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The First Person to Ever Photograph a Snowflake

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 16, 2022 3:02 am

The First Person to Ever Photograph a Snowflake

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 16, 2022 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Dr. Jerry Bergman’s here to tell us the story of a teenage boy who became interested in snow. On January 15, 1885, at 20-years of age, he became the first person in the world to photograph a snowflake.

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This is our American Stories, and we tell all kinds of stories here on this show, as you know. Jerry Bergman has taught science for 45 years at university in subjects like biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology. He has nine degrees in the field of science, including seven graduate and postgraduate degrees. Dr. Bergman's here to tell us the story of a teenage boy who became interested in snow. On January 15th, 1885, at 20 years of age, he became the first person in the world to photograph a snowflake.

Here's Dr. Bergman with the story. Well, his background is he's in Vermont and a lot of snow there, and he became interested in science. And his parents were very supportive. They, even though they really couldn't afford it, they bought him things like a microscope and a camera so he could take pictures. And among his many interests was the weather.

He did, he actually charted the weather and tried to correlate the weather with other events. But he became especially interested in snowflakes. And he could, with a small magnifying glass, he could see they look different. And so he tried to figure out what, why are they different?

What's going on here? And of course, the problem is a microscope requires light and light produces heat and the heat melted the snowflakes. So he had to come up with a way of getting it cold enough to get the snowflakes and examine them, work quickly so he could get pictures without the snowflakes melting.

And he was finally able to do that. In fact, he was the first person ever to get a photograph of a snowflake. And so that was quite an invention for a young boy. He was homeschooled, by the way, he didn't go to public schools. And his parents, his mother was a teacher, so she was very supportive of his work. So he was somewhat independent, I guess, his whole life.

His full name was Wilson or Willie, they called him, his childhood name, childhood name, Bentley. And his name often is called Snowflake Bentley, because he did so much work in this area. And he wanted to explore the world of science firsthand. And he saw God not only in the scriptures, but he saw God in the natural world.

And as a result of his study in the natural world, he just realized he could learn a great deal about God through studying God's creation. And once he noticed they were different, he wanted to photograph them because he felt that the glory of God can be revealed through snowflakes. And of course, people thought that was silly because come on, the glory of God can be revealed through snowflakes.

This is silly. But he saw snowflakes as miracles of beauty. And it seemed to him, the beauty of this should not be hidden. It should be seen and appreciated by others. So how can you do that? You can do that basically by getting pictures. And when he photographed them, he realized that the key is the conditions can't be too cold, because then the snowflakes are brittle.

It can't be too warm, because then the snowflakes melt. And so therefore, he really was a good experimentalist. I mean, he must have spent hours and hours and hours of failures. And he realized that, well, this has to be done. And he had things all set up to get pictures and something would happen. He didn't get a picture.

He wasn't fast enough. And so he had to work out his system so that he was able to accurately get snowflakes. And once he did so, he was able to photograph a few, 10, 15, 20. And then after a while, he ended up with about 5,000 snowflake images for the 46 years that he worked on this.

And so he had a lot of pictures. One interesting thing is that even though he wasn't a scientist, never went to school, he was home educated. He ended up publishing some of the leading science magazines in the world. He wrote the article on snow for the Encyclopedia Britannica. And that was quite a privilege in his day and, well, today as well. And then he eventually published a coffee-sized table book of 6,000 photographs titled Snow Crystals. And the book was published by the leading publishers McGraw-Hill.

And so this was quite a coup for a young man who was home schooled. He also published articles on snowflakes in Popular Mechanics magazine, in the world's leading scientific magazine called Nature, and of course in the more common widely circulated magazines like the National Geographic in 1923. And fortunately, I have most of these magazines, so I was able to look them up in the National Geographic. And from our standards today, they were good and beautiful, but not to the quality that we can get today. Today, the techniques are such where we end up with incredibly gorgeous pictures of snowflakes.

And I have four or five books which illustrate this, and you can see the beauty is there quite vividly. And you can appreciate more than in his day, but on the other hand, in his day, you know, seeing a picture of a snowflake just astounded people. And that's why he became, his work became so popular. Another contribution he made, another contribution he made, which turned out to be very important, was every snowflake, as far as he could tell, was different.

And he wondered, why? Why are they different? And so he studied the process of the manufacture, the production of snowflakes, and realized they fall in certain conditions, they move upward because of weather conditions, so they move up and down in the clouds. And after a while, they end up being exposed in different amounts of heat and cold and different conditions. And that produces the variety that we see in snowflakes.

But he discovered they all have either six sides or three sides. And now we understand part of the reason for the difference is because water molecules are not all the same. We have a water molecule called deuterium, which is called heavy water, which is a little bit different than most common water molecules. And now this is a rare molecule. It's not found very commonly, but each snowflake is made out of several hundred trillion water molecules. And so even if we only have a few of these molecules that are deuterium, we therefore end up with differences because of these few molecules.

Because when you're talking about a thousand million billion water molecules, even if you have a million billion, then these rogue molecules such as deuterium produce differences. And so he really did a lot of work in chemistry and physics and science and understanding specifically why there are so many snowflake differences. And so therefore it helps us appreciate the variety in nature. And one thing you learn about nature when you study nature is there is an enormous amount of variety everywhere in animals, in beetles. One scientist said God has an inordinate fondness of beetles because he made so many kinds.

And I guess there are six, seven thousand different kinds of beetles. And so therefore one thing we know when we look at the natural world is enormous variety everywhere, even in snowflakes. And his inspiration again was to understand God's creation. You learn about God by studying his creation, which is true because you learn about an artist by studying his artwork, you learn about a musician by studying his music compositions, you learn about God by studying his creation, and of course his creation would be the natural world. And so I've, of course my background is science, so I agree that that's true in many scientists that I know their motivation is to understand and learn about God.

And certainly we can see that was true in Snowflake Bentley. That's why I became fascinated with him because he's different. He's not the usual person who goes to college and gets his PhD in physics and goes on and studies nature. He's totally home grown and therefore he was original and wasn't constrained by the belief back then that you'll never photograph snowflakes because it just can't be done because the heat of the microscope you got to get light in there to see it and that light is heat and therefore that's going to melt the snowflake so you can't do it. And he had a hard time at first he failed I think for two or three years and he wasn't able to get one single photograph but eventually he got thousands. As Edison once said, the key to invention is not creativity but simply perseverance. Keep trying, keep working. The local elementary school I was asked to come in and do a presentation on Snowflake Bentley because they studied him in this school and so he still his ideas and his example still inspires young people today and there are a lot of children's books about him and so therefore it's a good example, a good example for all of us. Great work as always by Greg Hengler for digging up this story and for producing the piece and a special thanks also to Jerry Bergman for sharing the story of Wilson Willie Bentley, a beauty here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 21:04:31 / 2023-02-17 21:08:26 / 4

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