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No Two Snowflakes Are Alike?

The Photographs of Wilson A. Bentley

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Wilson A. Bentley, Untitled Snowflake, gelatin silver print, ca. 1920. Click image to enlarge.

On Jan. 15, 1885, a 20-year-old Vermont farmer self-taught in what he called photomicrography took the world's first picture of a single snowflake.

It had taken years of trial and error for Wilson Bentley to successfully adapt a bellows camera to a microscope, but from that single success would come more than 5,000 snowflake photos—none of which were alike.

After so many pictures, it was only natural he'd pick up the nickname "Snowflake," and he started gaining attention from the scientific and academic communities towards the close of the 19th century. His work is routinely compared with two other photographers, Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton, as what began as a scientific investigation is now considered art. The Chrysler owns works by all three.

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Wilson A. Bentley at work. Photo courtesy of Jericho, VT.

Bentley, helped by University of Vermont professor George Henry Perkins, published an article arguing that no two snowflakes are ever alike. It created a sensation, and led to more articles and publications. The entry for "snow" in the 14th Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is credited to Bentley, and he worked with a government meteorologist for a 1931 book Snow Crystals. It contains more than 2,400 of his photographs, and as you might have guessed, none are the same.

The bellows camera he attached to the compound microscope could extend to three feet long—too far for his hands to reach the microscope controls. He rigged up string and wheels to fix the problem, and the snowflakes were placed on normal microscope slides. Because of the microscope, every image was enlarged. In his cold studio, he'd point the camera toward the window so he'd be shooting through what he called "ice crystals."

When he wasn't taking photographs, he was working a 20-cow dairy farm with his brother. He died at home on Dec. 23, 1931. The cause was pneumonia, and he was stricken after walking home six miles in a blizzard.

Which brings us to the root of the question—are there really no two snowflakes alike? To scientists who must speak in exact terms, the answer is a likely yes—that the odds of two snowflakes being alike are virtually zero. Snowflakes are incredibly sensitive to microclimates and there are billions of variables as water forms around a speck of dust miles in the sky and slowly tumbles to earth. At certain temperatures six-sided plates are formed (based on how hydrogen atoms bond with oxygen in water); at others you can get needles or hollow columns or stars that resemble ferns. Drier air will produce flat growth while higher humidity will promote ice growth on tips and edges. Flakes also get bumped around on their journey downward, adding to the variability, and finally there is this. There are more than 10 trillion water molecules in a single snowflake, and the possible permutations for assembly are nearly infinite.

On the other side of the argument is pure math. After—scientific term alert—bazillions of snowflakes over thousands of years, of course a couple of them had to be the same. So what's the final answer? We suggest that you go ahead and tell your children no two flakes are alike, and that you thank Snowflake Bentley for getting the scientific discussion started.