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The Other Dr. Flake

Adventure
posted: 01/03/2005

Think you're obsessed with the cold white stuff? Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, has you beat. The 46-year-old author of The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty, as well as the forthcoming Little Book of Snowflakes, spends all of his time theorizing about, making, and examining snow. We caught up with him in his Caltech office, where the thermostat was set at a balmy 72 degrees.

Why snowflakes? Just about every solid thing around us is made up of crystals. But most crystals are too hard to grow in a lab. Ice, on the other hand, is ideal for crystal-growing-except that it's cold. I don't like the cold.

Snow, without cold?
That 's the only way to go. Some scientists have entire rooms set below freezing. I had enough cold growing up in North Dakota. With me, snowmaking happens in small boxes.
How do you make a snowflake in a box?

We take a cold chamber (a 1-by-3-foot box), cool the bottom to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and heat the top to 104. Then we introduce water vapor at the top, and it diffuses down; some droplets freeze and start to grow. Eventually, snowflakes fall. The question is: Why do they get shaped the way they do?

And?
Basically, it's still a mystery. We do know that temperature affects shape.

Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?

The likelihood of finding two identical snowflakes is ridiculously small.

Do you really chase snowflakes like a meteorologist might chase a tornado? I make frequent trips to places like Fairbanks, Alaska, and Hokkaido, Japan. Hokkaido was great. I photographed snowflakes all day-and ate sushi. I've also spent some time in the middle of nowhere-like central Ontario.

How was that?

I couldn't get away from the Shania Twain hoopla. Billboards everywhere. In the town of Timmons-that was her hometown-they even have a Shania Twain museum.

Do you like Shania Twain? (Silence)

You're not going to tell me, are you?

Are you going to quote me?

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