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One Physicist's Sense of Snow

13 January 2000 5:00 pm
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In these winter months when people long for snow or begin to loathe it, what better Web excursion than a quick slide into the world of snowflakes, more properly known as snow crystals. Physicist Kenneth Libbrecht of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena created the engaging Snow Crystals site a year ago to share his research on how crystals develop their intricate patterns. Fascinating pages describe Libbrecht's program to grow "designer snowflakes" at the tips of long needles of ice, made with the help of strong applied electric fields. Similar studies of the surface structures of crystals have commercial applications, such as in the controlled growth of thin diamond films, Libbrecht notes.

The site features a history of snow-crystal research, a user's guide for photographing snowflakes (hint: avoid melting them by catching them with a feather, not your finger), and a detailed primer on the physics of why snow crystals form columns, ferns, dendrites, and other geometrically pleasing forms. For instance, snowflakes owe their usually six-sided symmetry to the most stable configuration of ice crystals: hexagonal prisms. If that's not enough snow, you'll also find dozens of other chillin' links, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center to articles on the physics of precipitation. And if snow doesn't turn you on now, you may want to pay a return visit to this site on some humid July afternoon.

ROBERT IRION

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