Deb Haarsma: Snowflakes, Symmetry, and the Glory of God
Deb Haarsma reflects on the redeeming qualities of snow, finding God's glory in the symmetry, beauty of snowflakes and the random process that makes them.
The first snow is in the air in Michigan and starting to pile up on the ground. Kids and dogs love the snow. The adults who have to shovel it and drive in it? Not so much. Longtime residents of northern states start complaining about the snow before winter even starts! Many retirees escape the snow, moving south for the worst months.
My husband and I were driving through the annoying snow one February day, in full complaining mode. But then we remembered that God calls us to gratitude. What is there to be grateful for about snow? We started thinking about the shapes of snowflakes. I grew up in Minnesota, and my husband grew up in Iowa. In those states, the snow comes with strong prairie winds that break any flakes into tiny pellets, so we rarely saw pretty snowflakes.
In Michigan, though, we often see “lake effect” snow. Moist air rises from Lake Michigan and meets colder temperatures as it moves over land, and the moisture crystallizes into flakes. Lake effect snow isn’t part of a major storm system, so it doesn’t suffer the strong winds that destroy the flakes. Instead, the flakes bob through gentle air currents, forming large, symmetrical, beautiful crystals. In Michigan, I’ve often been able to look at the sleeve of my winter parka and see a full 6-pointed snowflake before it melts.
We humans are attracted to symmetry and find it beautiful…Randomness is as common as symmetry in the natural world, but we think of it as messy or meaningless. And yet in snowflakes, it is the random motions that makes each snowflake unique!
We humans are attracted to symmetry and find it beautiful. Radial symmetry shows up in flowers, in planets, in artwork, and in architecture. Yet the other thing we love about snowflakes is their uniqueness. No two snowflakes are alike! As the flakes form in gentle air currents, each flake takes a different path through the air and acquires different features.
Randomness doesn’t seem as beautiful as symmetry. Randomness is as common as symmetry in the natural world, but we think of it as messy or meaningless. And yet in snowflakes, it is the random motions that makes each snowflake unique! Randomness plays an important role in other natural processes too, like allowing perfume to diffuse throughout a room or nutrients to diffuse through our cells.
Randomness is not necessarily meaningless; it can actually accomplish a purpose. Consider a video game designer—they intentionally include random elements in the game to give it variety and make it more interesting. Or think of the coin flip before a football game—the teams are relying on the flip being completely random to ensure fairness; the randomness is being used for a purpose. In the same way, God has chosen to use random processes in his creation, for instance to allow the spread of nutrients through water or to form an incredible variety of snowflakes every winter.
[God] has used both symmetry and randomness at every layer—the physics of particles, the chemistry of proteins, the anatomy of our bodies, the variety of flowers, and more, to make things of stunning beauty and uniqueness. Snowflakes are declaring the glory of God.
Lately, I’ve come to see that beauty is often characterized by both symmetry and randomness working together. In God’s amazing creation, he has used both symmetry and randomness at every layer—the physics of particles, the chemistry of proteins, the anatomy of our bodies, the variety of flowers, and more, to make things of stunning beauty and uniqueness. Snowflakes are declaring the glory of God.
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About the author
Deb Haarsma | James Webb Space Telescope