Snowflakes and the Beauty of the Meme
By Lisa Wade PhD
The image above is a photograph of a snowflake taken in the late 1800s by Wilson Bentley. Bentley, a 19-year-old farmer in Vermont, was the first person to ever photograph snowflakes. From the Guardian:
Bentley’s obsession with snow crystals began when he received a microscope for his 15th birthday. He became spellbound by their beauty, complexity and endless variety.
“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,” he said.
Bentley started trying to draw the flakes but the snow melted before he could finish. His parents eventually bought him a camera and he spent two years trying to capture images of the tiny, fleeting crystals.
He caught falling snowflakes by standing in the doorway with a wooden tray as snowstorms passed over. The tray was painted black so he could see the crystals and transfer them delicately onto a glass slide.
To study the snow crystals, Bentley rigged his bellows camera up to the microscope but found he could not reach the controls to bring them into focus. He overcame the problem through the imaginative use of wheels and cord.
Bentley took his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal at the age of 19 and went on to capture more than 5,000 more images.
What struck me about this story, other than the pretty pictures and neat historical trivia, was the fact that nearly every schoolchild in the Western world knows what a snowflake looks like under a microscope, even as their experience of snowflakes is mostly of them as cold, fuzzy, frozen blobs, if they have any regular experience with snow at all. They know because we teach them.
The idea of the meme is one way to discuss our ability to transfer elusive knowledge like this. A meme is a unit of knowledge or a type of behavior that’s passed on from generation to generation culturally. The gene is its evolutionary cousin, passing along knowledge and behavior genetically. In the US, this particular knowledge meme is found in books or scientific discussions, but it has also become a common arts and craft project: many of us learn about snowflakes when we are shown how to make them from construction paper:
It’s quite amazing to consider how every human generation since Bentley understands the snowflake just a little bit differently than anyone before him. Because of the advantage that human culture gives each new generation, nearly every child learns to appreciates their beauty.