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Curiosity-Driven Research
People often ask me about practical applications of my research into snow crystals. For example, what applications might come out of making Designer Snowflakes like the one on the left? Sometimes the questions are more direct -- why are you doing this, and what's it good for?

My study of snowflake science is an example of what is called curiosity-driven research, motivated by a basic desire to understand how things work. Snow crystals simply fall out of the sky with these amazing patterns and structures, and modern science still cannot explain their formation in detail. With more than seven billion people on the planet, I figure a few of us can be spared to look into these matters.

I also like to quickly add that none of your tax dollars are being used for this research. Instead I spend the revenue generated from my Snowflake Books. (Please take a look; they make excellent gifts!) Fortunately, growing laboratory snowflakes does not require enormous resources. Sometimes I get some help from interested summer students, but mostly it's just me poking around in the lab. I think of it all as something of a scientific hobby.

The Long View
People often underestimate the importance of curiosity-driven research, simply because they are not taking the long view. For example, in the 1920s chemists spent quite a bit of time researching some odd-looking compounds that came to be called liquid crystals. They were liquids, but they looked bizarre in polarized light (the image on the right), and this puzzled scientists. Over time, the puzzles were solved, and the odd properties of these materials were explained. But, in the 1920s, no one said, "... and these liquid crystals have great potential for making flat-screen television displays someday." It was many decades before liquid crystals were anything more than laboratory curiosities. But eventually liquid crystals became, and still are, at the center of a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Essentially all the technological advances we now enjoy have their intellectual roots in people tinkering in the lab, or scribbling on paper, just trying to figure out how things work. You just have to take the long view of science and technology.

By figuring out how ice crystals grow, one learns about crystal growth in general. And this tells us about the detailed molecular dynamics of crystalline surfaces. Eventually this may help produce better industrial crystals (semiconductors, diamonds, lasers) and perhaps advanced materials no one has yet imagined. There is no telling what might come out of curiosity-driven research, even the science of snowflakes!

A Continuing Scientific Journey
One of the fun aspects of snowflake science is that it has been an ongoing enterprise for a very long time (see A Brief History of Snowflakes). After all, these fascinating structures appear, quite literally, out of thin air, crying out for an explanation. Progress has been slow, but steady.

The snowflake's six-fold symmetry was explained in the early 20th century, when X-ray crystallography revealed the hexagonal structure of the ice lattice, and crystal faceting was worked out in detail in the 1950s. Dendritic branching was solved (for non-facet branching) in the 1980s, and the faceted branching see in snowflakes was first demonstrated on the computer in 2005. The edge-sharpening instability was only discovered a few years ago, and is still not well understood. The morphology diagram is still an unsolved scientific puzzle.

People have been trying for centuries to figure out exactly how snowflakes work, and the job is far from finished. I am striving to add my own small contributions to a subject of scientific inquiry that has been ongoing for more than four hundred years. The snowflakes keep falling, and it seems that there are always a few of us trying to explain exactly why they look like they do.

The Art of the Snowflake
The final reason for studying snowflakes, last but not least, is that they are a beautiful example of nature's art. I have been photographing snowflakes for well over a decade, and there is a growing community of snowflake photographers out there capturing these diminutive, frozen masterpieces. As I learned more about the science of snowflakes, I also learned how to grow designer snowflakes, ushering in a new era of snowflake art.

Art, of course, we do for the sake of art. Creating beauty, or capturing the beauty inherent in nature, is its own reward, even when it isn't really "good" for anything!