News ID: 207244
Published: 0823 GMT December 31, 2017

Physicists trying to create the perfect snowflake

Physicists trying to create the perfect snowflake
Snowflakes collect on a car window during a winter nor'easter snow storm in Waltham, Massachusetts January 2, 2014.

Nothing in nature is perfect — but frosty, shimmery snowflakes come pretty close.

Now one man is trying to push the limits of those shimmery, symmetrical ice crystals, to make the largest, most perfectly symmetrical snowflake ever, according to

Libbrecht said he was inspired by snowflakes he encountered in his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota.

Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, has spent years trying to create such symmetrical beauties in his lab.

By carefully controlling the conditions, using commercial recirculating chillers and temperature controllers, he has managed to create 0.5 inch — across snowflakes that retain their pristine symmetry.

But that isn't big enough for him: Libbrecht believes he can make symmetrical crystals as big as 1 inch across or more.

Libbrecht said, “There are no physical laws that prevent the formation of arbitrarily large snowflakes, but just a slight change in the environmental conditions can make flakes turn out wonky.

"It's easy to grow an ugly snowflake. More things go wrong as they get bigger."

That said, in 2006, NASA scientists measured snowflakes in Ontario, Canada, and found that individual snow crystals of about 0.6 inches are not unusual. And not all of them were ugly.

Outside the lab, snow forms high in the atmosphere when crystals form on particles of dirt or dust in the atmosphere.

As the burgeoning crystal falls, it encounters an ever-changing set of conditions that continually nudges the snowflake to form in one way or another, which is why no two flakes are alike.

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