Random Snowflakes: Lies, Solar Power, Slashers and Distractions


"Snowflake. You catch the snowflake but when you look in your hand you don't have it no more. Maybe you see this dechado. But before you see it it is gone. If you want to see it you have to see it on its own ground. If you catch it you lose it. And whe

Well, that was the last Christmas of the decade and I think most of my fellow employees are either still on holiday vacation or frozen "The Shining" style in a bank of snow. We all knew Chuck's propensity for hedge mazes would end badly.

All the same, even a Christmas that ends in arctic death or frigid madness is at least a white Christmas, just as the holiday standard demands. Some of you are probably quite sick of shoveling and driving through the stuff. Others were passed over as usual or maybe just glimpsed a few teasing flakes adrift in the night. Well here are a few more snowflake teases for you.

Snowflake Solar Cells: According to GreenMuze, scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have developed snowflake-sized crystalline-silicon photovoltaic cells. These tiny little solar cells could eventually wind up woven into such items as coats, tents and the bodies of satellites. Yes, hipsters, even your ironic Christmas sweater could soon generate enough power to charge your iPhone.

Snowflake Deception: In another fresh, snowflake-related news story, YOUR CHRISTMAS CARDS ARE LYING TO YOU. No, your Aunt Glenda still loves you, but that five or eight-sided snowflake is, to quote NPR's Jon Hamilton, "a scientific abomination." German Chemist Thomas Koop points out that, given the complex (and varied) nature of ice crystal formation, pentagonal or octagonal ice crystals shouldn't and don't exist in nature. Just on holiday cards.

Let's Get Flurious: If you love Flash-based interactive eye candy, then you're going to love this website. And if you love dollar bills going to United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), all the better, because that's what happens (at no cost to you) every time you create your own snowflake design and e-mail it to someone you know as a holiday greeting. Experience it for yourself here and learn all about UNICEF here. And please, by all means, try not to create a scientific abomination.

Snowflakes and Jack the Ripper: While I can take credit for playing the voice of the Cockney slasher in Josh and Chuck's SYSK podcast on the topic, I've never been a real nutter of a Ripper enthusiast. Sure, I've read a little about the Whitechapel murders here and there, and "From Hell" may be the finest graphic novel I've ever picked up, but I don't obsess about it. Where do the snowflakes come in? Well, in the epilogue to "From Hell," Alan Moore evokes the Koch Snowflake to illustrate his point about "Ripperologists."

This fractal was first described by Helge von Koch in 1904. You start with an equilateral triangle, then you remove the inner third of each side, building another equilateral triangle at the location where the side was removed (seriously, look at the illustration). Then you repeat the process indefinitely. The snowflake doesn't grow in size, but it grows in complexity. Moore's point was that, as with this wintery fractal, there are only so many facts about the ripper case and, while ripperologists craft intricate theory after theory, our actual knowledge of the incident will never expand beyond what is currently known.

Snowflake Novels: The Koch snowflake also applies to creative endeavors, such as novel-writing. Even if two books have, at heart, the same theme or storyline, any number of details and additions can distinguish one from the other by degree to the point where they're very different works. Take George R. R. Martin's "Fire and Ice" books for instance (very wintery!) and R. Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" saga. Both are dark fantasies set in worlds where ancient evils to the north gather power while southern kingdoms squabble and war against each other. You could say both authors start with the same triangle, but their additions to its design render very different finished snowflakes. As such, it should come as no surprise that there's actually a snowflake novel-writing method, which you can read about here.

So there you have it! Snowflakes. White Christmas.

As for me and my wife, the holiday turned out a good deal whiter than we'd expected. Our holiday drive up to Tennessee was full of desolate winter beauty, grey skies and rolling hills covered in naked trees. Then the clouds spent themselves on a Christmas Day flurry of snow, and the sun came out once more. I suppose that's the whole seasonal celebration in a nutshell. We laughed and reminisced with family, walked through the woods, ate well and watched the fire burn in the hearth.

However you've chosen to spend them, I sincerely wish you all happy holiday -- especially if you actually read this entire post.

Thanks to my lovely wife for telling me about Flurious, which prompted this post!


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.