Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Citizen Science 2: Getting Flaky

Astute readers will remember that in the January Issue of the North Columbia Monthly, after a lengthy description of the travails I experienced in setting up a microscope attached to my computer, I expected similar problems getting to know how to use a digital PH meter.  Truthfully, using the PH meter was not too bad.  Delving into what PH means and how it is measured and used however quickly became fairly daunting.  There is no definitive definition for PH.  “Potential for Hydrogen” is pretty standard.  I learned that it is based on a logarithmic scale with 7.00 in the center for pure water at 25° C (77° F).  Acidic readings decrease – that is they get more acidic – from there and base readings increase.  If the temperature increases, the PH goes down but the concentration of hydrogen ions is actually less.  At this point I pretty-much mentally dropped out of understanding the electro-chemical part of PH.  I’ll just agree with the reading.

But I did get some measurements of a pure water sample that came with the PH meter at 7.0; our hard water at 7.6; wine around 4.0 (about like orange juice) and melted snow at 6.7 when cold but 7.1 at room temperature.  I was curious about this last reading since I was hoping that we don’t have acid rain or in this case snow, which apparently we don’t.

Rimed Stellar Snowflake (left) Needles (right)

Speaking of snow, I neglected to say in Citizen Science Part 1 that the digital microscope I have can also work with a cell phone.  As local temperatures plunged to near 0° F, I realized that having a microscope that could be out in the cold would be great for taking pictures of snowflakes.  The microscope emits a wifi signal that a phone can pick up and with the right app it can show the microscope’s image on the screen and take pictures.  “Can” being the operative word here, it took a while to get it working.

Evidently a cell phone much prefers connecting to a wifi signal that has an Internet connection.  My phone kept dropping the microscope signal to pick up my local Internet wifi signal.  After some time in the cold with frozen fingers and tiny instructions I discovered that you can force the phone to stay tuned to the microscope. Bring on the snowflakes!

Well, that part was even harder.  Once I got some snow focused in front of the microscope, I was looking essentially at crushed ice.  I became much more focused on what is going on with snow.  I figured the background should be black and set out a piece of black plastic to get cold enough to not melt a snowflake.  Soon enough a really good looking snowflake landed on it.  I figured I would come back the next day and get the microscope going. 

I came back and the snowflake was gone!  Remember “sublimation” from high school physics?  Ice can turn right back into air without even melting.

Snowflakes look good just landing on your sleeve.  Cloth! Black Cloth! That should work better without having the snowflakes break apart when they land.  I got out some old black socks.  It turns out I was reinventing the wheel (so to speak).  If you look into the history of photographing snowflakes, you find out that William Bentley started with black cloth and a turkey feather in 1885.  He is really the father of snowflake photography and identification.  I was way behind.

Eventually, what looked like some perfect snowflakes to the naked eye, landed on the table where I had my microscope.  I took the picture shown of a basically six-armed snowflake that still looked like it was made out of crushed ice.

Meanwhile my wife, Cheryl, pointed out some new snow on the black windshield covering I had on my car.  I zoomed in with my cell phone and took a picture of what I thought must be regular snowflakes broken into little needles.  By this time I was corresponding with an old friend who has been trying to get good pictures of snowflakes for a long time.  She informed me of several things. First, the six-sided snowflake that looked like crushed ice was probably a “Rimed Stellar Plate”. Second, a really good source on snowflakes is Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes.  I found it for free on the Internet at, which is Ken Libbrecht’s website.  The field guide is really a chapter in a much larger book.

I soon found out that some snowflakes do look like needles.Text Box: Needle SnowflakesSmalneedles.jpg In fact there are all kinds of shapes of snowflakes besides the six-sided ones. The basic ways they form are determined by humidity and temperature.  There are many other determining factors and Libbrecht lays them out in this guide.  Something to notice is that the picture of the needle flakes was taken with a cell phone camera and no microscope yet it is still very sharp. The fancy microscope is not entirely necessary.

Libbrecht actually spells out something that was becoming apparent to me.  Snowflake photography is a lot like birding.  You can get into it with expensive equipment or just start learning with what you have and compile a “life list”.

That “Rimed Stellar Plate” in the first picture is a basic six-sided Stellar Plate that has a lot of rime, tiny globs of ice, attached to it.  It forms best in high humidity and temperatures around 5° F.  That combination is a sweet spot for growing snowflakes and can also produce Fernlike Stellar Dendrites which branch out in needles at 60° angles to the main stems, your classic snow flake shape.

Those colors that flash out to you when bright light or sunshine hits fresh snow reminded me of prisms.  In fact they are prisms.  The core structures of snowflakes are hexagonal crystals of “diamond dust”.  Special lighting and polarized microscopes can take amazing pictures of snowflakes bringing out internal shapes and colors.  There is so much more to learn that I almost look forward to more extreme cold temperatures. Almost. So, once again Citizen Science can be fun and exciting as well as frustrating. There is so much to learn! Talk to friends who know more than you do. It still helps to check out the Internet.  When this snow is gone I plan to discover things that are more practical and hopefully not boring

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