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Why do snowflakes look like that? And other mysteries of nature’s patterns

A snowflake’s shape is the result of its long journey from the sky to the ground, just one of the patterns in nature highlighted in a fascinating new exhibit at the Museum of Science.

It was the storm to end all storms: a bomb cyclone!

But then when it finally arrived in early January, bearing down on the east coast with high winds and heavy snowfall, the question of whether it would be as catastrophic as it sounded ended with a resounding whimper: No.

But still, New Englanders, whose fascination with weather is matched only by their passion for sports, were (unsurprisingly) fascinated. We know what a blizzard is. And a nor’easter. But what exactly is a bomb cyclone? Turns out it’s a very specific weather pattern: A mix of low atmospheric pressure and wind rotation caused a cyclone to form, then moisture in the air condensed and caused precipitation. Tada! Snowstorm.

Patterns like this allow meteorologists to identify specific forecasts, like cloud formations, snowfalls, and tornadoes, and lead to a certain degree of repetition in nature. But repetitive patterning is not exclusive to weather. Natural patterns are all around us, from the soaring ridges of the White Mountains, to the rolling waves on the Atlantic, to the flower petals in the Public Garden.

Museum-goers explore the maze of mirrors while studying patterns.

With its new exhibit, “A Mirror Maze: Numbers in Nature,” the Museum of Science hopes visitors will get a little lost in numbers by studying nature’s hidden patterns and the role they play in our world. At the exhibit’s center is a huge, 1,700 sq. ft. mirror maze where visitors embark on an adventure to explore endless patterns of repeating mirrors and complete a series of activities that range from measuring your own wingspan to studying the blood vessels in your eyes. You may never look at yourself in the mirror the same way again!

If the exhibit teaches anything, it’s that math—yes, math!—can be fun. And that nature’s patterns, especially those fluffy white crystals that fall from the sky, are worth a closer look.


Drifting crystals

When talking about single flecks of snow, it’s more accurate to call them snow crystals. “Snowflakes” describes almost anything that falls from a winter’s sky, like when hundreds or thousands of crystals stick together in midair. Snow crystals are the tiny works of frozen art that we see landing on our jackets in a flurry. But have you ever really looked at one, caught one on a dark glove and studied its precise pattern, and wondered how exactly it came to form, flutter, and land looking like that?

“Scientists study snow crystals to learn more about surface chemistry, how energy moves, and how other types of crystals are able to self- assemble complex structures from simple ingredients,” says Senior Education Associate of Live Presentations at the Museum of Science, Sue Stossel.

A common misconception about snow crystals is they are simply frozen water droplets. Water that freezes and falls from the sky is sleet. Snow crystals are formed in a far different fashion.

Here in New England, nobody knows more about how snow falls in these parts than meteorologist David Epstein: “To make a snowflake, all three forms of water must be present in the cloud: liquid, vapor, and solid,” Epstein says. “The liquid evaporates and creates the vapor that a snow crystal needs to become solid.”

As more vapor condenses onto a budding snow crystal, it grows until an ornate pattern begins to form. Those patterns are at the heart of the Museum of Science’s new exhibit, which opens Feb. 4 and includes an immersive theater where viewers can watch mesmerizing nature footage, as well as explorations of the human body and how patterns work in art and architecture.

Taking shape
Every snow crystal starts as a tiny hexagon. From there, branches begin to form at each of the six corners, and a crystal’s shape begins to emerge. Crystals experience a range of differing temperatures and humidity while sailing through the clouds, each of which contribute to the shape and details of the snow crystals’ six arms.

The six-sided structure of a microscopic water molecule is the first link in the chain that leads to a snow crystal’s iconic six-armed shape.

Why is six the magic number in snow crystal formation? This comes from the arrangement of water molecules in the ice crystal. Throughout each molecule, six-sided shapes can be seen at certain angles, creating the groundwork for the shape that forms once atmospheric conditions are thrown into the mix. As temperatures approach freezing, the unique shape of water molecules allows each molecule to link to others, producing a 6-sided “crystal lattice”.

The path that a snow crystal follows through the clouds determines its exact shape. All six arms take the same journey through the same conditions, leading them to grow in tandem and form complex, symmetrical shapes.

And since no two crystals follow the exact same path through the atmosphere, there are a near infinite variety of shapes that a snow crystal can take. However, not all snow crystal shapes end up having six sides. Depending on how cold it is or the moisture in the air, a snow crystal can resemble columns, needles, diamonds, or triangles.

The chart below details the specific conditions it takes for each snow crystal shape to form.

Numbers in nature
From specific weather patterns to the distinct patterns of falling snow crystals, winter is full of the precise and the predictable. But natural patterning doesn’t stop there—not by far.

All around us, from the houseplants on our window sills to the shells along the beaches, and the galaxies across the solar system, mathematically precise patterns exist everywhere—if you take the time to look.


“A Mirror Maze: Numbers in Nature,” opens at the Museum of Science on Sunday, Feb. 4 (members can see a preview on Feb. 3). For tickets or more information, visit

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.