Snow, Chemistry And The Spirit Of Christmas
    By Enrico Uva | November 21st 2010 07:04 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    Sometimes a view from an outsider is what’s needed to make us pause and reflect. Two of our students, one on an exchange program from Germany and one here from the southern U.S, have been enthralled this week at school not by the equations on the board or by the books we read but by the snow that they rarely see in their native environment.

    One of them went out and ate the fluffy form of H2O, like we did when we were children,and then he fell back and made snow-angels. The other student just couldn’t wait for the week’s second snowfall.

    Too accustomed to snow, as Canadians we associate it with shoveling and difficult driving conditions. We dream of escaping the cold and forget what a privilege it is to live in a land of ice and snow at a point in history when thanks to technology and science we can enjoy and understand snow. Unlike our Nordic ancestors, we are not condemned to shivering in a storm with inadequate clothing and poorly insulated shelter. In a country endowed with hydroelectricity, it is so easy to stand in warmth and to watch a cascade of transient crystals land on a window.

    We know why it is truly rare for two snowflakes to be alike because their patterns depend on their immediate environment.   The slightest changes in pressure or temperature can affect the shape; as one drop of water crystallizes it releases energy, changing the destiny of an immediate neighbor. And yet all these differences represent variations upon a theme: all flakes have six sides and six needles. In the three dimensions of its solid form, snow molecules maximize the number of intermolecular attractions between themselves. Specifically, the oxygen of one H2O molecule attracts two hydrogen atoms from two different molecules.

    Conversely, each of water’s hydrogen atoms bonds to an oxygen atom from two different H2O’s. A staggered hexagon results with a water molecule at each vertex. Even when, in the smallest of snowflakes, this arrangement is repeated about three billion trillion times, the basic pattern remains the same.

    But enough said about chemistry. Snow is also the framework for the spirit of the holiday season. A few months ago my daughter was told there was no Santa and that parents were the ones filling the stockings on Christmas Eve. She approached me on the subject but seemed more curious than sad, so I told her a “transition-truth”. I told her that Santa is a spirit who gets into parents and makes them buy the gifts that children desire. In previous years we had written to Santa Claus together, but last week she wrote the letter, sealed the envelope, walked past me, and headed to the mailbox. I said, “Wait. Aren’t you going to tell me what you asked for?”

    “No,” she replied. “You will be filled with the spirit of Santa and you’ll know what to get me.” 

    Let’s hope that the snow does not melt before Christmas.


    Sounds like you got the clever child everyone says they want to have.   That transition you describe is also one for parents but I've never seen a chemistry book address it.  Good stuff!
    Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks.

    Ten years of my life was spent in Bozeman, a small college town in the southwestern corner of Montana. Bozeman has snow the way Portland has rain. It is with you for nine months of the year, and you cannot remain indifferent – you either learn to love it or move away. Shortly after my arrival in Bozeman in late summer, I overheard someone say, “Boy, I wish it would snow!” and I turned and looked at his face for a hint of irony, but there was none. He couldn't wait for the warmth of summer to be over and the "good" weather to begin.
    Snow is possible any month of the year in Bozeman, but it begins typically in September and lasts through late May. And yet it never quite gets boring or depressing, you actually do learn to look forward to it. Watching its arrival, and transformation and eventual disappearance can be fascinating.
    More pleasant memories than I can recount. The gritty sound a dry snowfall makes on the window pane at night. The sculptured drifts of windblown snow. Sunshine through high snow-filled clouds, creating sundogs to left and right. Snow pillars - made by snowflakes that fall in the absence of wind fall - they do their falling flat face down, and reflected light from them creates a vertical searchlight reaching up from each lamppost.
    And one time - just one time in ten years! - a fall of "igloo snow." The snowflakes started warm and wet, but near the ground they encountered a major temperature drop, and when they accumulated they froze in place. The foot-deep bank they created was perfectly rigid, the consistency of styrofoam. You could cut out blocks and pick them up, and easily use them to build a dome. Which we did.