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The Mind-Blowing Mathematics of Snowflakes


Whether printed on wrapping paper, made into ornaments, or sewn into festive socks, the shape of a snowflake is one of the most identifiable shapes you’ve ever seen.

Alexey Kljatov, CC license

But why is the form so unanimous, when it is often said that no two are alike? Today, GNN breaks down some lighthearted math and festive physics to get the cool facts on the famous six-pointed snowflake.

Many people think that snow crystals, as they should be called, are just frozen drops of water. These would be sleet, and snow crystals actually form in a completely different way and change as they fall from the sky.

Also, all three forms of water, liquid, vapor, and ice, must be present in a cloud for snow to fall.

At the heart of everything related to chemistry, there is first a discussion about charges, in this case a positive and a negative charge. Two hydrogen atoms bond to one side of an oxygen atom, which gives that part a positive charge, while the other side that does not have the hydrogen atoms is negatively charged.

The negative side attracts a completely separate water molecule, which eventually grows, in a liquid state, to form a four-sided pyramid of six water molecules.

Wilson bentley

At this stage in the snow crystal formation process, it is quite possible for two to look the same, and there is no real law of nature that prevents two crystals from looking the same (in the winter of 1988, a scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Nancy Knight, took a plane into the clouds over Wisconsin and actually found two identical snow crystals).

From piece of snow to piece of display

However, it is after this stage, when it turns to ice, that a snow crystal will change into a hexagonal (six-sided) formation and the immediately identifiable and beautifully symmetrical shape comes to life.

Marc newberry

University of Manitoba researcher and mathematician Ranganathan Padmanabhan explains to your university press why a snow crystal is always represented with six sides and six branches.

“Nature is the mother of all symmetries,” he begins. “In fact, symmetry turns out to be a central organizing principle in nature’s design,” pointing to the honeycomb before explaining that at the molecular level, a hexagon allows for the tightest packing of things in space, meaning that nature is a thrifty type.

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As the snow crystal falls through the clouds and sky, it accumulates water, liquid, vapor and solid, which when exposed to different levels of humidity and temperature, begins to accumulate as it rotates downwards in a theoretical variation. endless of trajectories and conditions, eventually forming the branches or arms of the snow crystal that essentially forbid identity between the fallen flakes.

An interview with meteorologist David Epstein, published in the Boston Globe, explains how snow crystals can form pillars, needles, diamonds, and triangles in different weather conditions, but the hexagonal formations we all recognize have a very simplified process.

Ranganathan Padmanabhan noted with good taste that “as Galileo once mentioned, mathematics is God’s chosen language to express these basic facts of science,” adding that “group theory,” an important way of designing descriptions, is used. developed to explain symmetry in physics. , mathematics and biology.

PLUS: The mind-blowing math of sunflowers … From Scientific American on its 175th anniversary

As they tumble through polar latitudes and higher altitudes, the beautiful snow crystals that cover forests and houses in snow globe glory have another beautiful side: beautiful symmetry, uniqueness, and math.

SPREAD the knowledge and share this brilliant story with friends …





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