Snowflake Hunter Scours the Earth to Study Crystals

It's possible that learning exactly how snow crystals form and grow may be helpful in other areas of research.

"A lot of material science is done in what I call enlightened trial and error," Libbrecht says. "For instance, people have grown diamond crystals for 50 years, but after 50 years of effort, nobody can grow really large ones. They are slowly getting bigger, and they are slowly getting closer to gem quality, and it's mostly trial and error, trying different ways to grow them.

"If you learn something from another crystal, like ice, maybe you can become more enlightened, and trial and error moves more quickly."

Libbrecht is in it for the science, but the question he gets most often has been around for three quarters of a century. Is every snowflake unique?

That question was first suggested by a Vermont farmer who, like Libbrecht, became obsessed with snowflakes. Wilson Bentley attached a camera to a small microscope and spent years taking photos of flakes of snow.

By 1931 he had captured 5,381 photos of snowflakes, and he noted that they were all different. Thus, the expression that no two snowflakes are alike.

Was he right?

It depends on what you mean by alike. Certainly many snowflakes look alike, at least on the surface. But are any two snowflakes exactly alike, both in molecular composition and structure?

That, says Libbrecht, is "very, very unlikely." The chances of two flakes having exactly the same structure, and exactly the same molecules arranged in exactly the same sequence is about as unlikely as a snowball's chance of surviving in a very warm place.

He's sure of that, but there's still lots to learn out there, so Libbrecht will continue to lug his equipment around the world, capturing more photos. The hardware consists of a microscope and a camera, mounted in a carry-on suitcase, which sometimes drives security guards up the wall when he tries to pass through the boarding gate.

So he will spend lots of days and nights out in the cold, where he has at least a slight chance of getting his photo before his chosen flake evaporates as he continues to probe a world that is far more complex than most of us thought.

"That's what makes it interesting," he says.

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