Posted in chemistry, education, electronic imaging and displays, physics

The mathematics of snow

Yes, friends, winter is just not going away anytime soon, so I say let’s embrace it. Let’s talk about all things winter. To start off with: snow.

Although observed throughout cold places in history, Wilson A. “Snowflake” Bentley (1865-1931) was the first photographer of snow, and was the first to document that all his snowflakes were different. His photographs of the six-sided, geometrical wonders are still found in textbooks and posters all over the world. Now, thanks to Bentley’s work, and the advances of x-ray crystallography, physicists like Kenneth Libbrecht have a job, taking photos of and analyzing the math behind snowflakes. In his spare time Libbrecht also researches gravitational-wave signals from supernovae and black holes (or maybe it’s the other way around). 

Discover Magazine recently printed pictures from Libbrecht’s new book titled (surprise!) Snowflakes. The book discusses the natural laws behind why snowflakes develop as they do. The book even has pictures of spool-shaped snowflakes. And yes, he backs the claim that no two snowflakes are alike. Sort of like humans: even identical twins are a slight bit different. You can see some of Libbrecht’s labratory-made snow crystals at his CalTech website.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.