I don’t know about everyone else, but making paper snowflakes was my sh*t in grade school. For some reason, snipping up pieces of printer paper would endlessly blow my mind. And, of course, you were always encouraged to make a fresh pattern for every new paper snowflake because no two out in nature are ever the same.
Do we still buy this?
The concept dates back to 1885 when Wilson Bentley took photographs of snowflakes under a microscope for over 50 years and never found identical ones, but personally, the logic behind this is a bit lacking to me. Unless we have a group of scientists (or, like, really detailed people who just happen to own microscopes) somewhere studying every snowflake from every snowfall in the world, is it really plausible to believe that they all carry unique patterns and characteristics?
It’s only the laws of probability that say yes.
First of all, snow: It’s water vapor that skips the liquid phase. The vapor molecules bump into the frozen droplets that make up the cloud they live in, along with whatever dust is hanging out up there, and freeze. This instantly solidifies the gaseous molecules, and there’s your snowflake. Once that’s done, other water vapor molecules attach to this baby snowflake and form a unique shape that depends on the temperature and humidity.
Kenneth Libbrecht, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, used a metaphor to explain the phenomenon to the Washington Post: “There are a limited number of ways to arrange a handful of bricks. But if you have a lot of bricks, the number of combinations grows very quickly,” he said.
In this example, the water vapor molecules are the bricks. If there are infinite ways for them to attach together, it can produce infinite shapes; and the Post asserts that not enough snowflakes have even fallen in the history of the world yet to assume that two identical ones have existed. OK.
To be fair, the patterns that these molecules branch off into are only minutely different, and snowflakes have about a quintillion (1 + 18 zeros) molecules.
And what’s more, as snowflakes fall to the ground, they float through other clouds, the temperatures and moisture levels of which change their shapes even more -- so there goes my “what if they formed in the same cloud with the same molecules” theory. Even if two snowflakes look exactly the same, it’s all but impossible that their molecular structures match.
While specific flakes
probably won’t ever bear the same makeup, enough studies have been done to place snowflakes into just eight general categories (that then branch off into over 100 subcategories, but we’ll keep it easy). So even if the branches of every snowflake are different, the overall shapes can be similar.
While we cower in fear of the inevitable blizzard to hit here in Boston, at least I have the comfort of knowing I wasn't lied to as a child who loved arts and crafts.