Snowflake Man


(This column was first published in the December 16, 2002 issue of The Buffalo News.)


The central figure in the Buffalo Museum of Science's current "Winter Wonders" exhibit is Vermont farmer Wilson A. Bentley, who lived from 1865 to 1931. It is not unreasonable to call him the hero of the show and I find that quite refreshing. In fact, I believe that his unique life and his special role here says something very positive about us as a civilization, an uncommon treat in today's cynical and threatened world.


What I find so attractive about Bentley derives from his role as a simple country farmer with a strange hobby, a hobby that characterized him to his neighbors and even to some family members as -- to use today's vernacular -- some kind of nut.


His was an avocation unlike any other, but one that would gain him a small but quite special niche in meteorology in particular and natural history in general. It isn't often that a country farmer would have a museum dedicated to him and to have books written about him and his hobby.


What Bentley has given us is the snowflake.


No, he didn't create them. He wasn't a god-like figure who first invented snow and thereby beset us with winter drifts. Quite the contrary, he gave us the opposite focus. He picked out of those billions of flakes that fall in snowstorms the individual snow crystal. It took him two years of experimentation to find a way to capture that snowflake on a blackboard and photograph it with a special camera-microscope combination. The resulting glass plate shows us the beautiful six-faceted symmetry of that single crystal.


And he went on to photograph thousands of snowflakes in this way, in the process establishing their remarkable uniqueness.


Today that may not seem like much of an accomplishment. We've all seen pictures of snowflakes and most of us even folded paper and cut out models of them in elementary school. But remember, Bentley was first. Making little of his contribution is like belittling Shakespeare because he wrote phrases like "smooth talk" and "fancy free" that have lost their original freshness through overuse.


I stress again that Bentley was a working farmer. A photograph of him as a young man shows his big, rough workman's hands, hardly the hands you would expect could manipulate delicate snowflakes. And he only attended school for a year or two, his mother tutoring him at home. Despite this he wrote over a hundred articles about his work, many of them appearing in technical journals, and he co-authored a book, "Snow Crystals", that is still widely sold. The quality of his work on precipitation even earned him, according to one meteorologist, the title of America's First Cloud Physicist.


His writing is of excellent quality: "Under the microscope I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."


But it retained his down-to-earth character. You can see this, for example, in this partial list of accessories needed for photographing snowflakes: "an observation microscope, a pair of thick mittens, microscope slides, a sharp-pointed wooden splint, a feather, and a turkey wing or similar duster...."


His camera and several books by and about Bentley are on display at the museum, including Jacqueline Briggs Martin's 1999 Caldecott Award-winning children's book, "Snowflake Bentley".


The "Winter Wonders" exhibit will continue until February 23. Don't miss it.-- Gerry Rising