The Enigma of Snowflakes

This post first appeared on the Waterstones’ blog. 

There’s a scene in my favourite book, Thomas Mann’s epic The Magic Mountain, in which the protagonist, a young patient at a Tuberculosis sanatorium named Hans Castorp, is caught in a snowstorm on a mountain and nearly freezes to death. This is no great surprise, because Hans Castorp is a haphazard kind of hero: things happen to him rather more than he happens to things.

The book is, after all, both a prime example of a bildungsroman (that fine out-dated genre in which a naïve person is educated in the ways of the world) and a parody of the genre at the same time, so it’s fitting that Hans Castorp (we always use both names, since that’s what Mann does in the novel) is buffeted about by the snow in this chapter, one often cited to be the moral, philosophical and spiritual heart of the book. And yet, because this is the pivotal episode in this massive tome, it’s of course also important that we finally see Hans Castorp really start to think for himself, and indeed, fight back. And he starts by fighting back against the snow falling on him, albeit in a very proper, undemonstrative privileged-boy-from-Hamburg kind of way.

Considering the snow landing on him (which he has previously examined through the microscope on the balcony of his room at the sanatorium) Hans Castorp finds himself to be somewhat affronted by the possibility of being smothered, and therefore killed, by this idiotically symmetrical crystal geometry. What Mann is driving at in this comical moment is however something more profound. That which is geometric, the text goes on to hint, is the opposite of the organic, and therefore, of life. The snow crystal’s very regularity aligns it with death (as perhaps does its icy nature), while the living is infinitely more complex, more asymmetrical.

The fact that Hans Castorp knows about the hexagonal structure of the snowflake is purely down to the fact that by the time Mann wrote The Magic Mountain, snow had indeed been viewed through the microscope, just as happens on the balcony of room 34. Most people who know anything about the matter will tell you that it was a lowly farmer from Jericho, Vermont, who was the first to photograph snow crystals, a man called Wilson Bentley, in the late 19th century. 

Snowflake’ Bentley is a classic case of the most appealing story becoming the one accepted as fact. In fact, Bentley (whose photomicrographs accompany this piece) was not the first to view snow crystals through a microscope, nor the first to photograph them in this way, nor even the first to publish a book about it, despite the fact that even reasonably trustworthy parts of the Internet will tell you that these things are the case. Before Bentley, a wealth of amateur and more serious microscopists had photographed and published books about snowflakes. To give one example, Johann Flögel of Germany was at the game as early as 1879, some six years before Bentley started his work. 
What sets Bentley apart, however, and what gave him his deserved fame; is two things. First, he was the best. Even today, it’s hard to find better, clearer, more beautiful photographs of snow crystals, despite the fact that he had no scientific training, was forced to use poor equipment (at least at first), and was working in total ignorance of other people pursuing the same goal. Painstakingly teaching himself almost everything he needed to know, and beginning as a teenager with a father and older brother who felt he was wasting time and money, he started to take photographs of snow crystals, amassing over 5,000 images in his lifetime.

The second thing that sets him apart is, in effect, a great piece of marketing. Every child knows, from the first time they are told about snow, that ‘no two snowflakes are alike’. It was Bentley who gave this famous fact to the world. Knowing he was no scholar, he enlisted the aid of a professor at Vermont University to co-author a paper in which the uniqueness of every snow crystal was declared. And is that true? Well, yes. Effectively. It’s been shown that under lab conditions, for example, that it’s possible to propagate two identical ice crystals, which is all a snowflake is, at heart.

What makes snowflakes unique in the real world, however, is the way they form. Once they start they journey down from altitude, the precise way that more ice grows around the six-sided molecular ‘seed’ is determined by a number of factors; humidity, air pressure, temperature and so on, and since the atmosphere is a complex place, and since no two snowflakes can take the exact same path, by the time they land… well, you know the rest.

Just to be awkward, however, there is a case on record of two snowflakes being the same. Back in 1988, Dr Nancy Knight of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, reported finding a matching pair in a snowstorm over Wisconsin. Just in case this shatters any long held dreams, two things should be pointed out. First, the flakes were only found at high altitude as Dr Knight collected snow on a research flight, which is where we might expect matching flakes to be found. And secondly, upon pressing the matter, it was made clear that the two flakes were not quite identical, but merely similar. There’s something strangely reassuring about this – the fabled individuality of the snowflake touches us, I think, because it reminds us of our own. It’s somehow both unsettling and beautiful to know that every snowflake is different, just as it is for us to try to understand our own place in a world of seven billion people. So, while we might have to let other childhood beliefs go as we grow up, this is one we can hang on to.

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