On The Varying Shapes of Snow

Wood cut print of snow shapes
Olaus Magnus was a Swedish writer born in the fifteenth century. In 1555 he published the earliest known snowflake diagrams in ‘Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus‘ (A Description of the Northern Peoples).

The woodcut image above by Olaus Magnus shows two windows with covered with ice in the two squares at the top left . The bottom left depicts snowfalling whist to the right we see snow crystals.

It’s interesting that whilst the hexagonal structure of snow had been noted as early as 150BC there is little regular geometry present in Olaus Magnus’ woodcut print. Though the crystalline nature of snow flakes is captured in his use of straight lines and points.

Whether concious or not, the image does seem to make a connection between the different types of snowflake and various astronomical phenomena – for example, the moon, a star, radiation – and it is now known that ice plays a crucial role in the formation of stars and planets.

Stars and planets are formed in the diffuse and tenuous gas between the stars : the interstellar matter. This can be seen in the well known and fascinating images of nebulae like Orion and the Horsehead, where the gas is lit up by radiation from nearby stars. The clouds also contain small solid particles (‘dust grains’), however, which radiate at longer wavelengths, as do young stars themselves when they are still embedded in their dusty cocoons. Ice is found in the denser and colder concentrations of this gas and dust, the dark clouds.

Ewine Van Dishoeck (Astrochemist), Finding on Ice