject of snow.


January 27, 2009

Snow History

This isn't a meteorlogic history, but rather a look at people in history who were first intriqued by snowflakes and delved into the science of these ephemeral creations. In 1611, the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote The Six-Cornered Snowflake, which was the first scientific reference to snow crystals. Kepler wondered why snow crystals always exhibit a six-fold symmetry. It would be three hundred years before his question could finally be answered, but in the process of failing to solve its mystery, The Six-Cornered Snowflake raises a remarkable number of deeply significant questions in physics, mathematics, and biology. This small work is the first recorded step toward a mathematical theory of the genesis of inorganic or organic forms. If you want to see how far this concept goes, take a look at X-ray crystallography.

Snow As Art

Out of the bosom of the air,
Out of the clould-folds her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest fields forsaken,
Silent and soft and slow
Descends the snow.—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Kenneth Libbrecht is a professor of physics at Caltech. Talk about going from hot to cold, Libbrecht was originally trained as a solar astronomer who received his PhD from Princeton in 1984. However, his recent research has focused on the properties of ice crystals, particularly the structure of snowflakes. In addition to his professional papers, he has published three popular books illustrating the variety of snowflake forms, (the perfect book to slip into a skier's backpack): The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty(with Patricia Rasmussen), Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes, and The Art of the Snowflake: A Photographic Album
Four of Libbrecht's pictures were selected by the United States Postal Service as designs for stamps for the 2006 winter holiday season, with a total printing of approximately 3 billion stamps. Why not frame a corner block or plate block, as collectors refer to a set of 4 stamps from a sheet, for display in your winter cabin.

The postal service says that, "Libbrecht shot the snowflakes — which were not much bigger than Abraham Lincoln’s nose on a penny — using a high-resolution digital camera attached to a specially designed microscope. He picked up the individual crystals from a collection board using a small artist’s paintbrush, placing them on glass slides to be photographed. The work was all done outdoors in subfreezing temperatures with the camera placed in a heated box to keep it functional.

These stamps are photographs of two types of stellar snowflakes — three are stellar dendrites, which have tree-like branches, and one (lower left) is a sectored plate, which has broad branches divided by ridges. The crystals were photographed by Libbrecht in Michigan (lower left), Alaska (upper right), and northern Ontario (the remaining two)."

Snow As Passion

Charlie English is an associate editor of The Guardian and he's written a book called, The Snow Tourist: Search for the Deepest Snow (Portobello Books, Jan 2009) "Part eulogy, part history, part travel diary," it denotes his love affair with snow that began with skiing in the Cairngorm mountains of central Scotland. He has since travelled the globe in search of snow. If you're a skier or snowboarder you know about snow. Avid skiers have an assortment of skis to suit the conditions: wide skis for powder days, all-mountain skis for cruising, stiff skis for racing or flexi skis for moguls. You may have taken the opportunity to sample different snow conditions around the world or simply be interested to hear about them in Charlie's book. Many off-piste skiers will identify with this situation, the story of a (failed) attempt to complete the Haute Route, one of the world’s most renowned ski-mountaineering itineraries from Chamonix to Zermatt.

Along the way he became afraid and lost his nerve. At the same time his relationship with his French guide, Philippe, became fraught, especially when the guide challenged him: “I think you are dead while you are alive. More and more I think society is made up of people like you. You take risk unconsciously. When you are in the town, or driving your car, you take risk but you don’t think about it. Now you are with me, and this is a conscious risk, you say you will not take it. But if you do not come, you will feel bad. Will you take it?”

There are many more historic references to snow, skiing, and to people who pioneered one facet or another. Visit Charlie's website for more information

Snow Literature

If the preceding books don't interest you, perhaps you'd like to look at a list whose stories take place in snowy locations.

The Snow Leopard (Penguin Classics) The story of Matthiessen's trek in Nepal with the zoo-ologist George Schaller in search of the elusive snow leopard. Matthiessen brings to his narrative the sensibilities of the novelist, exploring the nature of faith and love. His journey is a spiritual odyssey and the leopard inevitably becomes a metaphor for revelation. But the joy of this book is his radiant descriptions of the physical world, of the stunning mountain landscapes of Inner Dolpo in northwest Nepal. Matthiessen wrestles with the mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism and with his grief at the recent death of his wife, but it is the mountains themselves who are the centrepiece of his narrative, and this beautiful book, as Paul Theroux has said, is worthy of them. (Kirkus UK)

Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (originally published by Ferrar Straus and Giroux) is translated from Danish. It is a crime thriller set in Greenland, which was once a Danish colony. Høeg grew up in Copenhagen with many Greenland citizens and his female protagonist Smilla becomes suspicious that a young boy's fatal fall off a roof covered in snow, may not have been an accident. Part Inuit native she apparently has an innate understanding of the qualities of snow. So begins an intricate story that the author says, " For me, one of the main themes of Smilla is a portrait of a woman standing between two cultures." Translated into seven languages and made into a major motion picture starring the beautiful Julia Ormond. Read the book, or purchase the movie.

Almost all of Jon Krakauer's books delve into snowy landscapes since they are predominantly about mountain exploration or the desire to face the challenges of the wilderness.



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