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Thursday, January 21, 2010

SNOWFLAKES - Everything you EVER wanted to know about them!

Winter. The word has been known, believe it or not, to conjure up visions of snow. Yes, you know what I'm talking about: that cold white stuff that tends to fall out of the skies in some parts of the world lucky enough to actually experience Winter?

Now, I know that all you folks down in places like sunny Florida have no idea what I'm talking about. But listen up anyway! You might just learn a thing or three. At the very least, you could just be polite and humor your currently shivering Eclectic Science guy. Please?

Anyway, Winter sometimes means snow, but snow always means snowflakes! How about that!? Pretty cool so far, eh?

No? Well, humor me (or perhaps suffer me would be a better phrase), a bit longer because I'm about to astound, amaze, and educate the living snot out of you! (Um,... that is if you haven't already been impressed by the pics herein contained)

Snowflakes, REAL snowflakes are ALWAYS hexagonal. That's six (6) sided for those of you who have no idea what a hexagon is. And, NO the Pentagon is five (5) sided, you dummies. Are you astounded yet?  Heh, I thought so!

Anyway, real snowflakes have six sides, six points, six, six, six! Not four, five, eight, or any other number. So that means that a lot of those paper snowflake cutouts you make every year for the kiddies or yourself because you live in Florida and you want ANY kind of snowflakes to adorn your hovels, er, houses,.... aren't really accurate unless you can count to six,... and stick with it.

Please note: All of the snowflake pictures in this article are REAL! They are photos of actual snow crystals that fell to earth in Northern Ontario, Alaska, Vermont, the Michigan Upper Peninsula, and the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.  They were captured by Kenneth G. Libbrecht using a specially designed snowflake photomicroscope. [all images from] You can click on each of the images in the slide show box below this article to see larger, higher resolution versions. It's well worth the extra finger motion!

And there's a scientist by the name of Thomas Koop who has reportedly been quoted as saying "Unfortunately, the grand diversity of naturally occurring snow crystals is commonly corrupted by incorrect 'designer' versions." Koop is a chemist at Bielefeld University in Germany. And I hear that Germany does actually get snow on occasion, so his opinion should weigh heavily upon all of you corrupt snowflake imitators!

And keep in mind that even Johannes Kepler knew that snowflakes have six sides. How do I know? Glad you asked! It seems he wrote a treatise called On the Six-Cornered Snowflake in 1611. So, after 400 years, you really have no excuse to get it wrong again.

Now, Koop isn't the only one advocating accuracy in art. From Scientific American:
One researcher who would likely second Koop's complaint is Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. Libbrecht maintains, a Web site devoted to snowflake photography and physics; the site even features a "morphology diagram" that shows how humidity and temperature converge to direct the formation of various snowflake types—all of them hexagonal. See some of Libbrecht's photographs, which show natural six-cornered snowflakes to be as intricate and lovely as anything an artist could dream up, in this 2008 slide show.

Nevertheless, the counterfeit flakes continue to proliferate—including, as Koop notes, in Nature's own advertising campaigns. "We who enjoy both science and captivating design," he writes, "should aim to melt away all four-, five- or eight-cornered snow crystals from cards, children's books and advertisements." But, despite his holiday grievance, the chemist is no grinch: "Let's welcome this as an opportunity to share a discussion about the true beauty of science over a mug of hot punch."

So, what do you think about that, eh?! If you ever wanted to see more snowflakes or learn more about them, then DO NOT pass up a gander of the site! Go ahead, click it - I dare you to spend less than 20 minutes there! From that 2008 slide show linked to above:

WHITE SNOW: Many people think snowflakes are white, but a close look reveals that they are transparent, like glass. Snowflakes and snowbanks appear white because light is scattered from the edges of the clear crystals. Salt, sugar and crushed glass also are white for this reason.

From Wikipedia:
Snow crystals form when tiny supercooled cloud droplets (about 10 μm in diameter) freeze. These droplets are able to remain liquid at temperatures lower than −18 °C (0 °F), because to freeze, a few molecules in the droplet need to get together by chance to form an arrangement similar to that in an ice lattice; then the droplet freezes around this "nucleus."

Once a droplet has frozen, it grows in the supersaturated environment, which is one where air is saturated with respect to ice when the temperature is below the freezing point. The droplet then grows by diffusion of water molecules in the air (vapor) onto the ice crystal surface where they are collected. Because water droplets are so much more numerous than the ice crystals due to their sheer abundance, the crystals are able to grow to hundreds of micrometers or millimeters in size at the expense of the water droplets. This process is known as the Wegner-Bergeron-Findeison process. The corresponding depletion of water vapor causes the droplets to evaporate, meaning that the ice crystals grow at the droplets' expense. These large crystals are an efficient source of precipitation, since they fall through the atmosphere due to their mass, and may collide and stick together in clusters, or aggregates. These aggregates are snowflakes, and are usually the type of ice particle that falls to the ground. Guinness World Records list the world’s largest snowflakes as those of January 1887 at Fort Keogh, Montana; allegedly one measured 38 cm (15 inches) wide.

I leave you with a warning:  Please don't fake your snowflakes anymore. Mother Nature might get angry with you. And you wouldn't like her when she gets angry!

Sources and References: This is one of the absolutely coolest sites I have run across in quite some time! That's where all the pics in this post came from. And there's a ton of other snowflake pics with larger resolutions available there too.
Scientific American: 60-Second-Science Blog titled Accept no imitations: Chemist protests appearance of fake snowflakes
Search results for "snow" on Scientific American site: If you just can't get enough of snow, then this is as good a place as any to further your education. Oh, and ya just might get a kick out of some of these articles too!
Snowflake on Wikipedia: this entry has a LOT of technical info, some of which is actually understandable.

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