I’m sure a few things come to mind when you think snowflakes. You probably remember watching the first few fall at the beginning of winter, trying to catch one on your tongue, or maybe even that no two of them are alike. Snowflakes are pretty fun, kinda interesting, and something to smile about. But, at the end of the day, they are just another part of life. I mean, what are you going to do, obsess about a snowflake? Hah! That’s crazy right? Well not according to Nathan Myhrvold. Nathan has a PhD in mathematics and physics from Princeton University, and he has served as the Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft for 14 years — quite an impressive resume, in my opinion. Recently, though, he has diverted his attention toward photographing snowflakes at a microscopic level. In order to do it, he needed two years of research, a lot of help, and an incredibly complex camera.
Photographing snowflakes isn’t anything new. In fact, one of the first snowflake photographers, Wilson Bentley, began shooting his photos in the 1880s. He is regarded as a pioneer in the field and his photos are still studied today. But we have come a long way since then, and photos of snowflakes are more clear than ever. All this development wasn’t enough for Nathan though. He wanted to create a camera that could shoot photographs at a level that showed every single detail. He began by combining a camera with a microscope, so that he could see past the outer layer of snowflakes. He then began tackling the biggest problem when photographing snowflakes: stopping them from melting. To do this, he outfitted his camera with a cooling system, and replaced the light bulbs with LED lights, which give off less heat than standard lighting, and make the flash faster to allow for more pictures. But even with his camera in place, he ran into another snag: the snow wasn’t right! On the West Coast, the snow wasn’t cold enough, and on the East Coast, the snow was too wet, so Nathan turned towards the north to begin the next stage of his project.
He settled on Timmins, Canada, a small town in northeastern Ontario. The snow in Timmins was usually between negative 15 and negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit, a perfect temperature for photography. There, Nathan set up his camera and began to catch snowflakes, a more difficult process than you might think. To begin with, not all snowflakes are perfect. In fact, a majority of snowflakes tear before they hit the ground. The next problem is that a lot of snowflakes stick together, and connected snowflakes don’t make for very good pictures. Nathan estimates that only 1 out of every 1,000 snowflakes is worthy to be photographed. Once he finds a snowflake that can be photographed, he makes sure to take at least 100 pictures of each one. He then uses computer software to compile all the photos together into one complete picture. It is these pictures that he then, finally, publishes. Several of his pictures have been published in various magazines and photography galleries as art, but scientists think they have a deeper meaning. They are currently trying to discover a practical scientific application for his snowflake photographs or for his incredible camera. In a few years, given some more development, his project might produce a major scientific breakthrough. But until then, we can all marvel at the beauty of his snowflakes.