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Accept no imitations: Chemist protests appearance of fake snowflakes


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Designer snowflake‘Tis the season for snowstorms and for the holiday-themed artwork that references them. Snowflakes abound these days, even in places not buried in last weekend’s East Coast blizzard—in advertisements, on Christmas cards, on paper cutouts made by schoolchildren.

But at least one scientist has a gripe: many of those so-called snowflakes bear little resemblance to the real thing. Specifically, these stylized flakes often have four, five or eight corners, whereas the real things have six, a structural trait that arises from water’s crystallization into a hexagonal lattice when frozen.

"Unfortunately, the grand diversity of naturally occurring snow crystals is commonly corrupted by incorrect ‘designer’ versions," chemist Thomas Koop of Bielefeld University in Germany writes in a brief missive to Nature published in the December 24/31 issue. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) As Koop points out, the six-sided nature of snowflakes has long been known. In 1611, for instance, German astronomer Johannes Kepler presented his patron with a unique gift to mark the new year: a treatise called On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.

One researcher who would likely second Koop’s complaint is Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. Libbrecht maintains snowcrystals.com, a Web site devoted to snowflake photography and physics; the site even features a "morphology diagram" that shows how humidity and temperature converge to direct the formation of various snowflake types—all of them hexagonal. See some of Libbrecht’s photographs, which show natural six-cornered snowflakes to be as intricate and lovely as anything an artist could dream up, in this 2008 slide show.

Nevertheless, the counterfeit flakes continue to proliferate—including, as Koop notes, in Nature‘s own advertising campaigns. "We who enjoy both science and captivating design," he writes, "should aim to melt away all four-, five- or eight-cornered snow crystals from cards, children’s books and advertisements." But, despite his holiday grievance, the chemist is no grinch: "Let’s welcome this as an opportunity to share a discussion about the true beauty of science over a mug of hot punch."

An example of an offending "designer" snowflake: ©iStockphoto/magicinfoto

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  1. 1. The Last Straw 2:59 pm 12/23/2009

    OK – I usually read SciAm for entertainment purposes and to keep a pulse on how insane the left-leaning pointy headed scientists are trying to go with their ‘climate change’, ‘human-kind is bad’, and other left wing politically agenda driven views. But this article is the last straw. I love science. But its articles such as this, which pull the profession into the toilet.
    Really – this is the most asinine childish perspective I have ever read. I hope for valentines you are able to find a ‘scientist’ who is advocating the depiction of real human hearts on cards, not the traditional fake ones we are accustomed to.
    Wow, good luck SciAm, and don’t be surprised in a few years when your readership can fit into the room you are standing. God Bless and Merry Christmas everyone.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Johnay 3:48 pm 12/23/2009

    IIRC, the Valentine heart originated in folks writing love notes on leaves that resembled part of the female anatomy, which was later Bowdlerized. So if we’re going to have Valentine cards depict real body parts…

    Link to this
  3. 3. Philtron 3:49 pm 12/23/2009

    wow man, I think you forgot to change your tampon.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Philtron 3:52 pm 12/23/2009

    Also, notice how this is listed in the ‘Observations’ category? Hello… this article fits right in! This isn’t a ‘science’ article. Was not meant to be. Who’s assinine now, you god worshipper?
    Merry Winter Solstice.

    Link to this
  5. 5. throw.snow 3:54 pm 12/23/2009

    Straw,
    slow day around the office?

    Link to this
  6. 6. throw.snow 3:55 pm 12/23/2009

    Straw,
    slow day at the office?

    Link to this
  7. 7. JIMWICh 6:33 pm 12/23/2009

    I blogged about the annoying problem of Mutant Snowflake graphics, and included numerous examples years ago:

    In 200-2001:
    http://www.anigami.com/jimwich/jimwich_archives/jw_snowflakes_2000_2001/jimwich_mutant_snowflakes.html

    In 2004-2005:
    http://www.anigami.com/jimwich/jimwich_archives/jw_snowflakes_2004_2005/jimwich_mutant_snowflakes.html

    I was beginning to believe that I was the only person in the world who’d noticed this scourge of ignorance. This year I’ve spotted them in numerous places, including the television ads for The History Channel.

    The examples on my collections linked above include a magazine card found in an issue of Science News (!) and one in a Mensa publication.

    Link to this
  8. 8. mythmara 7:27 am 12/24/2009

    For the illustration please substitute a real and six pointed example! Thanks.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Ruler4You 10:09 am 12/24/2009

    Waaaaaaaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaa!

    Link to this
  10. 10. Ruler4You 10:10 am 12/24/2009

    Waaaaaaa! Waaaaaaa! I’m a poor unknown "scientist" and I have to have a voice! Waaaaa!

    Link to this
  11. 11. hellblade 12:04 pm 12/24/2009

    oh noes! fake snowflakes! RUUUN!

    Link to this
  12. 12. symmetric1 5:37 pm 12/24/2009

    >The Last Straw on 12/23/09
    >…I usually read SciAm for entertainment purposes and
    >to keep a pulse on how insane the left-leaning pointy
    >headed scientists… blah blah blah
    Maybe if you read it for the science you’d actually learn something. Typical right-leaning, soft-headed, anti-intellectual!

    Link to this
  13. 13. cristina 10:40 pm 12/24/2009

    wonderful comments

    Link to this
  14. 14. entropy_girl 2:31 am 12/25/2009

    It is just fitting to use the REAL figure of a snowflake (six-sided figure) when depicting them in artist illustrations. It’s good that scientists correct these kinds of mistakes so that children will actually know the true shape of a snowflake.

    I would rather teach my kids "un-artistic" but real science than that of an artistic fictional science.

    Link to this
  15. 15. snowflakegirl 5:04 pm 12/28/2009

    I think the 4 sided snowflake will never go away simply because it is the easiest way to teach a child to cut out a symmetrical design and call it a paper snowflake. Of couse once the fold and cut concept is grasped they they can go forward to the more complicated folds that create the three, six and twelve sided flakes, but the idea of a 4 sided snowflake gets ingrained. Don’t know where the 5 sided or 7 sided idea could possibly come from, how would one fold a piece of paper to create a pattern like that!? Perhaps we should be politically correct and refer to these as "special flakes". :-0

    I have several snowflake craft websites such as Papersnowflakes.com which offers simple 4-sided patterns in addition to more complicated designs but emphasize that there are no four-sided snowflakes in nature and urges the kiddies to visit Ken’s great snow science site.

    I thought mutant snowflakes website was great, I link to it, and I wish the owner would continue to poke fun!

    Link to this
  16. 16. HannahXIV 7:14 pm 12/28/2009

    Before I say anything, I realize this article about snowflakes is rather silly, but I’m trying to get at a larger point here. Besides, I really don’t think the author meant for this article to be taken completely seriously.

    THE LAST STRAW, the political nature of your comment makes me doubt you when you say "I love science." Or at least doubt that you have a clear understanding of what science actually is. Politics and Science are in many ways by definition, polar opposites. Politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, try to influence the public’s perception of reality in such a way that allows them to gather support. However scientists strive not to change reality, but to understand it. Anything with any spin on it, left or right, ceases to be science.

    From my point of view (which, mind you, is not one of a "leftist, pointy headed scientist," but a musician with a healthy interest in science,) scientists continue to explore the reality, without bias–as they always have done, and it is the politicians that are putting a spin on it–as they always have done.

    Before you flush, consider this: Without a scientists, you could not drive to work, a bacterial infection could prove fatal, you couldn’t have a conversation with someone who was farther than a few feet away from you and you certainly wouldn’t be able to condemn the entire field of science on this website, if it weren’t for the scientists who created and continue to develop the internet.

    Merry Christmas.

    Link to this
  17. 17. HannahXIV 7:15 pm 12/28/2009

    Before I say anything, I realize this article about snowflakes is rather silly, but I’m trying to get at a larger point here. Besides, I really don’t think the author meant for this article to be taken completely seriously.

    THE LAST STRAW, the political nature of your comment makes me doubt you when you say "I love science." Or at least doubt that you have a clear understanding of what science actually is. Politics and Science are in many ways by definition, polar opposites. Politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, try to influence the public’s perception of reality in such a way that allows them to gather support. However scientists strive not to change reality, but to understand it. Anything with any spin on it, left or right, ceases to be science.

    From my point of view (which, mind you, is not one of a "leftist, pointy headed scientist," but a musician with a healthy interest in science,) scientists continue to explore the reality, without bias–as they always have done, and it is the politicians that are putting a spin on it–as they always have done.

    Before you flush, consider this: Without a scientists, you could not drive to work, a bacterial infection could prove fatal, you couldn’t have a conversation with someone who was farther than a few feet away from you and you certainly wouldn’t be able to condemn the entire field of science on this website, if it weren’t for the scientists who created and continue to develop the internet.

    Merry Christmas.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Quinn the Eskimo 12:32 am 12/29/2009

    Donald Duck doesn’t resemble so much a water foul as much as a *CARTOON* character.

    It’s art–not science.

    Here’s the deal- SciAm: You do Science let the kids do art.

    Link to this

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