Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Snowflake Man

Apparently, Wilson Bentley is part of the elementary school science curriculum here. I had no idea who he was and figured I was reading some obscure biography. My youngest son knew who he was (and my oldest did not) and then some kids signed out a juvenile version of his biography and I began to think I was just late to the game.

For those of you who aren't familiar, Wilson Bentley was an early researcher of snowflakes. He lived in a little town in Vermont where he discovered at an early age that he just loved snowflakes. In the late nineteenth century, Bentley figured out a way to rig his camera to a microscope and began taking pictures of snowflakes he would capture. These photographs enabled scientists to learn more about the structure of snowflakes and how they form. Bentley also is the person who realized that no two snowflakes are alike.

From a biography standpoint, this book wasn't that great. Bentley was devoted to his work, never married and hated to leave his hometown of Jericho for fear that he would miss opportunities to photograph snow. Not exactly a fellow about whom much can be written.

From a scientific/educational standpoint, this was an interesting book. Bentley was meticulous with the work he did do, logging the weather three times a day most days of his life. He also photographed over 5,000 snowflakes in his lifetime. Although he doesn't seem to have been a very good writer, he did manage to get his findings across well enough that he was published frequently (likely after some good editing).

The author of this book, Duncan Blanchard, was an atmospheric scientist himself and does a nice job of explaining the importance of Bentley's findings. He also is able to tie in the work of others who were doing similar work around the world at the same time. It's neat to see how a guy with a passion, no education and no equipment could make such an impact on a field of study.

The downside of Blanchard's writing is that, since there isn't a lot of detail about Bentley's life, there is a good deal of speculation on Blanchard's part about his personal life and he relies heavily on oral histories with people who were children when Bentley was in his fifties and sixties.

Blanchard weaves a nice story, though, and makes science interesting and for that I'm giving the book a one star review.

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