Flaky Science

by Lorien E. Menhennett

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

One of the things I talked about in my MD/PhD interview was my sense of awe with science – those moments where you realize, as Carl Sagan points out in the above quotation for example, that we are indeed made of starstuff. It started right when I began working in Prof. Richard Minshall’s lab at UIC, and hasn’t let up (thankfully). That feeling of wonder doesn’t only apply to medicine, though. And it gives me great joy to see other people – other scientists – getting down and nerdy.

My most recent foray into other realms of science: snowflakes. That’s right, those six-sided crystals that fall from the sky and make our commutes hell on earth. It all started when I was looking for a different type of wintry image for my desktop background. Search “winter” on Google Images and you’ll come up with a lot of images of fields and trees covered in snow. While these are fine images, I wanted something out of the ordinary. So I scrolled, and searched (other winter keywords), until I came up with this image:

Playdough? Claymation? Nope. Snowflakes under an electron microscope.

At first glance, it looks like playdough, or a frame from a claymation movie. Wikimedia (where I found the image) directed me to the photo’s source, the Electron Microscopy Unit Snow Page of the USDA. EM images of snowflakes? What a concept. Exploring the site further, I found an incredible, yet easy to understand, amount of information, including how these images were recorded (through Low Temperature Scanning Electron Microscopy). Another discovery was that scientists classify snowflakes into dozens of categories through a nomenclature system called the Magono and Lee Classification of Snow Crystals (Part 1 and Part 2). Examples (with images of course!) include the following:

After seeing all of these photos, reading all of the accompanying information, the thought that comes to my mind is: Snowflakes are made of starstuff, too.