Saturday, January 20, 2007

How to Save (what used to be) a Snowflake for Decades

My blog's popularity peaked when I participated in that bizarre WalMart Nazi shirt meme. But I don't want that to be my online legacy, especially since my mom wasn't happy to see my picture online associated with an evil empire that oppressed millions of people. So I'm kind of scrambling to do something online that'll impress her by distancing myself from WalMart. Then I found this article from Popular Science about how to preserve snowflakes for eternity and I thought, hell-there's gotta be a way to leverage this snowflake collecting into positive internet fame. Because I tell you, putting condoms on ATATs ain't exactly endearing me to my mom.

But wait! You say, "Isn't Anarctrica technically a desert with very little to no precipitation?" That's true only if you are far inland, nearer 90 degrees south latitude. I'm living at McMurdo Space Station, which is on Dinobot Island at 77 degrees south latitude. McMurdo is far enough from the pole to still get some weather, although it never rains here and the clouds are incapable of producing thunder and lightning. Antarctic clouds are the atmospheric equivalent of erectile disfunction. What we do get occasionally by way of precipitation is snow. Buttloads and buttloads of beautiful mom pleasing, exotic Antarctic snowflakes, hopefully awesome enough to get me noticed on DigBoing or Farkfark or whatever site is popular with internet compatible cool people.

So deceptively simple is the procedure described by the Popular Scientists that I figured I could do it with a minimum of collateral damage to myself and Antarctica. It seemed no more difficult than my science fair projects in grade school. The only problem was that I didn't have the required microscope slides, slide covers and super glue. Although I live on the largest Antarctic research facility in the galaxy and there's shit tons of microscope stuff like that at Crary Mad Scientist Lab, unfortunately I do not have access to Crary because neither the National Science Foundation nor NASA consider me a) popular or b) a scientist. They must have heard about all the lame crap I entered into the science fairs in grade school. Their resources understandably go to somewhat more important scientific research like finding the Savage Land and getting all the Kryptonite from Mount Erebus.

Once my wife sent me the necessary materials (Thanks Shanda!), I went for it. I waited for the snow and I tried catching snowflakes on a slide. I'm currently still trying with mixed results, so what I would like to highlight here are some of the problems I have had that other people may encounter when they first try saving snowflakes. Although the project is rated super easy by the Popular Scientists, don't feel bad if you try it and it doesn't exactly work the first time. There are a few things the article doesn't address that complicate the process a bit but I think there are workarounds to some of these issues and at least knowing about them may fend off some frustration anyone has with the process. Maybe it's easy if you're a popular scientist?

First off, snow doesn't fall straight down. It blows around a lot. On windy days with very light snow it's nearly impossible to get flakes to land on the slides. Forget about doing it on days when the snowfall is best described as "a flake an acre". But there shouldn't be problems when the snowfall is decent. Snow trajectory is also a concern because the surface area of a microscope slide is pretty small-it's like 2.5 centimeters wide by 7 centimeters long. Even smaller is the area of a cover slide, which is what I have to put on top of the flakes once they land on the slide. What I am unclear on is whether or not the intention of the article is to capture one snowflake or multiple flakes on a single slide. In order to maximize my success I try to let as many flakes as possible fall on the slide, but this takes time and depending on the rate of fall of your snow, that can be tricky because by the time you get a decent number of flakes, some may have begun melting already.

The second and perhaps worst problem I've encountered is that snow down here falls in clumps. This is the single biggest obstacle to my success. Instead of nice individual flakes, I get huge clumps of multiple flakes smashed together. I never thought about this before and I have found no workaround to this problem. A continuous fall of nice individual flakes is surprisingly rare down here. But I don't give a crap and I just put drops of superglue on the clumps and we'll see what happens once the slides are ready.

Third problem is that I SWEAR SUPERGLUE FREEZES. They don't mention that in the article. In fact, they say keeping it chilled at -20 is ideal, but my experience is running somewhat contrary to what they're saying. I don't think keeping superglue in your freezer is a good idea. I say leave it outside somewhere so that it gets as cold as the outdoor temperature when it's snowing. You also don't have to freeze your slides beforehand. Leave them outside, too. It's good enough. You'll be ready when the flakes that fall on your slides don't melt, which only takes about 20 minutes or so. But do not let them get so covered in snow that you lose sight of them. A clear glass slide is hellaciously difficult to find once you've lost it.

Fourth problem is that the slide covers may not lay flat on the slides, usually because of some sort of contamination like dust or dirt specks. Make absolutely sure the slide covers are clean before you put them on the slides because if they're not, you'll experience what I call 'lifting' where the slide cover won't stay flush with the slide. The more you push it down the more likely it is that you'll damage the snowflakes.

The final thing I don't quite understand about the process as outlined in the article is that the slides need to stay frozen for two weeks(!) after the flakes are captured. It doesn't seem reasonable because unless you live in Antarctica, at some point you have to bring the slides into the house to put them in the freezer. That brief warmth from going inside can be enough to melt the flakes. So what I did was wait two days before bringing them inside. We'll see if it worked.

In the end I think practice and repetition will yield good results. At this point I think I'm saving partially melted and mangled snowclump carcasses instead of actual snowflakes, but I'm still trying. While you would think doing this in Antarctica would be ideal, I think I'll have more success once I get back to South Dakota, where winter brings a lot more snow. Even if none of this worked I did have a good time trying. If I get even one good Antarctican snowflake it'll all be worth it. From the bizarre patterns I've seen on my slides so far I'm guessing there's at least something interesting to look at on them.


Smurfwreck said...

That reminds me of the time my friend Jeremy and I found this huge patch of four leaf clovers in his neighbor's yard and we picked a bunch and tried to preserve them between two pieces of super clear tape.

Mine turned an icky brown and aren't nearly as cool as I thought they'd be years later.

Can't wait to see your results on this. I rarely see snow, what being in Georgia and all...

Evil King Macrocranios said...

It seems so unfair that your clover project didn't work when people save leaves all the time with decent results. However, icky brown clover remnants would make for interesting blogging, too.

I'm also excited about my results. Two weeks seems like an eternity. At the very least what I hope to do with the snowflake project is provide results that work as a sort of peer review of the method described.

Of course I'm sure the writer showed only the optimum result for purposes of illustrating the article, but I don't think that's what the average Joe can expect on their first try. I find it curious that although many people link to that PopSci page, I've yet to find one person who came up with independent results. So I'd like to give full disclosure-show the ugly side of snowflake capture. I want to show how things go under less than optimum conditions with an inexperienced snowflake hunter.


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Evil King Macrocranios was voted king by the evil peoples of the Kingdom of Macrocrania. They listen to Iron Maiden all day and try to take pictures of ghosts with their webcams.