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There are a lot of strange ideas about snowflakes, water, and ice out there. Here are my opinions on a few....

The Hidden Messages in Water

Masaru Emoto published several books claiming that ice crystals grow differently when water is first exposed to different thoughts and feelings.  For example, he may start by playing assorted varieties of music -- jazz, classical, rock-and-roll, etc. -- to different containers of water.  The music is then turned off and the "treated" water is used to grow snow crystals.  He claims that the different musical treatments yield different types of snow crystals, and shows us pictures of the results to prove his case.

If you think it defies common sense that water does this, you are right.  In fact water does not respond to thoughts and feelings - it's just water.  How then does one explain Mr. Emoto's experiments?  My best guess is that Mr. Emoto grows hundreds of crystals and then selects different shapes to demonstrate whatever point he wishes to make.  For example, when the water was exposed to classical music he picks out some beautiful crystals to show us.  For rock-and-roll, he selects some ugly crystals and shows us those.  He then concludes that classical music makes beautiful crystals while rock-and-roll makes ugly ones.  What he does not show us is that both musical treatments made the same numbers of beautiful and ugly crystals.  The "treatments" actually had no effect.

Do I know Mr. Emoto does this?  No, which is why I called it a guess.  Mr. Emoto has never published his work in a reputable scientific forum, where it would be scrutinized.  He only presents it in self-published books, where he is free to say whatever he wants.  Basic physics says the work cannot be correct, and Mr. Emoto has not convinced the scientific community that his experiments have any merit whatsoever.

Have I tried to reproduce Mr. Emoto's experiments?  No, and I don't intend to.  While I try to keep an open mind to new ideas, this one is just too outrageous.  I only have limited time and resources, so I study ideas that I think are more likely to be fruitful.  As we liked to say back on the farm in North Dakota -- it's good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out!

Repeating Snowflakes

Is it true that when a snowflake melts and refreezes, it freezes into the same shape it had before?  Nope; not even close. That's just a tall tale that's been circulating around for many years.  Here again, water does not have any memory.  It's just water.

I think I can guess the origin of this story. If you make a video of a melting snowflake and play the video backwards, it look like the snowflake just pops out of a drop of water, as if it "knew" what final shape it would take.

I grow lots of desiger snowflakes in the lab, and I make videos of them growing (not the same as melting in reverse!). The crystals always follow what one expects from the science of ice crystal growth.

Snowflake Perfection?

Are there not some special forces at work that ensure that snowflakes form so symmetrically? People are sometimes convinced that the simple explanation of snowflake symmetry cannot be correct, because snow crystals are too perfect in form.  These folks argue that the simple explanation would likely yield less ideal shapes, less perfect six-fold symmetry.  Therefore they suspect something else is happening -- perhaps some acoustical or quantum mechanical oscillations are enforcing symmetrical growth.

The flaw in this reasoning is the statement that snow crystals are all extremely symmetrical.  You can disprove this for yourself if you simply go outside and take a close look at some falling snow.  You will soon realize that the beautifully symmetrical specimens are hard to find!  The rather unattractive irregular crystals are by far the most common variety (see the Guide to Snowflakes under the heading of Irregular Crystals for some pictures).  Even on the best of days, I search for hours to find just a few beautifully symmetrical  specimens.   I typically glance over thousands of crystals on my collection board before selecting one to photograph, and the pictures you see in the Galleries are some of the best among over 10,000 pictures I've taken.

Alas, the vast majority of snow crystals are not even close to perfectly symmetrical.  The simple mechanism does indeed produce much imperfect symmetry, as you would expect.  I always select their most symmetrical crystals to display ... after all, not many people are interested in looking at the irregular ones!

The Mpemba Effect

The Mpemba effect, named after Erasto Mpemba, suggests that warmer water freezes more quickly than colder water. Alas, there is no solid evidence supporting this statement.

The Mpemba effect is a remarkably widely held belief, even among scientists. Many physical theories have been put forward to explain the Mpemba effect, but that still doesn't make it true. I spent some time looking carefully at the experimental evidence for the Mpemba effect, and it just wasn't there. The more carefully the experiment was done, the more it looked like there was no Mpemba effect, not really.

But you have to look carefully at the experiments. Water will supercool before it freezes, and it takes some nucleation event to start the water freezing. Nucleation is a very tricky business, being extremely sensitive to dirt in the water, scratches on the walls of the container, vibrations, etc. If you put several seemingly identical containers in a freezer at the same time, the freezing times will vary all over the place. If you start with warm and cold water, sometimes the warm water will freeze before the cold, but sometimes the opposite will happen. The closer you look for the Mpemba effect, the more you find that it isn't there.