You know, as a scientist, you want to figure something out.
January 26, 2022 12:21 AM   Subscribe

The Snowflake Mystery - "I've done a lot of my career in astronomy and astrophysics. Nobody ever asks you what it's good for, I mean, never. Not even once did anyone say, 'What are those black holes gonna be used for?' No, 'Saturn's rings, why do you care about Saturn's rings? What's the motivation for studying Saturn?' nobody asks that. Every time I give a talk, people are like, 'What are you doing? What on earth is this for?' I'll tell you the real reason, the real reason that I got into this. You look at a snowflake and you kind of go, 'Um, actually, (laughs) we don't have any idea how that works.' Well, that doesn't work. We have to know how that works, dammit!"

also btw...
  • The Thermodynamics of Collapse - "What can the laws of physics teach us about our economy and civilisation? How can snowflakes model economic decline?"[1]
  • How old is the Earth? - "How one man's relentless pursuit of a deep truth about the Earth led to an obsession that really changed the very air we breathe."[2]
posted by kliuless (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The pull quote is a hot mess seems to contradict itself. No one ever asks the speaker what their work is good for, except for every time they give a talk?
posted by eviemath at 4:00 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

Nobody ever asked me what my work was good for when it was in astro. Now that I do snowflakes, they do all the time.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:16 AM on January 26 [10 favorites]

I didn't expect to learn so much about snow while eating my lunch, but there you go. Super cool, thanks for sharing! I could watch the window into his glittery snow machine all day--it needs its own stream.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:42 AM on January 26

I loved this video, watching it twice when it came out. Living in snowy wisconsin, it is fascinating to see the why of different snowflakes- I’d casually noticed the different sizes and shapes of snow and knew it varied with weather, but seeing the specifics so well defined… and with the knobs to tweak the snowflakes to exactly the results we want is really REALLY cool.

I also loved this video, because it comes at a time that reminds me this is what makes humans great; our curiosity. I had what I will call the Very Bad Therapist who once chastised me for my propensity to ask “why” in the world. Not the ruminating “why” of depression, but why a system works like it does and how things work, as though those questions were a waste of time. He spoke from a position of authority, which was unsettling. This video in particular reminded me not only was the why questions are okay, but that it’s fundamental to what makes humans, well, human.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:57 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]

The pull quote....seems to contradict itself

I suppose they were employing sarcasm, which is original and refreshing.
posted by thelonius at 6:06 AM on January 26

In my experience (as an ex-astrophysicist) people don't tend to ask those questions of astronomers because it's one of the Holy Trinity Of Big Exciting Sciences That Get Kids Interested In Science*. There's an understanding that we shouldn't nitpick about immediate usefulness, if only because of the benefits that come about soley from the inspiration factor.

Snowflakes, however, seem to be fair game, which is a real shame!

* Dinosaurs, Space, Volcanoes
posted by dashdotdot dash at 6:42 AM on January 26 [8 favorites]

Watching this video put me in a lovely mood this morning, thank you for this.
posted by charismatic megafauna at 7:18 AM on January 26

In my time working with astronomy, I feel like I've gotten the question more than a couple of times, and I haven't really worked with astronomy for a decade now.

(Though perhaps it's a bit different, in that it tended not to "why study this at all" but more "why is this worth spending money on?")
posted by Four Ds at 8:22 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Well, Space and Volcanoes can kill us all, just like what happened to the Dinosaurs. I guess if I want to study snowflakes (and get funded, and can't declare them to be useful tools) I need to portray them as exciting monsters or cute victims. Dinosaurs can be both. Snowflakes as Victims of climate change maybe?

Just to be clear, and to get back on track, I think that studying something for its own sake (its truth and beauty) is also valid. For one thing, the possibility of truth and beauty motivates the very building of tools that can protect us from space and climate (mostly from ourselves, see also poverty and war.) Figuring out truth and beauty, via creativity---that's one of the good reasons to stay alive!
posted by TreeRooster at 11:31 AM on January 26

My son asked me how big the biggest snowflake was and the answer that I got searching online, 38cm wide and 20cm thick, is preposterous. I fully support snowflake research so that we can get a real answer to this question.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:44 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

The Radiolab "How Old is the Earth" episode was interesting and frustrating. The confusion of permafrost for glaciers was annoying, and got more annoying each time it was repeated. And it was striking that after all the talk of environmental lead and its consequences that they didn't mention the astonishing correlation between the reduction of lead in the environment and the reduction of violent crime.

But anyway, I'm old enough to remember when lead just wasn't a thing people worried about. I've used lead fishing line sinkers and used lead slugs to weight model cars. I don't remember ever being warned to wash my hands after handling it, which I did on no few occasions. I remember how the lead had come off on my fingers as a waxy gray stain.

It's easy to forget in these trying times that things sometimes do get better. Clair Cameron Patterson is a hero, though he would never have admitted it.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:23 PM on January 26

I can't believe I'm posting a link to my Agency's usually boring magazine, but there certainly is a reason to study snowflakes. I once heard one of these scientists give a talk about snowflake type, packing density in mountain snowpacks and influence on subsequent spring stream levels, and it was one of the best talks I ever heard. He gave out those glasses and we saw the snowflakes in 3-D!!!!
posted by acrasis at 5:02 PM on January 26

Nobody ever asked me what my work was good for when it was in astro. Now that I do snowflakes, they do all the time.

Ah, that is much more clear, thanks.
posted by eviemath at 6:38 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Now I want to do work on other polar small molecule snowflakes! H2S etc sound a bit unpleasant, but CO2 or dimethylformamide might be an option...
posted by memetoclast at 3:53 AM on January 27

Analyzing ice cores was a brilliant insight and it started a rush of similar investigations. I suspect it’d be hard to find a molecule or atomic isotope that hasn’t been thoroughly studied by now.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:35 PM on January 27

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