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Crystal Bliss

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You know those stunningly symmetrical, glittery snowflakes you see everywhere at a certain time of year -- hanging from streetlights, stitched on sweaters, and sprinkled all over tv? Those perfectly-etched pictures are all a big lie. Latif Nasser explains how it all began in a cold, snowy farm in Vermont in 1880, when a kid named Wilson Bentley put a snowflake under a microscope and started a lifelong quest to capture perfection. Bentley took tens of thousands of photos throughout his life, and his books catalog a decades-long parade of gorgeous, six-sided works of natural art. But his crystal-clear vision of reality was tied to a set of ideals that ultimately blinded him from the cold, hard facts in front of him. Snowflake expert and photographer Ken Libbrecht helps set the record straight, even as he chases after more and more perfect flakes.



Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity

Duncan C. Blanchard, The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A Bentley

Ken Libbrecht, The Secret Life of a Snowflake: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes

Ken Libbrecht, Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes

W.A. Bentley, Snowflakes in Photographs


Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht


Latif Nasser

Comments [15]


Thanks for this episode. What is the next episode? buy soundcloud plays

May. 03 2016 05:57 AM
Bob Eddy from Braintree, Vermont

Love your program. I'm struck by the introduction to this episode on snowflakes: "Those perfectly-etched pictures are all a big lie. Latif Nasser explains how it all began . . ." with Snowflake Bentley. Using jerry-rigged equipment, on a hill farm in Vermont, without the benefit of university education or affiliation, Bentley opened the world's eyes to the sublime beauty of a snowflake. He published his findings for peer review in such publications as The New York Times, Nature Magazine, Scientific American and National Geographic. Are we really to believe that Hellman and Neuhaus were correct in arguing that Bentley was deliberately falsifying data? Were Bentley's snowflakes, his "beauties," simply a "lie?"
In the end, the Germans, with their images of "broken, flawed" bits of crystal, are all but forgotten. We are left with that amazing music and Libbrecht's sense of wonder: “Imagine all the beautiful little works of art, just falling down, totally unnoticed, and then they just disappear. Stuff that's far prettier than the pictures I have. . . You know they're out there, statistically they're out there. . . really gorgeous things totally ephemeral and you'll never see them, and they're falling constantly. You sort of just want to stop the world and go look at them."
Ken Libbrecht, you took the words right out of "Snowflake" Bentley's mouth!

Feb. 01 2016 02:33 PM
Lorina M from Oregon USA

Oh, I was just reading about Bentley in Edwin Way Teale's book Wandering Through Winter (his fourth installment of a diary of the USA seasons). Fun to hear about him likewise on Radiolab! Often something captivating about those obsessed with a single-minded studiousness.

Jan. 08 2016 05:22 PM

Listened to the broadcast on my way back from a successful summit. Enjoyed the moment of bliss discussion and the excerpt on spiritual experience with psychedelics. Many are afraid to do this kind of reporting, kudos to the producer.

Jan. 03 2016 01:31 PM
Sol from alta

The perfect snow?

Mar. 31 2014 04:51 AM
Pamela Crouch from TX

This broadcast mentioned "the perfect snowflake." I think I found it, or at least, I found *my* perfect snowflake. It looks sort of like a china plate from a palace.

I could surf snow crystals all day and be perfectly content. Neat show, thanks so much.

Feb. 16 2014 01:05 AM
Paola from USA

I must say that I love Bentley's story.

Nov. 17 2013 08:24 PM

Maybe you check with how this guy does it...

Granted we have Photoshop today, but his results are very appealing.

Nov. 15 2013 10:35 PM

@Christopher from LA. I knew that it was by Sigur Ros, but it seems that Spotify's version of the album ( ) is improperly indexed/labeled. Here's the song:

Sigur Ros - ( ) - Untitled 3 (a.k.a. Samskeyti)

Feb. 20 2013 03:32 AM
jay aitch from Sendai Japan

I just went to Yuki Matsuri in Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan. After listening to this episode I was paying special attention to the snow, there were most certainly snowflakes that looked like the iconic snowflakes, though they were smaller than a pencil eraser in area. Not all of the snowstorms` snow looked like that, but there were definite occasions in which I saw perfect snowflakes. It made me wish I had a magnifying glass and a camera, I was bliss-ed out. It will be snowing in Sendai tonight, and I`ll be checking, but I don`t think the snow here looks like that, hopefully I would have noticed by now.

Feb. 12 2013 01:46 AM
Lucy Bell

It was a great episode the snowflakes and soundcloud plays increaser great combination for the nest episode.

Jan. 21 2013 09:41 PM
Bruce Davenport from Cramlington, Northumberland, UK

Thanks for another thought-provoking episode. I was struck by your responses to Bentley's belief that the 'real' snowflakes were aberrations of the perfect snowflake. You all sounded quite dismissive of that. However, the point in Daston and Galison's book is that the notion of 'objectivity' has it's own history. So, for his time, Bentley's attitude was quite normal and acceptable. Scientists were expected to see the underlying pattern, or perfection, that real-life data pointed towards. It seemed a little unfair to the guy to judge him by our notion of what objectivity should be. Maybe the shifting notion of objectivity is worth further exploration.

Jan. 13 2013 11:52 AM
Christopher from Los Angeles, CA

Actually I want to know about the ethereal piece at the end. Is that a existing track or a Jad original?

Dec. 30 2012 03:17 PM
Tim from Mt Hood, OR

Yes, who plays the "free jazz " section early in this piece?

Dec. 24 2012 07:53 PM
Cayce from Gibsons, British Columbia

Great episode. What was the music during this spot? It was cool jazz with a psychedelic synth sound over it.

Dec. 21 2012 04:45 PM

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