Snowflake micrograph

Snowflake photo taken by Kenneth Libbrecht of Caltech.

Surfers get pretty nerdy when it comes to predicting waves. And powder hounds will endlessly debate which mountain range produces the best snow for skiing or snowboarding. But no one geeks out about snow like a scientist.

Kenneth Libbrecht, a professor of physics at Caltech, is so enamored with the delicate beauty of snowflakes, that he’s created a website, SnowCrystals.com, and written a book for kids called The Secret Lives of Snowflakes.

The website covers pretty much anything you ever wanted to know about snowflakes and showcases microscope photos of natural crystals and “designer” crystals that Libbrecht grew in his Southern California laboratory. To help you wrap your mind around the arrival of winter, he offers several of the photographs for download as computer desktop backgrounds.

Ostensibly, Libbrecht uses snowflakes to study the physics of crystal growth. “The diverse morphologies seen in snow crystals are largely due to the bizarre temperature dependence of ice crystal growth rates, a phenomenon that was discovered 75 years ago and remains unexplained to this day,” he writes on his website.

But it’s clear there’s more here than professional interest. He once took his family on vacation to Japan in winter for a “snow crystal tour” that included a visit to the Ukichiro Nakaya Museum of Snow and Ice, named after Ukichiro Nakaya, the first scientist to closely study snow crystal formation. That’s a man who likes snow.

Want to impress your friends with your own snow knowledge? Study the chart below from Libbrecht’s website. Next time you’re out in the pow, declare that the ration of “stellar plates” to “radiating dendrites” is perfect.

Snow types chart

About The Author

Chris Emery is a mutt. Half woodsman, half geek. He spends as much time outdoors as possible. On rainy days, he writes and publishes STRAY.

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