Nathan Smith, Reference and Research Specialist, Science, Technology & Business Division
JJ Harbster, Head, Science Reference Section, Science, Technology & Business Division
Created: November 5, 2020
Last Updated: March 23, 2023
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"The extreme beauty and endless variety of the microscopic objects procured in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, are perhaps fully equalled, if not surpassed, in both the particulars of beauty and variety, by the crystals of snow." William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions, Volume 1, p. 426.
Snowflakes have been falling from the sky for eons and though humans have always been fascinated by them, we have only relatively recently discovered their intricacies when viewing snowflakes through compound microscopes. Though the details are murky, these inventions were introduced around the turn of the 17th century in Europe, bringing the tiny world of these crystals to the global stage. Around the same time, Johannes Kepler waxed poetic on the structure of snowflakes at length in A New Year's Gift, or On the Six-Cornered Snowflake:
"Just then by a happy chance water-vapour was condensed by the cold into snow, and specks of down fell here and there on my coat, all with six corners and feathered radii. 'Pon my word, here was something smaller than any drop, yet with a pattern..." Johannes Kepler, A New Year's Gift, or On the Six-Cornered Snowflake, p.7.
While Kepler did not include images in his work of the crystalline nature of snowflakes, Rene Descartes published his treatise Les Meteores, which is part of the larger work Discours de la methode pour bien conduire sa raison..., in which he not only discussed the structure of snowflakes in De la Neige, de la Pluie, et de la Gresle (Discours Sixieme), but on pages 222, 224, and 227 he included sketches of their crystalline beauty.
Arguably the first important work from the 17th century is Robert Hooke's Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and inquiries thereupon. In this book, Hooke takes us on a microscopic journey through a variety of substances, from petrified wood and cork to the head of a grey drone fly and the underside of a louse. In addition to these wonderful images, Hooke also observed snowflakes that had fallen on a "piece of black Cloth or Hatt" [sic] under his microscope describing them as:
"Now, as all these stems were for the most part in one flake exactly of the same make, so were they in differing Figures of very differing ones; so that in a very little time I have observ'd above an hundred several cizes [sic] and shapes of these starry flakes." Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and inquiries thereupon, p. 91.
The late 19th century brought about more images of snowflakes, this time in the new medium of photography. Wilson Bentley, known as the Snowflake Man, photographed thousands of snowflakes using macrophotography. He was a prolific author, writing over 60 articles along with the book Snow Crystals. These works contain thousands of his photographs and during his lifetime began to connect the structure of crystals to the temperature of air.
Ukichiro Nakaya performed incredible work in low-temperature science, including snow and ice, in the mid-20th century. While a professor of physics at the University of Hokkaido, Nakaya studied the properties of one of the most plentiful natural resources around him: snow, but more specifically snow crystals. This work was performed in the Low Temperature Science Laboratory, now known as the Institute of Low Temperature Science External, and led him to be the first person to create artificial snow! Some of his findings were published in his book Snow Crystals, Natural and Artificial. Because of his groundbreaking work, there is an entire museum dedicated to him: Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice External.
In what is now Canada and Greenland, some Inuit tribes used snow as an insulator while others used it as the exclusive building material for their igluit. There is a fantastic illustration External on page 269 of Charles Francis Hall's Arctic Researches, and Life Among the Esquimaux captioned "Ig-loos or snow village at Oo-Pung-Ne-Wing." Using snow packed tightly together as a building material is possible in part due to the strength of its crystalline structure.
On September 21, 1919 the New York Tribune published an article that discusses using snowflake crystals as a base for the design of textiles, frescos and stained glass, and even jewelry design. To this day you can see how snow crystals have influenced products in many fields of design. On the fun side of things, snowball fights and building snowmen using the flakes falling from the sky has been a favorite pastime of people across the globe. Age has some affect on these activities of course, but even adults love a good snowman as shown by the cover of the Richmond Times-Dispatch from February 12, 1922.
In closing his famous pamphlet, Kepler approaches crystallography but is content with allowing the "chemists to tell us" why snowflakes come in different shapes. The resources listed in this guide can help to answer that question.