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Snow Crystals (Dover Pictorial Archive)

Snow Crystals (Dover Pictorial Archive) - 'W. A. Bentley',  'W. J. Humphreys' Well, winter is finally here again. I know, I know... not officially until the 21st, but many of those places which are prone to experience snow have already had at least one snowfall this season. And so it's time for one of my old pet peeves to raise its ugly head again: I was reminded of this book today, when I overheard one of my coworkers’ kids telling her father that in school they taught her that no two snowflakes are the same. First of all, as a taxpayer, I am offended that the public schools are even wasting kids time with such useless discussion, but more to the point: it isn't even true! ...well, there is room for some semantic debate there, but it isn't true in any reasonable and practical use of the word "same". I asked the girl how she knew no two snowflakes were the same, and at least she was honest and said “I don’t know”. I didn’t want to cause a big scene in the workplace, especially with one of my coworkers’ kids, so I just left it at that. Nothing more need be said; everybody goes home happy. ...But I just really hope she goes home and thinks about it some more, instead of accepting information like that so uncritically in the future, because it’s entirely reasonable to ask how could anybody could ever feel confident making such a ridiculous sweeping statement. No two snowflakes are the same?!? If a single flake sitting on a mountaintop high up in the Andes were exactly identical in every way to another snowflake that just fell in a parking lot in a suburb of Moscow, who would ever know? ...And that’s just contemplating the logistical impossibility of actually verifying the claim. More importantly, what about the theoretical side of the claim? Snowflakes are pretty simple, conceptually. They’re just miniature ice crystals (i.e. made up of water), and since each molecule of water has a constant size, shape, mass, and electrical charge... …then there must a limited number of ways they it can come together to form crystals. It seems sort of obvious that- given the quadrillions or quintillions (or probably even more) of snowflakes that have formed in the universe since the beginning of time, there must have been at least two that were the same. Oh ho! Is there a loophole here?! Because no snowflakes are purely made of just water, and have trace impurities thrown in, this much play havoc with the statistical likelihood of there being two identical. Perhaps there might be two which appeared identical in all the ways they could be measured by human beings, but were different on a molecular level… the exact number of water molecules in the exact arrangement, with the exact impurities aligned in the exactly identical way, down to the distances between every single molecule of the water… Okay, yeah. That, I’ll give you. ….but only if you concede that with such a degree of exactness in our definition of “the same” no two ANYTHING are the same... in which case, why frame the discussion in a way that seems to imply that this is a characteristics unique to snowflakes? If nothing is the same, then none of the buttons on my shirt are exactly the same either, if you’re going to scrutinize them on a molecular level, even though they are all matched to each other, and supposedly “the same” in all the common ways we use the term “same”. No two light bulbs, even from the same box, are the same. Twins who we say are identical certainly aren’t the same. Even I am not the same as I was ten minutes ago! So this sort of exacting definition of "the same" is so rigorous as to be completely meaningless. Nothing is the same as anything then. This book is mostly just pages and pages and pages of photographs taken of various different snowflakes. There is a short introduction at the beginning of the book which explains how difficult it is to photograph snowflakes, and how the microscope and even the room where this is done have to be cooled to below freezing, and how the light source for the photography must not generate any significant heat (no big deal today, with LED lights, but a bigger deal in 1931, at the time of first printing), &c. It’s very interesting. The author, working for the American Meteorological Society, took several painstaking years to compile all these plates for publication so… well, I’m not sure why. It probably explains in the text, but I’m sorry; I can only read about photographing snowflakes for so long before my mind begins to wander. I never got to the part where he explains why he did all this. The pictures are interesting. There are a lot of snowflakes which come pretty damn close to looking exactly identical to each other. I would say the bottom row on page 206 has two which are the same in configuration, but one is a little bit melted, is all. There. Same. What’s interesting is how the snowflakes seem to shake out to a few broad categories: Hexagonal plates, radiating lace-like “dendrites”, tubes, and irregular formations (probably formed under changing conditions, or broken/damaged after formation). I wish the book would have addressed some more practical questions, like which ones are good for skiing, and which ones make the best snowballs, but no luck. They really are beautiful though. It's amazing that these little unthinking particles come together in symmetric, complex ways that our brains all seem to find so pleasing. I don't know why we have to ruin it by trying to add this extra degree of dazzle to it by claiming that no two are the same. Would it really be so terrible if two of them were the same?