The treasures of the snow
Do pretty crystals prove that organization can arise spontaneously?
Snow crystals are some of the most beautiful shapes that nature has to offer, and no two flakes are alike. Many evolutionists have tried to claim the order of a crystal forming due to atomic structures as proof for “something coming out of nothing”, due simply to natural laws. But closer examination of this argument shows it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
Modern snowflake research
Several scientists are trying to grow their own crystals to understand and direct their development. Applications of this research reach way beyond meteorology, with the aim of controlling the growth of other crystals, such as silicon structures, for the semiconductor industry.
So why do snow crystals form this shape? Does it require special design? No, their shape is due to the properties of their building blocks, the water molecules (H2O). These are bent and polar (i.e. with positively and negatively charged ends). When they come together in solid form, they tend to form the lowest-energy structure they can,1 which is crystals with hexagonal (six-fold) symmetry.2 By contrast, carbon dioxide (CO2), a linear and more symmetrical molecule, forms cubic crystals in its solid form (“dry ice”).
We now know that not only temperature, but also humidity influences crystal formation and shape. The beautiful six-legged star-like crystals grow in air warmer than -3°C. Between -3°C and -10°C, snow falls as little prisms. Between -10°C and -22°C, it is little stars again, and below that, prisms once more.
Nevertheless, scientists still cannot tell exactly why snow crystal shapes change so much with temperature. These shapes depend on how water vapour molecules are incorporated into the growing ice crystal, and the physical processes governing crystal growth are complex and not well understood yet.3
Snowflakes—proof of evolution?4
Sometimes evolutionists claim that snowflakes show that order can arise from disorder, and more complex structures from simple ones, based purely on the inherent physical properties of matter. Therefore, the reasoning goes, life could have arisen from simple molecules that organize themselves in a way that ultimately leads to more complex structures, and eventually the first living cell.5
But crystals are nothing like a living cell. Formed by the withdrawal of heat from water, they are dead structures that contain no more information than is in their component parts, the water molecules. Life forms, on the other hand, came into existence, evolutionists believe, through the addition of heat energy to some postulated primordial soup. Not only are these processes very different, but life requires the emergence of new information (a code) in order to take over the functions of organization and reproduction of a cell. There is therefore no analogy between snow crystals and the far, far greater complexity of living organisms.
An excellent snowflake website is snowcrystals.com.
You can download and use many snowflake photos to create your own calendar, greeting card or other present. Apart from beautiful photos, the site will tell you just about everything you ever wanted to know about snowflakes.
More importantly, the organization in proteins and DNA is not caused by the properties of the constituent amino acids and nucleotides themselves, any more than forces between ink molecules make them join up into letters and words. Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), a former chairman of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester (UK) who turned to philosophy, confirmed this:
“As the arrangement of a printed page is extraneous to the chemistry of the printed page, so is the base sequence in a DNA molecule extraneous to the chemical forces at work in the DNA molecule. It is this physical indeterminacy of the sequence that produces the improbability of occurrence of any particular sequence and thereby enables it to have a meaning—a meaning that has a mathematically determinate information content …”.6
Snow crystals are not direct evidence for creation, either. Nevertheless, the philosophical argument can be made that a universe without God cannot logically be expected to create such order out of disorder.7 So when we observe order and design in the universe, as exemplified by the six-cornered snowflake, doesn’t this demand a Creator who supplies this order and design?8
Of course, the physical properties of water are known to be necessary preconditions for life to exist on Earth, which testifies to a Creator who conceived the universe and its physical laws as conducive to life.9 For example, snow forms an insulating layer on the ground that protects plants and animals below it from the much harsher temperatures above. But whereas this could have been achieved with very simple shapes, such as round or square disks, the lavish beauty and variety in snow crystals shows God’s loving creativity in making snow not only very useful, but also wonderful to look at! As even evolutionists admit, “One could almost convince oneself that snowflakes constitute a demonstration of supernatural power.”5
No two alike?
Actually, smaller snowflakes that take the shape of hexagonal prisms look pretty much the same. On the other hand, larger, star-shaped crystals are all different. To understand why, think of how many different ways 15 books can be arranged on a bookshelf. You have 15 choices for the first book, 14 for the second, 13 for the third, etc. The total number of possibilities is thus 15 × 14 × 13 … (15!), or over a trillion ways to arrange those books. Crystals can easily have 100 or more features that can be recombined in different ways—leading to at least a staggering 10158 different possibilities. This is 1070 times the number of atoms in the entire universe!1
[Update, January 2017: Controlling the micro-environment has enabled identical twin snowflakes to be made in a laboratory. See snowcrystals.com.]
- Adapted from www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/alike/alike.htm.
The Snowflake Man from Vermont
Astronomer Johannes Kepler seems to have been the first scientist to examine snow crystals. He wrote a booklet on the subject in 1611.1 But the real ‘Snowflake Man’ was Wilson Alwyn Bentley, born 1865 in Vermont, USA. Bentley was the first to photograph snowflakes.2 He published more than 5,000 photographs, and wrote numerous articles on snow, rain, dew and other natural phenomena related to water and precipitation.
WA Bentley was the first to photograph snowflakes. He dedicated his life to studying snow, dew and rain and although he was a farmer without formal scientific training, he was years ahead of his time with his meteorological hypotheses.
Bentley relates that it was his mother who instilled the love of scientific investigation into him: he was home schooled until he was 14 years old, and in his quest for learning he even read an encyclopedia! ‘It was my mother that made it possible for me, at fifteen, to begin the work to which I have devoted my life. She had a small microscope, which she had used in her school teaching. When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower. But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most.’
Bentley knew nothing about photography and for the longest time could not manage to take pictures of snowflakes. But through persistence and learning by trial and error he learned how to work rapidly before the ice crystal changed shape, how to use transmitted light by pointing the camera to the sky, and how to get sharpness of detail on the crystal by using a large f-stop. Finally, during a January snowstorm in 1885, he obtained the first photomicrographs ever taken of an ice crystal.
He kept detailed meteorological records, and pondered over the meaning of the shapes and sizes of the crystals and why they often varied from one storm to the next. Starting in 1898, he published his findings in scientific journals. Bentley greatly contributed to what is today common knowledge, i.e. that temperature changes and movements in the storm clouds impact on the form and type of the crystals formed. With his research, he was years ahead of the meteorological thinking of his time.
Bentley loved people, but was misunderstood by them, and the scientific world appreciated (or caught up with) the value of his work only much later. When he convened a meeting in his hometown to present on his work, only six people attended.
One of his National Geographic (Jan. 1923) articles, ‘The magic beauty of snow and dew’, is accompanied by over 100 photomicrographs of ice crystals, frost patterns, and dew.3 In it, he refers to the Bible and says the beauty of snow was known long ago, for the book of Job asks, ‘Hast thou entered into the treasures of the Snow?’
Although his photos were sold for jewellery and other purposes, Bentley did not become rich through his work. But he said that he would not change places with Ford or Rockefeller: he felt he was serving the Great Designer; capturing the evanescent loveliness which, but for him, would be unappreciated—even unseen by most of his fellow men. And with that role he was content.
When he died of pneumonia in 1931, his obituary read, ‘Truly, greatness blooms in quiet corners and flourishes under strange circumstances. For Wilson Bentley was a greater man than many a millionaire who lives in luxury of which the ‘Snowflake Man’ never dreamed.’
- Kepler, J., A new year’s gift or on the six-cornered snowflake, Frankfurt on Main, 1611; believed to be the first scientific reference to snowflakes.
- Banchard, D., The snowflake man. Weatherwise 23(6): 260–269, 1970.
- Bentley, W., The magic beauty of snow and dew, National Geographic Magazine 43(1):103–112, January 1923.
References and notes
- According to the Laws of Thermodynamics: by forming the lowest energy structure, the maximum amount of heat is released to the surroundings, increasing overall entropy. Return to text.
- Vardiman, L., Microscopic masterpieces: discovering design in snow crystals, Institute for Creation Research, 1 Dec 2007; icr.org/article/3555. Return to text.
- See snowcrystals.com. Return to text.
- See also Sarfati, J., By Design: Evidence for nature’s Intelligent Designer—the God of the Bible, pp. 227–229, Creation Book Publishers, Australia, 2008. Return to text.
- E.g., Bailey, D., Evolution and Probability, Report of National Center for Science Education 20(4), 2001. Return to text.
- Polanyi, M., Life’s irreducible structure, Science 160(3834):1308–1312, 1968; p. 1309. Return to text.
- See Sarfati, J., Why does science work at all? Creation 31(3):12–14, 2009. Return to text.
- As argued by Vardiman, Ref. 2. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., The wonders of water, Creation 20(1): 44–47, 1997; creation.com/water. Return to text.
As one who has photographed snowflakes (with great difficulty), I appreciate hearing about the accomplishments of the Snowflake Man.
Hi again Dr Meiss.
Glad you liked the snowflake pics.
But regarding the structure of proteins, you say “the organization in proteins … is not caused by the properties of the constituent amino acids … themselves … ” Actually, this is not the case. Both the secondary (alpha helix, beta sheet) structure and the tertiary structure are in fact determined by the nature of the individual amino acids in the chain. For instance, alanine and leucine promote alpha helix formation, while proline and glycine discourage helix formation.
What you say is totally right (as far as it goes). Similarly with features like hydrophobic interactions between aliphatic side groups, and disulphide linkages between cysteine residues. I would go even further, and say that the rotational abilities of the vital ATP-synthase motor, for example, can be explained mechanistically by the arrangements of the amino acids, as can all the other enzymes (I don’t think you would have a problem with that). We are not vitalists. Vitalism was never a biblical idea. Rather, the Bible teaches that God finished creating after Day 6.
But this wasn’t the point of the article. As the Polanyi quote made clear, we were not talking about the interactions between the amino acids in the fully formed protein, but the formation of the sequence of the acids. Yes, one can explain alpha helix formation by a sequence of alanine and leucine, but there is nothing in alanine or leucine that will make them bond preferentially to other amino acids in a particular way. The sequence is imposed from outside by the order in the DNA read by decoding machines—the instructions for which are encoded in the DNA.
To put it another way, I would explain the superlative 1021 rate enhancement of a certain phosphatase enzyme totally by the chemical properties of the amino acids and their spatial arrangement, and the resulting free energy drop in reaction intermediates. But this enzyme was not the result of condensing amino acids together: the properties of the amino acids simply would not produce the required sequences.
This was a Creation mag article, so there was limited space as well as a need to simplify to some extent. There is more detail in this article Some thermodynamics criticisms—and answers (#2), which was one of the related articles at the bottom. In an older article Naturalism, Origins and Operational Science, I explained:
To explain further: the laws that govern the operation of a computer are not those that made the computer in the first place. Lerner’s anti-creationist propaganda is like saying that if we concede that a computer had an intelligent designer, then we might not analyse a computer’s workings in terms of natural laws of electron motion through semiconductors, and might think there are little intelligent beings pushing electrons around instead. Similarly, believing that the genetic code was originally designed does not preclude us from believing that it works entirely by the laws of chemistry involving DNA, RNA, proteins, etc. Conversely, the fact that the coding machinery works according to reproducible laws of chemistry does not prove that the laws of chemistry were sufficient to build such a system from a primordial soup.