Snowflakes, it turns out, are only occasionally beautiful

Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley circa 1902
Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley circa 1902

There are some nasty looking snowflakes coming down out there. And even the word “flake” doesn’t seem apt to describe these sodden, misshapen snow pillows that make an almost audible thud when they hit the hood of your parka. The weather reminded me of a short essay in the book “Photography Changes Everything,” published by the Aperture/Smithsonian. In it, professor Kenneth G. Libbrecht (Caltech) looks at the science and photography of snowflakes, and the lasting impact that photographer Wilson Bentley has had on our understanding of their form. Photographing snow became an obsession for Bentley in the late-19th century, and his images are now part of our collective imagination. But they were also carefully selected to stress an ideal of beauty. As Libbrecht writes:

Bentley’s photographs have influenced popular perceptions so thoroughly that many people believe that all snowflakes are shaped like branched stars with a mysteriously perfect six-fold symmetry. In fact, snowflakes also appear as hexagonal columns, needles, sectored plates, capped columns, and a host of other exotic shapes, and many are little more than misshapen globs of ice. The beautiful, star-shaped, iconic varieties are just one possibility, a fact that is easily verified by anyone with a magnifying glass during a typical snowfall.

Snowflakes, it turns out, are only occasionally beautiful. That we believe otherwise is because of our natural inclination to aestheticize, to find beauty, or impose beauty, where there is only randomness and disorder. I was thinking about just that this morning as I realized that the federal government is closed and The Washington Post is not, which seems yet more proof of a thoroughly disordered universe.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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