Meet the scientist who makes identical snowflakes

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The old adage “No two snowflakes are alike,” is wrong. At least in the laboratory.

So says a scientist at the California Institute of Technology who has been making twin, and even triplet and quadruplet snowflakes in controlled conditions inside a homemade snowflake creation chamber.

Kenneth Libbrecht is part physicist, part artist, with eight books about snowflakes to his name, each of which contains some of the most lovely photos of snowflakes you will ever see.

Libbrecht works out of a cramped, dimly-lit lab on the Caltech campus—one that is strewn with the equipment he uses to make minute, intricately complex snowflakes. The process is relatively simple, he says.

Kenneth Libbrecht
Kenneth Libbrecht

Inside of boxy snowflake chambers, he cools the air to below freezing, and slowly adds water vapor until crystals form on a flat substrate. By carefully controlling temperature and humidity (the amount of water he adds), he is able to construct a wide array of different snowflake types—some with long needle-like spikes, and others with gem-like facets.

His favorites are strange, columnar crystals that look more like pencils than the star-shaped snowflakes we know from Christmas cards (those, by the way, are known as “stellar dendrites”).

Kenneth Libbrecht
Kenneth Libbrecht

How many types of snowflakes are there? Well, Libbrecht says that there really is no agreed upon number. Researchers in Japan suggest there are 39 different types, but Libbrecht says it all depends on what you mean by “type”.  He likens categorizing snowflakes to determining types of bread: is sourdough its own type or is it merely white bread? White pita, wheat pita or just pita?

“You can have lots and lots of typical breads, and you can go on for hundreds of kinds of breads if you want,” he says. “But maybe that’s too many, and same with snowflakes.”

In other words, we just can’t be sure.

But if there’s one thing we can be sure about it’s this: ALL snowflakes have six sides. This is due to the way that water molecules connect with one another when they freeze, creating a hexagon. It’s a law of physics.

Which brings us to one of Ken’s proudest contributions to snowflake science.

Hanging on the wall of his office is a poster for Frozen, the Academy Award-winning film for which he was hired by The Walt Disney Company as a “snowflake consultant”.

Kenneth Libbrecht
Kenneth Libbrecht

“I went and just told them all about how snowflakes always had six sides. They never have eight, they never have seven,” he says. “And then the movie came out and they were all six-sided. It was the first time I was really excited about the Oscars, and, you know, my movie won.”

Although he grew up around a lot of snow in North Dakota, Libbrecht says his interest in snowflakes wasn’t sparked until he started making them in the lab. After decades of work, he’s now made thousands of them, performing numerous experiments in shape and form. One of his most recent experiments is making what he calls “identical twin” snowflakes.

“I realized that if you grow two snowflakes very close to one another, you could sort of subject them to the same growth conditions at the same time,” he says. The result are two (or even three and four) snowflakes that do look exactly the same. He says that may not be the case on the molecular level, but to the novice’s eye, they look the same.

Kenneth Libbrecht
Kenneth Libbrecht

All of this begs the question whether there is a practical purpose for all this work. Is there a billion dollar start-up in his future to make designer snowflakes for celebrities? Is the department of defense knocking on his door to learn the secrets of snowflake creation?

Not really.

For now, Ken is satisfied with growing snowflakes in his lab and taking pictures of them.

“I just kind of like the artistic side of it,” he says.