But don't be fooled; there is some serious science behind the University of Wisconsin-Madison mathematician's charming creations. Although they look as if they tumbled straight from the clouds, these "snowfakes" are actually the product of an elaborate computer model designed to replicate the wildly complex growth of snow crystals.
Four years in the making, the model that Griffeath built with University of California, Davis, mathematician Janko Gravner can generate all of nature's snowflake types in rich three-dimensional detail. In the January issue of Physical Review E, the pair published the model's underlying theory and computations, which are so intensive they are "right on the edge of feasibility," says Griffeath.
"Even though we've artfully stripped down the model over several years so that it's as simple and efficient as possible, it still takes us a day to grow one of these things," he says.
In nature, each snowflake begins as a bit of dust, a bacterium or a pollutant in the sky, around which water molecules start glomming together and freezing to form a tiny crystal of ice. Roughly a quintillion (one million million million) molecules make up every flake, with the shape dictated by temperature, humidity and other local conditions.
How such a seemingly random process produces crystals that are at once geometrically simple and incredibly intricate has captivated scientists since the 1600s, but no one has accurately simulated their growth until now. Griffeath and Gravner's model not only gets the basic shapes right, including fern-like stars, long needles and chunky prisms, but also fine elements such as tiny ridges that run along the arms and weird, circular surface markings.
Griffeath considers himself part of a long tradition of scientists, starting with famed mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who have marveled at snowflakes and simply wanted to understand them. But on the practical side, the model could help researchers better predict how various snowflake types in the clouds affect the amount of water reaching earth. Griffeath is now exploring that possibility with a UW-Madison meteorologist.
In the meantime, the project has given him a newfound appreciation for water, whose one-of-a-kind properties are what make snowflakes possible.
"Water is the most amazing molecule in the universe, pure and simple," he says. "It's just three little atoms, but its physics and chemistry are unbelievable."
Significantly more productivity in USP lasers
06.12.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Lasertechnik ILT
Shape matters when light meets atom
05.12.2016 | Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
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In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
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The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
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