A primeval fear of snow and a fascination for the transitory beauty of snowflakes imbue winter with both misgiving and awe. Yet, who hasn’t caught snowflakes on their tongue or made an angel in the snow?
A snowflake begins to form when water vapour condenses around a speck of dust high in the clouds and then crystallizes. How the water vapour keeps on condensing and where the snowflake falls are what determine the way the snow crystal looks like when it lands.
One of the first photographers of snowflakes was Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931), born in Vermont, USA . He perfected a process of catching them on black velvet in such a way that their images could be captured before they melted.
A self-educated farmer, Bentley attracted the world’s attention with his pioneering work. By adapting a microscope to fit a bellows camera, and after years of trial and error, in 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal.
In his book Snow Crystals (1931) Bentley wrote:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”
Bentley went on to capture more than 4,500 snowflakes during his lifetime, never finding any two alike. His snow crystal photos were acquired by colleges and universities throughout the world and he published many articles on his findings.
I suspect Bentley, as a boy, also spent many moments catching snowflakes on his tongue. The image, while commonplace, was put to memorable use by Ogden Nash in his Winter Morning Poem:
Winter is the king of showmen
Turning tree stumps into snow men
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes
Smooth and clean and frosty white
The world looks good enough to bite
That’s the season to be young
Catching snowflakes on your tongue
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing
I’m sorry it’s slushy when it’s going