Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Six-Cornered Snowflake

The Six-Cornered Snowflake
Johannes Kepler
Edited and Translated by Colin Hardie, with essays by L.L. Whyte and B.F.J. Mason
Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1966
Kepler’s book in its first English translation. In this ‘new year’s gift’ to his patron, the influential astronomer turns his intelligence upon the snowflake, which ‘comes from heaven and looks like a star’. Kepler’s essay provides the first published evidence, in both images and text, of the regular arrangements and close-packing which have proved fundamental to crystallography. Kepler ponders on the problem of why snowflakes are hexagonal and considers the significance of the number six, while repeatedly punning on the nature of nothing. As poetic as it is mathematical or scientific, the treatise encompasses pomegranates, honeybees, stars and Turkish baths, but keeps one foot in scientific reality, recognising that ‘to ascribe a Soul to every single starlet of snow is absurd’.
From the introduction by Whyte: ‘Water has long been regarded as the basis of much that happens in this universe and the snowflake is now recognised as an important clue to the shaping agencies of nature, both in the formation of perfect micro-structures and in the formative and destructive power of glaciers and thunderstorms.’ An illustrated essay by Mason On the Shapes of Snow Crystals looks at the subsequent study of snowflakes from Descartes to Bentley, and notes that the issue of the six-pointed snowflake was raised in China as early as 135 BC. Kepler’s text is set within the context of the history of crystallography in a helpful summary of twentieth-century ideas on the atomic arrangement of snow and ice crystals.
Hardback, 76 pages, 24 x 16 cm

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