The beauty and mystique of snowflakes

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117510849030676.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘A close-up photo of a typical snowflake reveals it’s intricate pattern and beauty.‘);

Humans have been fascinated by the snowflake for almost as long as history has been recorded. As far as I know, Aristotle in the 4 century B.C. was the first to comment about the formation of a snow crystal. Many others undoubtedly made comments about the formation of a snowflake, but the printing press was not around to record their observations.

In 1558, Olaus Magnus, Bishop of Upsula, Sweden, depicted for the first time a group of snowflakes in a book about natural history published in Rome. Robert Hooke, the first to recognize a cell, with a primitive microscope in the 17th century, also studied the structure of snowflakes. Since that time and until the present, many other scientists and laymen have become fascinated by the snowflake. In modern times, men have used X-rays and electrometers to make countless studies of snow crystals. In all of these studies, it has been confirmed that, like fingerprints and/or DNA sequences, no two snowflakes are alike.

The most exhausting study of snowflakes in recent years was made by a Mr. Wilson Bently of Jericho, Vt., who made more than 4,800 microphotographs of them and confirmed that no two were alike.

Whether it is a November flurry, a January storm, or a February blizzard, there is always something fascinating about falling snowflakes. As I watch them fall from my window, I seem to be mesmerized by their gentle floating action and am reminded of what my grandmother used to say when it was snowing, and I was a boy in north Texas: “The old woman upstairs is picking geese again.” We were delighted with a snowfall to play in and perhaps construct a snowman if the snowfall had been sufficient. Also, it was a rare treat for us to make snow ice cream by adding cream and sugar to a bowl of snow.

Perhaps as the falling snow covers the earth, it takes us back to a time when a heavy snowfall meant the struggle for existence would be accentuated. In these modern times, however, we are only slightly inconvenienced by snow, having to cope with it only so long as it takes to shovel the walk and wait for the plows to clear the streets. But many animals are living on a razor’s edge in winter, and the extent of a snowfall can easily determine whether they survive or die.

When you study a snowflake, you will find each one to be an artistic gem of exact geometrical shape and proportion and with a lacey-like symmetry. A basic hexagon shape is common to snowflakes. If they are small and with six-sided columns or plates, you will know they were formed in very high, cold clouds. If they are larger (some may be up to a half an 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 warm, low clouds. Sometimes, these larger flakes consist of several fused crystals that combine stars with solid hexagons.

Scientists tell us the extreme diversity of snowflakes results from the presence of minute air bubbles trapped within the crystal. They also explain the basic hexagonal shape is directly related to the fact a molecule of water is composed of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen and is crystallized directly from the vaporous state. If the water had taken another route and passed from vapor to liquid to solid, the exquisite flakes would have ended up as nondescript lumps of sleet or hail. Physics was never my long suit in science, but I readily accept this explanation by the experts.

The philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau did not understand the physical aspects of snow but he was astute when on Jan. 5, 1856 (shortly before his premature death) during a snowfall, he wrote the following in his journal: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which snowflakes 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 touch of divinity and beauty in nature manifests itself in many ways, and all we have to do is to look for it.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the March 28-April 3, 2007, issue

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