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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.

Wilson Bentley's combination of a bellows camera and a microscope eventually captured more than 5,000 snowflake photos.

None of them were alike.

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

It may have started as a hobby, but Bentley eventually earned the respect and attention of the scientific and academic communities. He is now routinely compared to Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton, photographers of science now appreciated for their works of art.

His original article, which argued that no two snowflakes are ever alike, created a sensation. Published with the help of University of Vermont professor George Henry Perkins, it led to articles and counter-articles in serious publications. The entry for "snow" in the 14th Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is credited to Bentley, and he worked with a government meteorologist for the 1931 book Snow Crystals. It contains more than 2,400 of his photographs. As you might have guessed, none are the same.

The bellows camera he attached to the compound microscope could extend to three feet long. That was longer than his reach to the controls, so he improvised strings and wheels. 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 to backlight his slides.

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, as 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 micro-climates and there are, scientific term alert, zillions 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 (a shape based on how hydrogen atoms bond with oxygen in water). Other temperatures produce 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.

Add to the variability the idea that flakes get bumped around on their journey downward, then top it off with this. There are more than 10 trillion water molecules in a single snowflake, and the possible permutations for a number that big are nearly infinite.

On the other side of the argument is this. After, scientific term alert, bazillions of snowflakes over thousands of years, a couple just have to have matched.

So what's the final answer? We suggest telling your children that no two snowflakes are ever alike. There's something magical and inspiring with such an idea, and in terms of being true, well, the odds are in your favor.