Photography and Snowflakes

It is generally believed that no snowflake is the same because of one man and his obsession with looking at snow crystals: Wilson Bentley. Over the course of his life, Bentley photographed over 5000 snowflakes which were collected from around his home in Vermont over his lifetime (1865-1931). This impressive collection sparked curiosity among the scientific community into how snowflakes form and cemented Bentley’s place as the most dedicated observer of snow in history. I came across Bentley’s work whilst reading a book about snow, and his photographs and story have captivated me.

A snowflake will have one of a specific number of structures – such as dinner plates, branch networks, columns and ‘flower’ patterns – but with different detailing that makes it unique to any other. Up close, these internal symmetries and dendrites appear intricate and beautiful and is what captured the attention of Wilson Bentley as a fifteen year old boy when he first put a snowflake under a microscope.

Wilson Bentley's pictures of a series of plate snowflakes, circa 1902. Source: The Guardian

‘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’. A series of plate snowflakes captured by Wilson Bentley. Source: The Guardian

Wilson Bentley lived all of his life in Mill Brook Valley, a small place in Vermont (New Hampshire, USA) which lies adjacent to the Green Mountains of Vermont and commonly receives high snowfall in the year. On receiving a microscope as a birthday present from his parents, Bentley became obsessed with looking at snow crystals gathered from around the town. A couple of years later he attached a bellows camera to his microscope and began photographing snow crystals. Microscope photography is now referred to as photomicrography, and Bentley was the first person in the world to perfect this technique.

Bentley’s set-up consisted of the bellows camera on top of the microscope, with a series of  attached pulleys and strings that controlled the focal length and focus of the camera. He would take a three-inch plate and create the luminous white shape of a snowflake on a field of black by scratching off the black emulsion from the photograph negative. Over a period of 50 years, he photographed more than 5000 snow crystals and eventually published a selection of these in ‘Snow Crystals’ in 1931 which propelled him to fame and attention from the scientific community.

Wilson Bentley in action with his set-up for photographing snowflakes (source: The Guardian)

Wilson Bentley in action with his set-up for photographing snowflakes (source: The Guardian)

Even when he was beginning to be acknowledged for his work in the 1920s, many people in the town thought he was mad for isolating himself in his garden shed obsessively studying snowflakes, including his father and his brother. At this point, he had been published in news outlets such as the New York Tribune and the Boston Herald, and was even featured in a short film called ‘Mysteries of the Snow’. He didn’t massively profit from this success, instead being content in doing the thing he loved. Shortly after his book ‘Snow Crystals’ was released, he died of pneumonia after insisting on walking back to his home through a blizzard.

Future studies showed that Bentley had only scratched the surface on snow crystal structures, partly because he exclusively studied snowflakes from Vermont. After his death, the scientific community became interested in exploring snow crystal structures, growing snow crystals in laboratory condition. This was largely led by Japanese nuclear physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, who could fine-tune temperature, pressure and moisture content in a controlled chamber to grow different snow crystal structures. Bentley’s six-sided stars and plates are just a few of the many varieties of structures that exist – prisms, columns, needles, triangular crystals, twelve-branched stars and irregular shapes are just some of the structures that can be grown under specific environmental conditions and are also found all over the world. This probably wouldn’t be known if it wasn’t for the work of Wilson Bentley.

'Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no design was ever repeated'. A photograph of one of Wilson Bentley's snowflakes. Source: The Guardian.

‘Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no design was ever repeated’. A photograph of one of Wilson Bentley’s snowflakes. Source: The Guardian

Today in Mill Brook Valley there is a small museum dedicated to Bentley and his work, with walls lined with his photography and his original contraption for taking these photographs. I would love to see this one day. What really captivated me about Bentley and his work was his unrelenting curiosity and his drive to share the beauty of snow crystal  structures that would eventually be scientifically translated. This is why, for similar reasons, I like using time-lapse photography to capture the dynamics of glaciers – images are not only scientifically valuable, but also resonate with everyone regardless of their knowledge of snow and ice.


Further reading

This article and this article from the Guardian on Bentley’s photography

The Snow Tourist by Charlie English which contains a detailed chapter on Bentley’s life work and also more generally on studies of snowflakes. I plan on writing a review when I have finished the book – it’s very good so far!

A PhD student’s views on the EU referendum

Last week the UK decided to leave the EU. Like many others (16,141,241 people to be exact), I voted to remain in the EU. One of the main reasons I personally voted to remain is because I wish to pursue a career in academia, which the EU helped facilitate up until now. As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, I am on the receiving end of many benefits that the EU provides for scientific research in the UK. A high majority of researchers also see these benefits, with 83% of UK academics wishing to remain in the EU (source: Nature). The exit from the EU has consequences for certain aspects of UK research:


1. Movement of academics between the UK and EU countries

Academics often move institutions and countries to further their career, especially at the beginning of an academic career when it is crucial to expand on research experience. This not only benefits academics themselves, but also ensures that university students (undergraduates and postgraduates) receive the best teaching from a large pool of academics at the forefront of their research field. Academics also move to countries outside of the EU, but there is generally more fluidity to move within the EU because of fewer restrictions.

Without this freedom of movement, opportunities for UK researchers to work within Europe may become limited. This could put pressure on academic careers in the UK, with more people going for a finite number of academic job positions and an increase in difficulty to obtain tenure (i.e. a permanent job in academia, rather than a post-doctorate research position or short-term contract). Also fewer researchers from the EU will want to work in the UK because of the increase in restrictions and the general unwelcoming feeling that many migrants have experienced since the referendum (see here for examples of unequivocal racism since the EU referendum).

2. Academic collaboration with the UK

Scientific research is rarely carried out by one person and it is uncommon to see less than 3 authors on a published scientific journal article nowadays. This is because each author can bring different expertise to a study, encouraging multi-national collaboration for the purpose of producing high-quality research. Academics often need to meet face-to-face in order for this collaboration to thrive. This is usually done at large international conferences, but smaller meetings are also often needed to focus on particular ideas. Within the EU, such meetings are easier to set-up as there are fewer restrictions on the movement of people, facilitating easier movement of knowledge. Meetings with collaborators in the EU may be more difficult to organise and more expensive in light of the UK leaving the EU.

One of the large disadvantages of the EU to academic research is that it excludes those countries outside of the EU, and the UK will soon be on that side. It is uncertain whether UK research will improve or decline with this because although it may be more difficult to move knowledge across the EU in the future, it may also become easier to share knowledge with countries outside the EU.

3. Future funding of UK research

The UK has a fantastic reputation for producing high-quality research, which is partly due to its sufficient funding. UK universities currently receive approximately 16% of their total research funding directly from the EU (source: Nature). My PhD (along with a large majority of others in the School of GeoSciences here at the University of Edinburgh) is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which, in turn, is funded by the EU. Leaving the EU means we will no longer have access to such funding.

This does not necessarily mean we will be missing a 16% chunk of funding forever. It is likely that this funding will be found from elsewhere (hopefully… all fingers and toes crossed). The crucial point will be finding and securing this funding quickly to ensure the continuing quantity and quality of UK research. If this gap is too long then the effect on research output could be irreversible.


If you are frustrated by my vague language in the previous paragraphs, you have every right to be. Like many other aspects of this country, academia and research will change if the UK leaves the EU (which will happen when Article 50 is triggered) but the outcome remains uncertain, which is scary. I have tried my best to describe the current situation pragmatically and avoid adding fuel to the fire. Before the EU referendum, I was entertaining the idea of leaving the UK after the completion of my PhD to continue my career in academia. If the worst-case scenario occurs then that idea is highly likely to become a reality.

Much of the commentary on the result of the EU referendum has been incited by fear, which was initiated by campaigns that used fear to sell their causes. This fear is what has created hostility between friends, resentment between generations, and incited this current wave of racism and hatred that the population is experiencing. It is critical at this point in time not to act out of fear. I think this Guardian article puts it well with the title ‘do not mourn, organise’ – keep your finger on the pulse, be aware of what is happening, and take action where it is needed. And I think that is a good note to end on.

Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and not the views of my colleagues or the University of Edinburgh.

Confessions of a glaciology PhD student

Amusing excerpts from the diary of second-year glaciology PhD student

I have come to the end of the second year of my PhD this January. It’s been a great year, and I have been recording a lot of it in my work diary. For nostalgia’s sake, and to celebrate the calamities and bizarre situations experienced, I thought I would share some of my more humorous diary snippits from the past year.

Wednesday 22nd April 2015
‘It’s been a day of procrastination. Not much work done. I think it started when my Matlab script wouldn’t work – “Matrix dimensions must agree”… but they do agree?!?!’

Friday 31st July 2015
[In Svalbard] ‘So today went well – I reprogrammed the camera timers, accommodated for the irregular trigger cable, and also made a new camera box eyebrow… out of an ice cream tub.’

Wednesday 5th August 2015
[In Svalbard] ‘Today we packed up the boat and sailed over to Tunabreen. We got there around midday after a rocky patch which left me bed bound, eyes tight shut and concentrating on not being sick. We got there quite early and knew we would have a lot of daylight so set off to the glacier to begin scouting sites for the strain meters. It took us ages to find a suitable site as the crevasse field stretched much further upglacier than expected. Once we found a site, we drilled a marker pole so we could find it again and fashioned a flag out of my long-johns. They looked magnificent.’

The Viking Explorer moored in a calm area of Tempelfjorden, Svalbard (August, 2016)

The Viking Explorer moored in a calm area of Tempelfjorden, Svalbard (August, 2016). The infamous long-john flag still flies on Tunabreen to this day as a sacrifice to the glacial gods. Photo credit: Nick Hulton

Monday 18th August 2015
[In Svalbard] ‘Got to Tempelfjorden, went to take water samples with Kristin, lost her secchi disk in the fjord. Fan-bloody-tastic.’

Wednesday 2nd September 2015
[In Svalbard] ‘Back from a big day on Kronebreen. All the cameras were still there, a fox chewed through only one of the cables, and we spotted a herd of polar bears/arctic foxes/arctic hares (yes, in that order of suspects) which turned out to be ptarmigans after thorough investigation.’

Thursday 3rd September 2015
[In Svalbard] ‘We changed the SD card in camera 2 today, which I’d switched timers to take one photo every three seconds. It was very adrenaline pumping as I had to run out of the helicopter [whilst the rotor blades were still spinning] and change the SD card as quickly as possible. My heart was pounding and I kept thinking “Time means money. BE QUICK.” I ran back to the helicopter in good time to find our pilots taking a selfie. They obviously weren’t as concerned.’

Wednesday 23rd September 2015
[In Svalbard] ‘Today has been good. Very productive. I think I have got my [AG-347/847] practical exercise sorted. I managed to resolve the problem with DEM importing – if I ever read this diary back looking for this info, remember that Pointcatcher needs cartesian coordinates. CARTESIAN, GOD DAMMIT.

Me at camera site 8b, Kronebreen, Svalbard (May 2015)

Me at camera site 8b, Kronebreen, Svalbard (May 2015). Photo credit: Heidi Sevestre

Thursday 8th October 2015
‘I have Taylor Swift to thank for my productivity today.’

Wednesday 4th November 2015
‘Today I worked on some more Python code – the script can now change image filenames to the EXIF timestamp… ish… well… it can nearly do that.’

PhD new year resolutions

1. Write more

This encompasses a whole load of things including writing up findings, reading and summarising articles, blogging more, and generally documenting more of my PhD and research. I am beginning the third year of my PhD now, and I have very little written down to show for it. Blogging has really encouraged me to reflect, condense and write about my work. So as well as my goal to write more blog posts in the coming year, I want to begin writing my thesis. I’m hoping this will make it easier in the future.

2. Publish something

This is an ambitious one, and unlikely to be achieved because of the tortuous amount of time it takes an idea to become a paper, to become accepted, to become published. It would be comforting to know that I have a paper waiting in the wings by the end of the year though.

A time-lapse camera installed at Ultunafjella, overlooking the calving front of Tunabreen (August 2015)

One of our time-lapse cameras installed at Tunabreen, Svalbard, a personal highlight of my year – great living (on a boat), great work, great company

3. Continue our time-lapse work at Kronebreen glacier in Svalbard

At the time of writing this, the prospect of re-installing our time-lapse cameras at Kronebreen in May 2016 is looking good. We aim to continue the monitoring of the ice front, examining surface velocities, surface lake levels, calving rate, and calving behaviours. The cameras will be installed at different locations to last year, with the intention to derive a three-dimensional model series using Structure-from-Motion (SfM) time-lapse. At the moment we are in discussion about where exactly our cameras will need to be positioned to achieve this.

4. Attend a big conference, along with some smaller ones

Two of the biggest annual geoscience conferences are the European Geophysical Union (EGU) General Assembly and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, and I hope to attend one of them. Because I have often been busy with fieldwork in the past, I normally don’t get time to go to big conferences, present my work and network with others. I hope that as my fieldwork begins to die down this year, I can attend either AGU or EGU along with the International Glaciological Society British Branch Meeting and Nordic Branch Meeting.

Post-doc researcher Sarah Thompson (UNIS) taking a GPS reading at camera site 2, positioned at the calving front of Kronebreen glacier, Svalbard (September 2015)

Post-doc researcher Sarah Thompson (UNIS) at one of our time-lapse cameras at Kronebreen glacier, Svalbard. This was another highlight of my year as it was the first time I was in charge of fieldwork coordination, and Sarah was such a fantastic companion to bring along with me

5. Take a holiday… for God’s sake

The curse of being a workaholic. Last year was so busy, fast-paced and exciting, and I couldn’t tear myself away from it all. One of the things I have been noticing recently is how much more I have been run-down, ill and/or bed-ridden because I have worked myself too hard. I need a holiday at some point this year… and somewhere warm please!