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  • Frank DiGiovanni

No two snowflakes...

Updated: Jul 21

You may have heard the name “Snowflake Bentley” before, especially as it relates to the 1999 Caldecott Medal winning (best illustrated) children’s book of the same name. But how much of the man do you actually know? And who is Ukichiro Nakaya, and how does he relate to “Snowflake” Bentley?

Wilson Alwyn "Snowflake" Bentley. Image courtesy of www.historiccamera.com

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born in the northern Vermont, in a small town called Jericho on February 9, 1865 into a family of farmers. As the biography portion of his website states: By the time of his death, 66 years later, he was known to thousands around the world as the Snowflake Man. Before that though, he and his family lived in their homestead in the valley, near the base of Bolton Mountain. There, starting at the age of 14 and throughout the cold winters, Bentley discovered his love of learning through his attendance at the one-room schoolhouse in his hometown. This passion found a focus in water in all of its forms, from clouds to liquid water, Bentley found his love, but it was especially frost and crystals that drew Bentley’s attention.


For a moment think about the year 1880, when Bentley was 15 years old. When other boys might have been playing with slingshots or toy guns, Bentley remained entrenched in his love for the delicate crystals that formed on the windows of the schoolhouse during the cold, and the incredible images he saw in the microscope his mother had given him. A schoolteacher herself, it was she who fostered Bentley’s love of learning; the encyclopedia and other books she had were all read cover to cover by the burgeoning scientist. Bentley is quoted as saying “But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most. The farm folks, up in this north country, dread the winter; but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall-which usually came in November-until the last one, which sometimes came as late as May.” On a personal note and having attended college in Plattsburgh, NY (across Lake Champlain), I can attest that snow DOES happen in May and it wasn’t terribly uncommon to see snow around graduation day (mid-May).


The next two years would see Wilson in cold corners of the farmhouse looking through his microscope, admiring the intricate patterns of ice crystals and sketching what he saw. Let’s face it, what artist can fully capture the scope that a picture can? The same was true for Wilson, who felt there was a better way to grasp the delicate and complex nature of a snowflake. He found that he could take pictures through his microscope using a bellows camera, which he and his mother convinced his father to purchase so he could attempt to capture the ephemeral and illusive. For a year after that purchase, Bentley would try, and fail dozens and dozens of times to catch his prize. Not working fast enough or a not-large-enough f-stop (how large the iris in a camera gets while taking a picture) were only two problems to contend with while trying to snap the picture he craved so much.

Selected Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley images. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

January 15, 1885 was cold and stormy when it happened. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley captured the first photomicrograph- a photograph of a microscopic object- of a snow crystal! Bentley reflected on it saying, “The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshiping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.” For the next 13 years Bentley would capture over 400 photomicrographs, would create and keep detailed meteorological records, contemplate the meaning of the shapes and sizes of the crystals he photographed and wondered why they varied from one storm (and crystal) to the next. It was throughout those 13 years that the somewhat shy Bentley kept his research to himself until a university professor, George Perkins of the University of Vermont, got word of his work and convinced him that his work was worthy of publishing in the scientific community. That first article was published in 1898 in Appleton's Popular Scientific Monthly magazine, which is still around today and known as Popular Science.


After that initial publication, there was no stopping more published research. Over the next ten years he observed, photographed, and experimented with ice crystals, raindrops, and dew. Many of his popular and technical articles focused on ice crystals and his main ideas were put forth in a number of scientific papers in the Monthly Weather Review- another still-existing peer-reviewed meteorological journal! Bentley would continue to write and publish his work in ice crystals and water droplets, revealing officially, that there were different sizes of drops. He would go on to write articles for such magazines as Country Life, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and The New York Times Magazine. He would continue his work, becoming the first researcher awarded a research grant by the American Meteorological Society in 1926 for ". . .40 years of extremely patient work."


Years later Dr. William J. Humphreys, chief physicist for the United States Weather Bureau, responded to requests from across the country to preserve the best of the Bentley’s photomicrographs and in November of 1931 the book, "Snow Crystals," was published. It had a short introduction by Humphreys, but the majority of the book was a splendid collection of approximately 2,500 photomicrographs! Surprisingly no two snowflakes were alike, leading to the understanding that no two snowflakes are exactly the same. Most of the pictures were of various forms of the ice crystal and about 100 were of frost and dew. Sadly, Bentley wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fruits of this labor and the book of his images. On December 23rd of 1931, at his farm, Wilson A. Bentley succumbed to pneumonia.

A more in-depth biography can be found at the website, here: The Snowflake Man

However impressive Bentley’s work is and remains, he is not the only one associated with studying snow and snowflakes, Dr. Ukichiro Nakaya (Oo-KEE-chee-row Na-KAI-uh) of Japan is less well known in the west but no less important in the field of low-temperature sciences and glaciology. Dr. Nakaya was born on the 4th of July in 1900, near the Katayamazu hot springs in Kaga (Japan) which is located on the Sea of Japan.


In his childhood, his father’s aspirations for Ukichiro were for him to become a potter, or pottery-maker; even sending him to live with one when Ukichiro was in primary school. In a library near the hot springs of Katayamazu, Ukichiro found an encyclopedic work from 1837 that contained sketches of over 180 snowflake crystals, which would became his life’s work. However, it would in his years in high school that Dr. Nakaya would develop an interest in physics and, incredibly, at the age of 24 Dr. Nakaya had his first scientific paper published in the proceedings of the Physics Department of Tokyo Imperial University (now The University of Tokyo), was devoted to Japanese Kutani porcelain, not snowflakes.


Dr. Ukichiro Nakaya. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During his time at Tokyo Imperial University, Dr. Nakaya studied experimental physics and graduated in 1925 with his Master of Science degree. In 1928 and 1929, he continued his graduate studies at King's College London where he worked with long-wavelength X-rays and in 1930, he became an assistant professor at Hokkaido University; he would be associated with Hokkaido University the rest of his life. Later in 1930 he received his Doctor of Science degree from Kyoto Imperial University (now Kyoto University). After his arrival at Hokkaido University, he found the physics department had a lack of equipment and few research funds. But there was an unlimited supply of natural snow, so Nakaya turned his research towards snow crystals.


In 1931 a book titled “Snow Crystals” written by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, inspired Dr. Nakaya and he began to research snowflakes. During his research he deduced what we all now know, snowflakes are hexagonal crystals. In his initial research he found that “regular” hexagons were more infrequent than “irregular” hexagons. Through his research and using Bentley’s work as a reference, Dr. Nakaya sorted through over 3,000 photomicrographs he created and established a classification system for natural snowflakes (this will be important later on). Furthering his research, he founded the Low Temperature Science Laboratory in 1935 with the goal to create the first artificial snow crystals, which he succeeded in doing in 1936. With his work on natural snowflakes, he created what is now known as The Snow Crystal Morphology Diagram or “Nakaya Diagram”. This helps us know what shape of snowflakes are falling as it relates to the storm the flakes are falling from.

Nakaya Diagram , courtesy of Snowcrystals.com

Not only does the Nakaya diagram give us a clear diagram of the shapes of naturally falling snow, but Dr. Nakaya was able to infer the meteorological conditions that gave rise to the particular shape of flake.


The website www.famousscientists.org states “He (Dr. Nakaya) discovered that plate like crystals grow when the temperature is just below freezing point at low humidity. A few degrees colder and slender columns and needles are formed. Colder still, and with increasing humidity the edges and corners grow the fastest and cavities are formed, making more interesting designs. Increasing the humidity further creates snow crystals with broad points, these points then narrow as humidity rises still further and at the highest humidity beautiful dendritic crystals (tree like) are formed.” His work on snow crystals earned him the Japan Academy Prize in 1940 but sadly not all his work would survive the second world war. It wouldn’t be until 1954 when his book “Snow Crystals” would finally be published; unfortunately, much of his work was destroyed in the bombings during the war. Even with the loss of so much research, his work is still a reference for classifying snow crystals based on their shapes. Dr. Nakaya would continue his research until his passing in April of 1962 at the age of 61, from a bone infection.


More information on Dr. Ukichiro Nakaya can be found at Cambridge Core and the mentioned website above.

Both Dr. Ukichiro Nakaya and Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley have been honored for their contributions to science. In 1960 a group of Antarctic islands were named in his honor, the “Nakaya Islands”. Bentley is memorialized at at Johnson State College (now Northern Vermont University) with the naming of Bentley Hall,a Science building.

Next time it snows, lend a moment and think about these two men and the work they did so you can know, with certainty, that no two snowflakes are alike.

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