The Snowflake – Kenneth Libbrecht and Patricia Rasmussen (2003)

Snowflake bk cover

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe…his eyes are dead.

Albert Einstein, 1930.

A lucky find at B&N (despite my grumble about this behemoth book store earlier). This title is a very in-depth explanation of snowflakes (or “snow crystals” to be more accurate) by one of the world’s foremost snow researchers. The explanation takes it down to the atomic and molecular levels, talk of which would normally make me run screaming in fear from the room. (Haven’t any science since I was 16. No physics or chemistry since I dropped them as fast as I could at the age of 12.)

However, Libbrecht (coupled with the microphotos by Rasmussen) makes it as clear as they can about the life cycle of a snowflake, and if I can understand it, trust me dear reader, you can as well.  The author is a professor (not sure at which school – CalTech?) who helps even a rather non-science-y person through the maze – he decodes jargon, uses metaphor for complicated theory, and doesn’t really “dumb it down” but does make it more accessible. It was a whole new world for me to enter.

I have always been completely intimidated by physics since I was much younger and optioned out of that class as soon as I could. However, I have worked in medical, scientific and engineering worlds since then, and can actually see the point of these things now. (Not at all clear in my 12-year old head back then so there was a lot of time spent burning wooden spills in the Bunsen burner instead of really listening…)

The chapters are organized logically, going from the big picture (“why is snow white?” and the genesis of snowflakes) to the micro level and is clearly illustrated by photography from both Libbrecht and Rasmussen. Libbrecht has a snowflake lab where he and his team can study the morphology of snowflakes, and yes – even design their own personal snow flake if they so wish. There is a section called the Field Guide to Snowflakes (for identification: stellar dendrite, anyone?) and it’s just plain interesting.  It was also cool to see overlaps between wind and snowflakes (seeing as I work in wind science and engineering). I actually had no idea it would be *so* interesting to be honest.

Due to the science stuff covered, I wouldn’t call this the easiest read in the world, but if you don’t freak out about the jargon and physics in general, perhaps you’ll find it as fascinating as I did. (Read it on Sunday afternoon – could not put it down really.)


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