October 22, 2012

Snowflakes in Sight

Yesterday I spied a snowflake book on a bargain shelf of books; the book looked like something right up my alley, so I bought it. Book purchase decisions don't usually take me long -- and often end in my spending money!

CalTech physicist Kenneth Libbrecht writes with excited enthusiasm about many things concerning snowflakes in The Snowflake: Winter's Secret Beauty; his words are accompanied by Patricia Rasmussen's gorgeous photographs of crystal creation.

I picked the book up just now and read about about Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, who was the first to grow synthetic snowflakes in his refrigerated lab at the University of Hokkaido back in the 1930s. This is not as easy as it may sound. Snowflakes are not simply frozen water. They do not form unless temperature, pressure, and humidity fall within a narrow range. Snowflakes are an example of truly sublime work -- sublime in the scientific sense. A snowflake was never liquid water: it froze as ice directly from water vapor, skipping the liquid phase completely. Nakaya's major contribution to the field of ice crystal formation was discovering what the relationship was between weather conditions and what the snowflake looked like.

Between -5 and 0 degrees Celsius (~18-32 degrees Fahrenheit) the snow looks like small plates. From -10 to -5, it forms hexagonal columns. From -20 to -10, the snowflakes become large, fat, plate-like flakes; and colder than that (down to -35 degrees Celsius) it goes back to small forms.

No two snowflakes have been found that are exactly the same, and here is why: a snowflake forms when water vapor in a cloud meets the right conditions to be sublime. As the water molecules form their traditional crystal shape, that crystal gets moved by wind and pressure to different parts of the cloud, changing how the crystal grows as it is being formed. The conditions for one snowflake are the same, so each of the six branches of its developing crystal match -- in every minute detail and etching. Each arm of the snowflake went through the same process. No two snowflakes were in exactly the same place at the same time for the same duration on the same path, though, so each snowflake is a representation of its path. Higher levels of humidity (presence of more water vapor) result in more and more complicated snowflake shapes in larger and larger sizes.

It wasn't even 8 in the morning, and there was God and his character, emblazoned in front of me. Do you see  him, too?

It takes specific environments and conditions to grow faith, to nurture a vibrant relationship with God. If I am too comfortable, it won't happen. I am thankful that when the conditions are too harsh, it won't happen, either! God does set limits on what we endure in order to see him. I've read that faith isn't belief without understanding, but trust without reservation. It sometimes skips over what seems like a logical next step: we somehow get from vapor to solid ice without ever seeing water. As circumstances get harder, the growth of our faith becomes more complicated, more amazing, more beautiful. No two lives are exactly alike, and neither are any two relationships with God. We never travel exactly the same path as someone else, so our development is never the same. This does not lessen beauty. If you're a 12-sided snowflake and I'm a 6-sided snowflake, that's fine: hexagonal shapes can still be breathtaking.

The truth that nearly left me gasping this morning was what it is that makes a snowflake reach its most complex form: increasing levels of humidity. The presence of more water vapor. Faith can develop almost anywhere, but it is only when lived in the community of others that the unique life surpasses beautiful and leaves people speechless. Snowflakes don't form and grow in solitude, and neither do we.

Take courage and comfort. Though our lives are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away (James 4:14), we matter. There is still time and care taken that the snowflake of my life will exhibit beauty and be a potential source of wonder to those around me.

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