Snowflake Shapes Shine Under The Microscope

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They'll be falling soon throughout the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere by the billion, and by February many of us may be sick of them. But before they wear out their welcome, take a moment to appreciate anew the ethereal beauty and variety of snowflakes.

This year's Lennart Nilsson Award for scientific photography was conferred to Caltech physicist Kenneth Libbrecht, a master of snowflake photography. His images offer a fresh take on what he calls "nature's frozen art."

We all learned in elementary school that each snowflake is unique. But with such tiny features, it's hard to appreciate that they span such an impressive gamut from minimalist cylinders and spiky rods to stylized Art Deco. And of course there's still the lacy Baroque confection we know so well, spun out of simple water vapor.

Kenneth Libbrecht photographing snowflakes. i i

Physicist Kenneth Libbrecht uses a custom-built photo-microscope to photograph snow crystals. As they fall on a collection board, he looks for promising specimens then moves them to the microscope with a paintbrush. Colored lights are necessary to illuminate the transparent formations. Courtesy of the Lenart Nilsson Award hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Lenart Nilsson Award
Kenneth Libbrecht photographing snowflakes.

Physicist Kenneth Libbrecht uses a custom-built photo-microscope to photograph snow crystals. As they fall on a collection board, he looks for promising specimens then moves them to the microscope with a paintbrush. Colored lights are necessary to illuminate the transparent formations.

Courtesy of the Lenart Nilsson Award

The Nilsson Prize, named for the legendary Swedish photographer, is awarded by the Karolinska Institute, which makes it the Nobel Prize of scientific photography. It carries an honorarium of about $15,000.

Snowflakes have fascinated scientists for centuries. Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century astronomer and mathematician, discovered that all snowflakes are variations on six-sided crystals and each is unique.

In his lab at Caltech, Libbrecht studies the physics of crystal growth, and how temperature and electric charges interact to produce snowflakes' stunning variety. To capture and inspect snow crystals up close, he uses a high-quality, low-power photo-microscope that he designed himself. (A key feature is the Styrofoam encasement for protection in cold climates.)

Since there aren't many snowflakes in southern California, Libbrecht has traveled all over the world to photograph the delicate beauties. He also grows synthetic snowflakes in the lab. As one of the world's top snowflake experts, he's written seven books on their art and science.

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