Snowflake science

Rhonda Silence starnews@boreal.org

I know there are a lot of people in the northland who are tired of winter. The rational part of my brain understands that. I must admit that my enjoyment of snow blowing and shoveling the deck faded after the third…or fourth…or fifth time that we had to do it. I am getting a bit tired of icy sidewalks and slippery roads. It is getting more and more difficult to park because of snow bank obstacles. And yes, I’m tired of hat hair and being cold.

But on the other hand, the irrational part of my brain doesn’t want winter to end. Just today, driving to work, I was dazzled by sunlight on snow. Coming down 5th Avenue— the old Gunflint Trail—I was amazed at the beautiful picture in front of me. Is there a sight in the world lovelier than the Grand Marais harbor cloaked in ice and snow? The breakwall and lighthouse were coated in brilliant white ice and large chunks of translucent ice danced on top of the silvery water. I caught myself thinking, “I hope winter never ends.”

I know, my warm weather friends are shivering and shuddering at the thought. I don’t really want an everlasting winter; it’s just that there is something magical about the season. Winter is the only season that sprinkles the forest with sparkling fairy dust and paints our windows with intricate artwork.

And of course, winter is the only season in which miniature masterpieces tumble from the sky. Yes, I’m talking about those pesky snowflakes. Yes, when they gang up, they require shoveling and snowplowing and they create all sorts of catastrophes.

But when you take time to look at snowflakes—really look at them—you realize what an amazing gift they are. I was reminded of that during our last snowstorm. I was meeting someone and ended up waiting on a sidewalk. I had nothing else to do, so I started catching snowflakes on my black glove.

It isn’t easy to catch one snowflake. They often fall in clusters as little white blobs preparing to cause trouble. But if you are patient, one or two will eventually float gently down and rest in your hand, balanced carefully on a tiny crystalline stem. They sit for just a moment before melting or before they are taken away by the wind.

As I considered each snowflake as it touched down on my glove I remembered the theory that no two snowflakes are ever alike. I reflected on the question and remembered reading a Zen-like question somewhere—If there were two identical snowflakes in the world—how would I ever know?

I considered the question and admired the beautiful flakes for a few more minutes. There were flat, lacy flakes and three-dimensional flakes with intricate arms. There were some with teeny wing-like pieces. All had elaborate designs—some at the tiny center, some on the end of the miniscule branches.

My ride arrived and it was time to think with the logical side of my brain again. But before switching mental gears, I decided that I don’t want to know if there are two snowflakes that are identical. Just as I know I wouldn’t really love winter if it did stick around all year long, I think the joy of observing snowflakes would be diminished if a physicist provided a proper scientific answer to the question.

I’ll just enjoy them both while they last. Think snow! I love snow, snow, and all the forms of radiant frost.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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2011-02-05 digital edition

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