Why Are Snowflakes Symmetrical?

By Justin Gardner | Related entries in Science

A little holiday science…

Snowflakes are symmetrical because they reflect the internal order of the water molecules as they arrange themselves in the solid state (the process of crystallization). Water molecules in the solid state, such as in ice and snow, form weak bonds (called hydrogen bonds) to one another. These ordered arrangements result in the basic symmetrical, hexagonal shape of the snowflake. In reality, there are many different types of snowflakes (as in the cliché that ‘no two snowflakes are alike’); this differentiation occurs because each snowflake is a separate crystal that is subject to the specific atmospheric conditions, notably temperature and humidity, under which it is formed.

But…but…how do the different arms of the snowflake become exactly like the others?

The growth of snowflakes (or of any substance changing from a liquid to a solid state) is known as crystallization. During this process, the molecules (in this case, water molecules) align themselves to maximize attractive forces and minimize repulsive ones. As a result, the water molecules arrange themselves in predetermined spaces and in a specific arrangement. This process is much like tiling a floor in accordance with a specific pattern: once the pattern is chosen and the first tiles are placed, then all the other tiles must go in predetermined spaces in order to maintain the pattern of symmetry. Water molecules simply arrange themselves to fit the spaces and maintain symmetry; in this way, the different arms of the snowflake are formed.

Well, I feel smarter. How about you?


This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 26th, 2006 and is filed under Science. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Why Are Snowflakes Symmetrical?”

  1. Brian Lee Says:

    I think snowflakes are perfectionist show-offs, and should all be sent to the old Siberian gulafs where they belong. :)

  2. Brian Lee Says:

    Ther’s that damned f and g typo again… oi…

  3. john Says:

    That’s the wonders of nature. So beautiful.

  4. john Says:

    For those of you who are more curious and want to learn more about the formation of snow flake, I have found this very informative article with diagrams for illustration.

    http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/faqs/faqs.htm

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