Mathematician creates lovely ’snowfakes’ in lab

February 25th, 2009 - 12:49 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 25 (IANS) The exquisitely detailed and symmetrical snowflakes look like nature’s creation, but they are actually the products of an elaborate computer model designed to replicate the wildly complex growth of snow crystals.
The model that David Griffeath and Janko Gravner, mathematicians from Universities of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) and California-Davis, respectively, designed, can generate all of nature’s snowflake types in rich 3-D detail.

On the practical side, the model could help researchers better predict how various snowflake types in the clouds affect the amount of water reaching earth. Griffeath is now exploring that possibility with a UW-Madison meteorologist.

“Water is the most amazing molecule in the universe, pure and simple,” he said. “It’s just three little atoms, but its physics and chemistry are unbelievable,” he said.

“Even though we’ve artfully stripped down the model over several years so that it’s as simple and efficient as possible, it still takes us a day to grow one of these things,” Griffeath added.

In nature, each snowflake begins as a bit of dust, a bacterium or a pollutant in the sky, around which water molecules start glomming together and freezing to form a tiny crystal of ice. Roughly a quintillion (one million million million) molecules make up every flake, with the shape dictated by temperature, humidity and other local conditions.

How such a seemingly random process produces crystals that are at once geometrically simple and incredibly intricate has captivated scientists since the 1600s, but no one has accurately simulated their growth until now, said a UW-M release.

The design has been elaborated in the January issue of Physical Review.

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