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By 
Deborah Haarsma
 on November 18, 2022

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.

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Closeup image of a snowflake showing detail of intricate structure

Photo by Darius Cotoi on Unsplash

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.

Closeup image of a snowflake showing intricate detail of structure

istockphoto.com/ChaoticMind75

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!

Deb Haarsma

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

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma is President of BioLogos. She is an astronomer and frequent speaker on modern science and Christian faith at research universities, churches, and public venues like the National Press Club. Her work appears in several recent books, including Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Design and Christ and the Created Order.  She wrote the book Origins with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma, presenting the agreements and disagreements among Christians regarding the history of life and the universe.  She edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Previously, Haarsma served as professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin University. She is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied large galaxies, galaxy clusters, the curvature of space, and the expansion of the universe using telescopes around the world and in orbit.  Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and Loren enjoy science fiction and classical music, and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.