Thursday, December 30, 2004

Snow crystals

"Think of yourself as a 4- or 5-year-old, hurtling through the pointillist magic of a snowstorm, your tongue out to catch as many falling flakes as you can, hearing that these countless bits of frozen fluff have secret lives, that they are all different, never repeated, despite the clear evidence before your eyes that they are identical and undistinguishable. Someone, perhaps your kindergarten teacher, may have opened a book of photographs of the unreplicated beauty hidden in every flurry." (Owen Edwards in Smithsonian)

Autodidact Wilson Bentley, the Vermont farmer who discovered that no two snowflakes are alike, devised a mechanism in the 1880s that combined a microscope with a view camera. He made photographs of thousands of snowflakes using light-sensitive plates, not for profit, but for the sheer joy of doing so. Efforts to give a manuscript and 20 years' worth of photographs to the Smithsonian in 1904 were rebuffed, leading Bentley to sell many of his glass plates to schools and colleges for a nickel apiece. He later wrote an article for National Geographic and collaborated on a book called Snow Crystals that contained 2,500 illustrations.

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