Scientist Explains Snowflakes

Even if two crystals had identical water molecules, laid out in exactly the same way, the trip down through the cloud would have subjected each to different growth patterns. So the chances that two crystals would be identical when they reach the ground are so low that “the odds of it happening within the lifetime of the universe is essentially zero,” Libbrecht says.

So each crystal is, in some way, different from all the others. That’s astonishing, considering the fact that there are so many of them. Libbrecht estimates that each year the number of snow crystals forming in the Earth’s atmosphere is around 10 to the 24th power. That’s 1, followed by 24 zeros.

Science For the Sake of Knowing

Of course, Libbrecht’s interest extends beyond the “curiosity” that initially fired up his experiments. He hopes the research will lead to a fuller understanding of how ice crystals grow and how they interact with other materials.

“It touches on a lot of different fields, like how friction works on ice,” he says. All you have to do is touch your brakes on an icy highway to know how important that area is.

But, in the end, he says, he’s doing all this just because he wants to understand it. That’s one of the great things about being a scientist, he adds.

“When you’re in the science business, sometimes you just find a phenomenon you don’t understand and you want to explain it,” he says. After all, he adds, most basic research is driven by curiosity.

That holds true for the discipline where he spends most of his research time. Libbrecht is an astrophysicist, so he concentrates on understanding the physics that drives the universe. And that’s similar in one way to trying to figure out snowflakes.

“This country spends billions of dollars a year on astrophysics, and it also has no purpose other than it’s very interesting,” he says.

So like a true scientist, he has shifted some of his effort to understanding something closer to home. And as a “refugee from North Dakota,” the white stuff that falls out of the sky was a logical target.

We don’t have to know that every snowflake is different. But isn’t it great that we do?

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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