Nothing new under the sun

January 21st, 2005 § Six comments

One of the sloppier papers I wrote as an undergraduate, which ostensibly examined Isaiah Berlin’s conception of free will, contained the following passage:

Sartre’s view is like that of the man who decides to prove the old adage, “No two snowflakes are alike.” With great enthusiasm, he travels to New York during a snowy winter and stands outside in the cold, catching as many flakes as he can on specially chilled microscope slides. At the end of a day’s work, he heads into his super-cooled lab with the slides, diligently cataloging and archiving each snowflake. He repeats this process every winter for twenty years.

This week, about five and a half years later, I learned of Wilson Bentley, who spent several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries photographing New England’s snowflakes. A newspaper article from 1922 described his methods:

It is indeed a delicate task to “catch” one’s snowflake and get it in position to be photographed. Mr. Bentley has a tray consisting of a board painted black with wire handles on either end, on which he collects the flakes: this he carries carefully by the handles with mittened hands, in order to keep off all animal heat: and to keep his hands warm too, no doubt: into his cold, unheated workroom. With a splint of wood, he painstakingly picks up the snowflake and places it on the slide of his microscope, being particularly careful that it is unbroken and perfectly flat so that all parts reflect the light equally.

(Incidentally, Christie, if the title didn’t make you giggle, try thinking back to our college days and reading it out loud a couple of times.)

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