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Matinee: 'Snowflake Authority Ken Libbrecht' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

15 December 2018

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 180th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Snowflake Authority Ken Libbrecht.

We've never seen a real live snowflake. Living near the ocean will do that to you. And even the few times we visited the Sierras in the winter, it didn't storm, so we didn't see any.

So naturally, we don't have any photos of snowflakes. Or, more properly, snow crystals.

We learned that from the Snowflake Authority Ken Libbrecht. On his site, he plainly says, "Calling a snow crystal a snowflake is fine, like calling a tulip a flower." Then he explains how a snow crystal forms:

A snow crystal appears when water vapor in the air converts directly into ice without first becoming liquid water. As more water vapor condenses onto a nascent snow crystal, it grow and develops, and that is when its ornate patterns emerge.

Libbrecht is a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. A North Dakota native, he studies the molecular dynamics of crystal growth, including how ice crystals grow from water vapor. As a hobby.

In this 18:13 video from 2007, he gives a short lecture on snowflakes. And how he photographs them (it's the most fun you can have in the snow, he says).

He takes his camera to the snow in a suitcase because it includes a microscope. And he has to travel, since Caltech is in southern California. It isn't easy getting his suitcase through airport security but he manages.

He catches the snowflakes on a piece of colored cardboard and when he finds a good one, he picks it up with a brush to put it under the microscope. If you break it, no big deal, because they fall out of the sky, he says.

We won't summarize the lecture. It's long enough. He accompanies the talk with his photos and, at the end, shows some computer simulations that are themselves gorgeous.

His photos are stunning. Well lit and very sharp. The biggest was as large as a dime, probably the largest snow crystal ever photographed, he points out.

These flowers from the sky make themselves beautiful. And Libbrecht explains just how they do it.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. You know, so we can finally see a snowflake. Uh, snow crystal, that is.


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