Snowflake Scientist Creates His Own

A snowflake is just a memory now unless you happen to be in of all places Southern California.

Deep inside his lab at CalTech Pasadena, physicist Ken Libbrecht is creating his own snowflakes.

"They fall out of the sky and they're beautiful," Libbrecht said. "But one of the questions is, can you really make them as good as they fall out of the sky?"

Libbrecht is on a quest to do just that. His research is aimed at understanding the physics of ice crystals, a.k.a. snowflakes.

Shape Depends on Journey

"There's an infinite variety," said Libbrecht. "They're like people, no two are exactly alike."

The exact shape of the snowflake depends on the path it follows through the atmosphere. Since no two crystals follow the same path, they all develop differently, depending on fluctuations in temperature and moisture.

"When we're growing individual snowflakes in the lab and taking pictures of them I think we've probably crossed the line between science and artistic expression," Libbrecht said.

By varying the temperature, he can shape little "ice sculptures" which can resemble anything from chandeliers to a Playboy bunny to Edward Scissorhands.

"That's the snowflake from hell." Libbrecht said.

And the snowflake from heaven? It's that classic star shape, perfect in every way.

"Stellar dendrite is everyone's favorite," Libbrecht said.

This work is not Libbrecht's paying job — that involves the study of gravitational waves in the universe. Snow research is, quite simply, his passion. A rather solitary passion.

"This is one thing I'm doing where if I quit doing it, I don't think anybody else would pick it up," he said. "It's just plain different."

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