Photography changes natural phenomena into iconic images

Kenneth G. Libbrecht

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Kenneth G. Libbrecht [ BIO ]

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Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Kenneth G. Libbrecht, professor of physics and physics department chair at the California Institute of Technology, researches across a broad range of topics in physics and astrophysics. A particular and ongoing interest in the molecular dynamics of crystal growth led him to study how ice crystals grow from water vapor, which is essentially the physics of snowflakes.

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Kenneth G. Libbrecht, professor of physics and physics department chair at the California Institute of Technology, describes how “Snowflake” Bentley’s photographs transformed public perception and then became cultural icons.

If you venture outside during a light snowfall on a cold winter’s day, you may see some remarkable ice sculptures simply landing on the sleeve of your coat. Snowflakes are created, quite literally, out of thin air as water vapor condenses into ice crystals, yet this simple process yields spectacular results. A close look at your sleeve, especially with the aid of a magnifying glass, will reveal some amazingly elaborate and beautiful crystalline structures with an immediately recognizable six-fold symmetry. How marvelous it is that these miniature works of art simply fall from the winter clouds!

Snowflakes have become ubiquitous winter icons, seen in holiday advertisements and decorations throughout the world. You have probably heard the adage that no two snowflakes are alike, and you may remember cutting snowflakes out of paper as a child. It is much less likely, however, that you have ever actually taken a close look at a snowflake, especially using a magnifier or microscope. The images that pop into your mind when you think snowflakes come mainly from the work of one man—snowflake photographer Wilson Bentley.

Growing up on a farm near Jericho, Vermont, in the 1880s, Bentley developed an early interest in the natural sciences, and was taught at home until age fourteen by his mother, who had been a schoolteacher before she married. She gave her son a small microscope left over from her teaching days, and young Wilson soon became fascinated with snowflakes. As a teenager he found that the ephemeral snowflake structures were exceedingly difficult to sketch, so he convinced his father to spend a sizable fraction of the family’s hard-earned savings on a bellows camera and a microscope objective for photographing snowflakes.

This parental encouragement and financial extravagance started Bentley on what would become a 45-year obsession with recording and popularizing this microcosm of winter weather. As his farmed fields lay fallow during the cold months, Bentley spent countless hours observing snowflakes as they fell onto a collection board, picking up promising specimens using a small wooden splint and placing them under his microscope to be photographed. Of course, this all had to be done outside in below-freezing temperatures.

After over a decade practicing this unusual hobby in isolation, Bentley published his first article on snowflakes in “Appleton's Popular Scientific Monthly” in 1898, at the urging of George Henry Perkins, a local professor at the University of Vermont. From this and many subsequent articles, Bentley soon became known as the Snowflake Man. Several decades and several thousand photographs later, Bentley teamed with meteorologist William Humphreys to publish his magnum opus in 1931—a book of over 2000 snowflake photographs entitled simply Snow Crystals. Throughout the 20th century this book was used as the principal reference for any artist or designer wanting to create an anatomically correct snowflake facsimile.

Bentley’s photographs have influenced popular perceptions so thoroughly that many people believe that all snowflakes are shaped like branched stars with a mysteriously perfect six-fold symmetry. In fact, snowflakes also appear as hexagonal columns, needles, sectored plates, capped columns, and a host of other exotic shapes, and many are little more than misshapen globs of ice. The beautiful, star-shaped, iconic varieties are just one possibility, a fact that is easily verified by anyone with a magnifying glass during a typical snowfall. Most people have not looked closely at the real thing, but are more familiar with the numerous snowflake caricatures seen during the holiday season, all of which were ultimately derived from Bentley’s famous photographs. In producing his collection, Bentley chose only the most photogenic specimens to record, and in doing so defined our standard image of the snowflake.

Snowflakes are created when water vapor in the clouds condenses into ice, but the origin of their various elaborate shapes remains something of a scientific mystery. The diverse and complex constructions result from a subtle interplay of different processes occurring at the molecular scale, and many details remain unclear. Despite the fact that these fascinating structures have been observed and pondered for centuries, science still does not fully understand the enigmatic snowflake.

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Snowflake Study by Wilson A. Bentley
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Stellar Dendrite Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrecht
  • Stellar Dendrite Snowflake, 2003
  • Kenneth Libbrecht
Broad-branched Stellar Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrecht
  • Broad-branched Stellar Snowflake, 2006
  • Kenneth Libbrecht
Snow Crystals by Kenneth Libbrecht
  • Snow Crystals, 2006
  • Kenneth Libbrecht
A small columnar snow crystal, with included bubbles by Kenneth Libbrecht
  • A small columnar snow crystal, with included bubbles, 2005
  • Kenneth Libbrecht

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