If Jack Frost exists, he’s probably moonlighting as Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht. The CalTech professor is not only a skilled solar astronomist and ice crystal researcher, but a creator of “designer snowflakes” – yes, you read correctly. While the rest of Southern California laps up the sunshine, Libbrecht is holed up in his Pasadena laboratory creating real, custom snowflakes from scratch. But don’t call him a mad scientist. “Creating designer snowflakes of this quality is a new thing,” he says about his work on his website, “so for now I have the dubious honour of being the world’s only snow crystal artist.” He was even the official snowflake consultant for Disney’s Frozen, ensuring that every snowflake in frame had six-sides. Here’s a handful of his own creations under the microscope:
These are not computer simulations, but are real slivers of ice grown in the laboratory. Kenneth photographs the crystals as they grow, controlling their shapes by changing the temperature and humidity as they form. Watch a snowflake growing in action below:
“I like to think of this as a new form of ice sculpture,” he says, “except I am not carving away from an initial block of ice, but rather growing a desired structure by adding water vapor. I am bound by the rules of ice growth, of course, so I cannot fashion any arbitrary shape. But I can make some fine-looking snowflakes.” And he better, because the process isn’t cheap; “I use a recirculating chiller ($5k), several temperature controllers ($2k each), and a lot of hardware designed and fabricated just for this.”
In short, his snowflake are born by cooling water vapour and blowing moist air onto it as crystals form before his eyes. What puts the “designer” element in the process is the fact that he alters the temperature and humidity to produce different effects . “If I want to grow plate-like features,” he says, “I tune the temperature to around -11 C with a low humidity. If I want branches, I tune to -15 C and a higher humidity.”
Still wrapping your head around the news that humankind has officially mastered nature’s most romantic, and famously inimitable feat? We sent our carrier pigeon his way with a few of our burning questions …
MessyNessyChic: What initially drew you so snowflakes? What are some of the biggest misconceptions about them?
Kenneth Libbrecht: I got started from the science side, trying to understand how crystals grow more generally, and then looking at ice as a specific case study. From there I wanted to write a book about snowflakes, and that got me started in snowflake photography as well. People often think every snowflake is beautifully formed, when in fact most snow crystals are small and grainy, like icy sand. Photographers tend to photograph the nicest crystals. Also very few people have heard of columnar snow crystals, which are quite common.
MNC: Can you recall a snowflake you’ve made that you’ll never forget?
Libbrecht: Quite a few, mostly the nice ones. I put those on the web, of course.
MNC: What’s the biggest snowflake you’ve created?
Libbrecht: I have made one that was 12 mm from tip to tip [called “the Monster’], a bit larger than the largest one ever found in nature.
MNC: How do people react when you tell them that you can, in fact, create identical snowflakes? And why do you think they’re so nostalgia-provoking?
Libbrecht: [Actually] people had a lot more interest in making identical snowflakes before I did it. Once it had been accomplished, it no longer was much of a goal. I think we humans are drawn to objects that have both symmetry and complexity, like snowflakes. Plus snowflakes have a somewhat exotic symmetry, not often seen in nature.
Well, there you have it. You can learn more about Libbrecht’s snowflake mastery on his website and in his books, and we’ll also leave you to geek out with his presentation: “the secret life of snow”….