15 April 2012

Tiny miracles

From the earliest memories of our childhood, many of us can remember hearing the phrase No two snowflakes are alike. This discovery was made in Jericho (Vermont, USA) by The Snowflake Man, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931). 

Wilson Bentley was a farmer who made snowflake photography his life-long passion, capturing some 5000 images on old-style photographic plates. He created the first substantial collection of snow crystal photographs.

Snow crystals were difficult to see because they melted so rapidly. Bentley lived in the snow belt region in the USA where the annual snowfall is about 120 inches. So he had many opportunities to study snowflakes. 

When he was a small boy, he was seduced by the natural world around him. He loved to study butterflies, leaves and spider webs. He kept a record of the weather conditions every day. He was fascinated by raindrops. As a young boy, Bentley made more than 300 drawings of snow crystals. At age 15, he began drawing snowflakes while looking at them through a microscope that could magnify the tiny snowflake from 64 to 3,600 times its actual size.

By adapting a microscope to a bellows camera (and years of trial and error) he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885. 

To obtain his pictures, he had to create a complex system that required working rapidly to achieve a photograph before the snowflakes melted. Note that snow crystals are clear, not white. Bentley illuminated his crystals from behind (giving a bright background) and then he made the background dark.

He learned that the reason no two snowflakes are exactly alike is because all ice crystals (shaped like simple plates, bullets, needles, solid or hollow columns, dendrites, sheaths) are hexagonal. As they descend from the clouds, they ride air currents up and down for an hour or more through regions of differing temperatures and humidity that leave their marks on snowflakes’ growth and shape. Bentley was fascinated by the fact that the crystal design variations were endless.

The farmer-scientist-artist poetically described snowflakes as tiny miracles of beauty and snow crystals as ice flowers.

The Snowflake Man died of pneumonia on Christmas Eve in 1931, shortly after hiking through a snowstorm. Wilson Bentley literally died with his boots on.

Today! icy photography looks a little bit different… Please go discovering beautiful modern snowflakes in ChaoticMind75's folder called Snowflakes and snow crystals on flickr.

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