The first thing to meet our eyes [on a Himalayan expedition in 1902] was what, suppose we had landed in the country of Brobdignag, only more, so, might have been the lace handkerchief of a Super-Glumdalclitch left out to dry. It was a glittering veil of brilliance of the hillside; but closer inspection, instead of destroying the illusion, made one exclaim with increased enthusiasm.
The curtain had been formed by crystalline deposits from a hot spring (38.3° centigrade). The incrustation is exquisitely white and exquisitely geometrical in every detail. The burden of the cynicism of my six and twenty years fell from me like a dream. I trod the shining slopes; they rustled under my feet rather as snow does in certain conditions. (The sound is strangely exhilarating.) It is a voluptuous flattery like the murmurous applause of a refined multitude, with the instinctive ecstatic reverence of a man conscious of his unworthiness entering paradise. At the top of the curtain is the basin from which it proceeds, the largest of several similar formations. It is some thirty-one feet in diameter, an almost perfect circle. The depth in the middle is little over two feet. It is a bath for Venus herself.
I had to summon my consciousness of godhead before venturing to invade it. The water steams delicately with sulphurous emanations, yet the odour is subtly delicious. Knowles, the doctor and I spent more than an hour and a half reposing in its velvet warmth, in the intoxicating dry mountain air, caressed by the splendour of the sun. I experienced all the ecstasy of the pilgrim who has come to the end of his hardships. I felt as if I had been washed clean of all the fatigues of the journey. In point of fact, I had arrived, despite myself, at perfect physical condition. I had realized from the first that the proper preparation for a journey of this sort is to get as fat as possible before starting, and stay as fat as possible as long as possible. I was now in the condition in which Pfannl had been at Srinagar. I could have gone forty-eight hours without turning a hair. — The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography (1929)
Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes, Kenneth Libbrecht (2006)
If you ask someone to draw up a list of inventions that have shaped the modern world, it’s likely that a very important one will get overlooked: the microscope. But where would medicine, science and technology be without it? It opened a door in the cellar of the universe just as the telescope opened a door in the attic. We stepped through each door into a new world of beauty and strangeness. The difference is that, so far, only one of these new worlds has proved to be inhabited: the microscopic one. But snowflakes remind you that the microcosmos can interest physicists and mathematicians as well as biologists and doctors. It should interest artists and aestheticians too: this book will delight the eye as well as challenge and enrich the mind. Snowflakes are among the most beautiful of all natural objects, reminiscent now of ice-stars, now of crystalline trees, now of stained glass, now of surreal swords. Their symmetry is part of their appeal, but I think it’s also important that their symmetry is never complete: snowflakes partake both of mathematical perfection and of biological imperfection. They’re individual not just because no two are identical but because no two arms of a single snowflake are identical either.
But any two arms can still be very similar, which is an astonishing fact when you consider that they’re laid down blindly by a purely chemico-physical process. How does one arm know what the others are doing? Well, it doesn’t: it’s subject to the same fluctuations of the same environment. As air-currents move a snow-crystal inside a cloud, the temperature and moisture of the air change constantly and so do the crystal’s patterns of growth: “…since no two snowflakes follow exactly the same path, no two are exactly alike.” But snowflakes can be much more unalike than the uninitiated might guess. Some aren’t actually stars, but bullets, needles, columns and “arrowhead twins”. There are also snowflakes with twelve rather than six arms, and snowflakes large enough to have arms on their arms on their arms on their arms. Kenneth Libbrecht, a professor of physics at Caltech, examines all this and more in a book that should appeal to every age, every level of intelligence, and every level of interest in science. You don’t have to read the text that accompanies the beautiful photographs, but if you do you’ll find your appreciation of the photos deepened and enriched.
Either way, spare a thought for the book’s co-author: the humble but hugely powerful microscope. Unlike bacteria and protozoa, snowflakes were known and admired long before the microscope was invented, but they were never known then in their full beauty and wonder. And you don’t have to confine yourself to books like this to experience that for yourself: Libbrecht has a section on “Observing Snowflakes” that demonstrates once again how some of the best things in life are free, or nearly free. For the price of a simple hand-lens you can find new beauty in winter; with a microscope, you can find even more.