Snowflakes exhibit a touch of divinity

Snowflakes exhibit a touch of divinity

By Robert A. Hedeen

By Robert A. Hedeen


Whether it be a November flurry, a January storm, or a March blizzard, there is always a fascination about falling snowflakes. The first flakes are always enchanting . As if by magic, they gradually whiten the earth, drawing us to the outdoors. Perhaps this feeling is inherent and takes us back to a time when snowfall meant the struggle for existence would be accentuated.

In these modern times, we are only slightly inconvenienced by snow, having to cope with it only as long as it takes for us to shovel our walks and have the plows clear the streets. But many other animals are living on a razor’s edge between life and death, and the magnitude and nature of a snowfall can easily nudge them to one side of the acute edge or the other.

Since the time of Aristotle, we have been allured by snowflakes. The Greek philosopher and father of natural history was the first to make written comment on the structure of snowflakes, and since his time men have used X-ray, microscope and electrometer to make countless studies of snow crystals. In all of these researches, it was confirmed, like fingerprints or DNA sequences, no two snowflakes are alike. Some years ago, a man named Wilson Bentley of Jericho, Vnt., made more than 4,800 microphotographs of snowflakes and verified the individuality of each crystal.

If you want to verify the uniqueness of each snowflake yourself, use a magnifying glass when the next snowfall occurs, and examine the flakes falling on your sleeve or piece of polished glass. Be careful not to breathe upon the flakes, or they will quickly disappear.

Each flake will be found to be an artistic gem of correct geometrical proportion . Lacey-like symmetry will be observed, as well as a basic hexagonal shape. If the flakes are tiny and with either six-sided columns or plates, you will know they were formed in very high, cold clouds. If they are larger (some may measure up to a half inch in diameter) and are in the shape of a six-pointed star or a solid hexagon with six identical inlaid designs, they came from low, warm clouds. Sometimes these larger flakes consist of several fused crystals that combine stars with solid hexagons.

After snow has been on the ground for a time, and the temperature has alternated above and below the freezing mark, the original forms of .the flakes undergo change. At first, particles with an angular outline are produced, but as temperatures fluctuate, they become rounded to form a variety of fantastic shapes. These flakes make up what is called “corn snow” and is treasured by late winter skiers .

Scientists tell us the extreme diversity of snowflakes is caused by the presence of minute air bubbles trapped within the crystals. They also report the basic hexagonal shape is directly related to the fact that a molecule of water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, crystallized directly from the vapor state. Had the water passed from vapor to liquid to solid, the exquisite flakes would have ended up as non-descript lumps of sleet or hail. I do not understand the physics of this explanation, but I accept the elucidation of the experts.

The philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was unaware of the physical aspects of snowflakes, but he was on the right track when, on Jan. 51856, he wrote the following in his journal: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat. Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.”

The beauty of nature is manifested in all seasons. We just have to look for it.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

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