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Great thoughts: Wilson Bentley and snowflakes

11/20/02 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) Commentator Cheryl Hanna tells us that Vermonter Wilson Bentley had a big idea about a very small thing indeed. And his work has greatly influenced the vision of both the artistic and the scientific communities.

(Hanna) If you've ever gone snowflake-catching, you know that no two are ever alike. But what you may not know is that discovery was first made in Jericho, Vermont by a man named Wilson Bentley.

Born in 1865, the long Vermont winters gave Bentley the time to perfect his passion of photographing snowflakes. His mother gave him a microscope, which he adapted to a camera, and at the age of 19, became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal. Bentley eventually photographed over 5000 snowflakes, and, as predicted, no two were ever alike, earning him the nickname "the Snowflake Man."

Today, scientists still use the basic method that Bentley developed to capture the singular beauty of a snowflake. It's called photomicrography. The process isn't terribly difficult, but it does require an artist's touch and an explorer's soul. The work must all be done in a temperature below freezing, and under conditions of much physical exposure.

Snowflakes take on a six-sided, or hexagonal, shape but with what seems like an infinite number of variations of being six sided. The magic of six, as Bentley described. The temperature at which a crystal forms, and to a less extent the humidity of the air, determine the basic shape. The many things that happen to snow crystals as they fall, such as collisions, partial melting and colliding with water drops that freeze to them, create even more shapes. Bentley was the first person to understand this process in detail.

By studying the shape, size, and texture of a snowflake, scientists and meteorologists can predict the weather conditions in the atmosphere, as well as solve a few mysteries, like why it really is quieter just after a snowstorm. And Bentley's photographs have influenced design patterns on everything from metalwork to china. None of this scientific understanding, or artistic inspiration, would have been possible without Bentley's dedication.

He once said, "Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."

It was such passion for his work that made many scientists initially dismiss him as, well, a flake. But they soon came around once they realized that there's more to a snowflake than meets the human eye. Indeed, in 1917, a University of Wisconsin professor ironically named W. B. Snow, wrote to Bentley, You are doing a great work in enabling students and scientists, and people in many walks of life, to see and to appreciate the infinity as well as the beauty of nature. Somehow I think only a Vermonter could have thought that each tiny snowflake was special in it's own way. It gives winter a whole new meaning.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Visit www.SnowflakeBentley.com, or contact the Jericho Historical Society at (802) 899-3225.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont. VPR's commentary series, "Great Thoughts of Vermont," examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts series.
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