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Beauty,Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
On Serendip

Two Perspectives of Snow


Kara Rosania

I was sitting in chemistry class anxiously one afternoon a few weeks ago. I had heard that there was a large snowstorm coming. Considering I hadn't seen snow fall in eight years, I was full of anticipation. At one point I looked outside to see tiny white fuzz-looking things floating around. Unaccustomed to the sight, I first thought maybe a tree was spreading its seeds by means of the wind. As the feather-like particles continued to float on the air, I began to realize that I was looking at snow flurries. Most of the crystals had stuck to the ground, and were beginning to blend together into a clean, white blanket on the ground.

I tried to keep my focus on the class, but couldn't help but stare open-mouthed out the window. It was just so beautiful. Little white specks that just appeared from the sky wafted gently towards the earth as I sat and watched. They moved slowly at first, and then faster and thicker. They started out small and then grew larger as the time passed, and then were small again. It all seemed so random and sudden, like a miracle.

It also struck me as strange how such tiny, fragile things were now building on top of one another at a rather rapid pace to completely coat the lawn with a substantial layer of white. It seemed impossible that there could have been so many of them, and yet I knew that many more had melted when they touched down upon the surface.

As I walked through the stuff later that afternoon, I considered how unusual a consistency it had. It both supported my weight and collapsed under it, and made a satisfying crunching noise under my feet. When the sun peaked through the clouds, the landscape sparkled with the light. A few flakes landed on my face, refreshingly cold as they melted slowly from the heat of my skin.

Falling snow is one of the most beautiful sights that one can behold. In addition, however, the snow has a more personal connection for me that goes beyond the aesthetic beauty.

When I was ten years old, I moved from New Jersey, where I had lived all of my life, to Northern California. The transition was a difficult one for many reasons, but the most noticeable change in my living situation was the new climate in which I found myself. It never snows where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the temperature rarely drops below 40 degrees. As a child on the East Coast, I loved the snow. I had fond memories of sledding down the hill in my backyard, having snowball fights with the kids in my neighborhood, making snowmen and snow-angels... I can go on and on. So when I moved, a significant part of my childhood experience was lost. I longed for it for the remainder of my childhood, spent in sunny California.

My warm memories of chilly East Coast winters stayed with me until it came time to decide where I would go to college. As I struggled to choose between big schools and small schools, urban school and rural schools, one thing was clear in my mind: I was going to college on the East Coast, where I could reclaim the experience of snowy winters.

All of this largely affects my fondness for the experience of snowfall. However, the beauty of the self-contained experience alone was not enough to satisfy me, as it had been when I was a child. My age and personality having much changed since then, I find that I am now much more curious about how the world works and why things happen the way they do. I now see the world through the eyes of a scientist. From this perspective, I see beauty in things that intrigue and engage me, that cause me to ask questions about their existence.

This is true of the snowfall. In fact, I probably would not have found the experience nearly as beautiful if it was self-explanatory. It is because it is such an unexpected and mysterious occurrence that it is so beautiful. The role of the aesthetic and nostalgic beauty is to make me wonder and care enough about the experience to want to understand it more. It is only the understanding that can allow me to fully appreciate the experience.

According to www.weatherquestions.com, a snowstorm occurs when there is a low-pressure zone between a warm air mass and a cold air mass. The warm air mass flows over the low-pressure zone, and the water vapor in the warm air condenses. This is because the air of lower pressure also has a lower temperature, since temperature and pressure are proportional to each other. The cold air freezes the water vapor and causes it to undergo a phase change from a gas to a liquid, and then to a solid. The water freezes and forms ice particles, which collect as the upward flowing air holds them up. After a while, the ice particles become too heavy for the updrafts to support them, and so they fall. The likelihood of snow depends on the amount of water vapor in the air mass, and the strength of the updrafts that condense it into snow.

On the molecular level, water molecules freeze together into a rigid structure, which continues to grow as it collects more water vapor. Snowflakes can be of all different shapes and sizes, depending on the environment in which it is formed and falls. According to www.chemistry.about.com, the weight of these structures, as well as the stability, depends on whether dirt or dust particles are mixed together with the water. Dirt particles can make the flakes heavier, and also cause cracks in the crystal structure so that it breaks apart more easily. This is why some snow melts quickly when it reaches the ground.

Snowflakes typically have a hexagonal structure. This is a reflection of the molecular structure, which consists of many water molecules bonded together through hydrogen bonds. These molecules bond in such a way that six of them form a ring with a hexagonal shape, and then that ring connects to six other rings like it at each corner of the hexagon. The network that is created, the snowflake, thus has a hexagonal structure as well. The specific shape of a snowflake depends largely on the temperature at which it was formed. The colder the weather is, the sharper, more intricate the shape of the snowflake. The shapes correspond to temperatures as follows:

32-25 F - Thin hexagonal plates
25-21 F - Needles
21-14 F - Hollow columns
14-10 F - Sector plates (hexagons with indentations)
10-3 F - Dendrites (lacy hexagonal shapes)
(http://chemistry.about.com/library/weekly/aa121001a.htm)

One of the most interesting questions about snow, at least in my mind, is why it appears to be white when ice and water are clear. I discovered the answer to this question at the same site. The structure of the snowflake is so complex and intricate that it has many surfaces off of which to reflect light. These surfaces scatter the light into all of its colors, and so the eye perceives it as white. The structure of ice, on the other hand, has a much more rigid and orderly structure, which is why it appears to be transparent.
Another snowfall just occurred a few nights ago. This time I was able to look at it through educated eyes. Amazingly, knowing in detail what was happening made it an entirely different experience, and even a more beautiful one. There was now added complexity to what I was looking at. Instead of seeing little white specks in the sky, I now looked closely and imagined I could see the intricate crystal structure of a flake. I watched to see whether or not a given flake would melt when it reached the ground, and wondered whether that indicated its contamination.
Science adds beauty to the world by giving us a means to look closer at things and develop an enhanced understanding of what we observe. We notice more, and in noticing, are better able to connect with a given experience. We exchange our childlike awe of the mysterious for a deep appreciation of nature's known processes.


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