Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?

iStock/Marccophoto
iStock/Marccophoto

Up in the winter sky, water vapor in a cloud condenses into a droplet and freezes into a tiny bit of ice, with the water molecules bonding together as a hexagonal crystalline lattice with a six-fold symmetry. As water vapor condenses on its surfaces, the ice crystal grows into a hexagonal prism. As the crystal gets larger and larger, branches begin to form at the corners of the hexagon. When the crystal is heavy enough, it falls through the atmosphere toward the ground, where we call it a snowflake.

Many of those snowflakes have fallen onto the small town of Jericho, Vermont, the home of Wilson Alwyn Bentley. As a teenager, Bentley became interested in snowflakes, and he attempted to draw them while looking at them through a microscope his mother had given him. He found that he couldn't get the complex structures of the flakes down on paper before they melted, so he attached a camera to a microscope using an adjustable bellows mechanism and photographed his first snowflake on January 15, 1885.

Over the next few decades, Bentley continued to study snowflakes, taking 5,381 photographs of them and developing a system to categorize over 80 different flake types and shapes. In 1920, he became a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and was awarded the Society's first research grant ($25). Bentley sometimes told people that he had never seen two snowflakes that looked alike and published several magazine articles arguing that no two flakes are identical. That idea stuck in the public imagination, which brings us to today's question: was he right?

Scientists have discovered that as an ice crystal gets blown around in the air while it grows, the environmental conditions it is exposed to and the timing of the exposure determine the shape of the snowflake. With different factors determining the snowflake's shape, and that shape changing as the growing snowflake moves through different conditions, you get a lot of variety in snowflake shape. Here's a handy little graph from a Caltech physics professor that shows which shapes occur in which conditions:

If two growing snowflakes are exposed to the same temperatures and humidity and water saturation levels at the exact same time (live out the exact same lives, if you will), they may look exactly alike at the macroscopic level. In fact, in 1988, the Nancy Knight was studying snowflakes as part of her work with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and found two identical snowflakes of the hollow column type in a Wisconsin snowstorm.

But Caltech physics professor and snowflake expert Kenneth Libbrecht (the man who made the above graph) points out that if you look at any two flakes "“ even seemingly identical ones "“ on the atomic level, you'll find numbers of water molecules and different layouts of those molecules (most water molecules contain an oxygen atom of 16O, but one molecule in every 500 has an 18O). One thing you won't find? Two snowflakes that are exactly alike.

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Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com
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Researchers Discover New Details In Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring, circa 1665.
Johannes Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring, circa 1665.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

In 2018, the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague, Netherlands, gathered an international team of researchers to take part in its “Girl in the Spotlight” project, which aimed to unlock the secrets of Johannes Vermeer’s famed Girl With a Pearl Earring, circa 1665.

Their recently published findings reveal many intriguing details about Vermeer’s artistic process and the artwork itself, though the identity of the painting’s enigmatic subject remains a mystery. Using X-rays and other advanced imaging techniques, the researchers discovered Vermeer depicted the girl in front of a faint green curtain—not an empty dark background—and even painted eyelashes on her eyes.

As The Guardian reports, scholars in the past have cited both the lack of eyelashes and the blank background as support for the theory that Vermeer was painting a conceptual, idealized image of a girl, so these newfound features could be evidence that an actual person posed for him in a specific setting. And, according to head researcher Abbie Vandivere, it’s not entirely a bad thing that we still don’t know who that person is.

“It is good that some mysteries remain and everyone can speculate about her. It allows people their own personal interpretation of the girl; everyone feels their own connection with the way she meets your eyes,” she told The Guardian. “The fact that she is still a mystery keeps people coming back and keeps her exciting and fresh.”

While we’re all pondering the puzzling origin of one of the most captivating models in art history, there are plenty of other fascinating revelations from the Mauritshuis investigation to talk about, too. For one, the Dutch artist evidently spared no expense in bringing Girl With a Pearl Earring to life: the raw materials he used to create various colors in the painting came from just about everywhere, including England, Mexico, Central America, and maybe even Asia or the West Indies. Ultramarine, a blue pigment derived from lapis lazuli (an export of what’s now Afghanistan), which Vermeer used for the girl’s headscarf and jacket, was more valuable than gold at the time.

The study also shed light on Vermeer’s painting methods. He began with broad brush strokes of brown and black paint, layering the girl on top of the background, and then made slight adjustments to her ear, the back of her neck, and the top of her scarf.

If “Girl in the Spotlight” has proven anything, it’s that there’s always more to discover about a work of art—and that’s just what the Mauritshuis intends to do.

“Please know that this is not the end point of our research, but an intermediate station,” Mauritshuis director Martine Gosselink said in a press release. “The collaborations are growing, and so is the desire to find out more.”

As you wait for more information to come to light, here are 15 fascinating facts about Girl With a Pearl Earring.

[h/t The Guardian]