Monday, November 24, 2014

SnowFlake Bentley

Snowflake Bentley

One of the greatest joys of childhood is the coveted snow day—no school, playing outside, a warm hot chocolate at the end of the day.  As we reach adulthood, snow days mean hyperactive kids, frozen pipes, and treacherous road conditions.  The excitement fades.   Many years ago, there was a man who maintained a childlike wonder of snow from boyhood throughout his twilight years.  Rather than catching snowflakes on his tongue as children do, he caught them on film.  His name was Snowflake Bentley.

Early Life

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born on February 9, 1865 on the family dairy farm outside of Jericho, Vermont.  He was interested in nature from an early age.  Nothing captured his attention more than snow, a fortuitous passion in the Snow Belt, where snowfall averages 120” annually.[1]  Bentley’s mother, a former schoolteacher who taught him at home until he was 14, encouraged his interest, despite the skepticism of his father and brother.  For his 15th birthday, Bentley received an old microscope from his mother’s teaching days, and he began to study the natural world in closer detail.  Snowflakes were the most enthralling specimens of all:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.  Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.  I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness.”[2]

He began by sketching the flakes, but they often melted before he was done. After three winters, hundreds of sketches, countless lost snowflakes, and with his mother’s persuasion, Bentley’s father bought him a camera and microscope that were worth nearly as much as the family farm.  The self-taught Bentley invented an apparatus of microscope, camera, and bellows that he would use for the rest of his photomicrography career.  After a season of failure, experimenting with stops, exposure, and focus, Bentley had his first success in 1884 at the age of 19.[3]  Following this achievement he said, “I felt almost like falling to my knees beside the apparatus.  I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.” [4]


Bentley was following in the footsteps of great scientists.  Johannes Kepler first introduced the snowflake’s shape in his 1611 work, On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.  Robert Hooke first illustrated the varied structures of snow crystals in his 1665 work Micrographia.  It was Wilson Bentley, a teenage farmer with no formal scientific training, who pioneered photomicrography and took the first picture of an individual snow crystal.  Bentley showed a single-minded dedication to scientific pursuit, working in the cold and snow every winter for decades.  As a result, in 1924 he was awarded the first ever research grant given by the American Meteorological Society for “40 years of extremely patient work.”[5]  His goal of sharing the beauty of the natural world with others remained a priority. Over the years, he published dozens of general interest and technical articles in various publications, including the New York Times and National Geographic.  Clearly, he did not publish for his own acclaim; in a list of his publications recorded in his notebook, notes like:  Knowledge, London, 1912, I think” were common.[6]

In addition to his work with snowflakes, Bentley also researched frost, dew, and raindrop size. He regularly recorded weather records three times a day, as well as descriptions of 600 auroras over 40 years. He was “first to deduce that rain in thunderstorms has a dual origin, suggested that many snow crystals start growing as frozen cloud droplets, came close to explaining the Bergeron mechanism of rain formation…and proposed what was probably the first hydrometeor-related explanation for cloud electrification.”[7] Modern atmospheric scientists have said that Bentley’s work on cloud physics was decades ahead of his time.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sizzling History

Herstory:   Women Authors From the 17th Century to Today 

Karen Abbott will be discussing her new novel, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, on November 13th at the Massanutten Regional Library at 7pm..    Abbott’s book is part of a new trend in history writing—authors revealing historical characters and their stories in compelling detail by using their diaries, letters and historical documents to flesh out the details.  Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy tells the story of four women who were spies during the Civil War.  Did Belle Boyd have admiration or jealousy for Rose Greenhow--or both?  Did Rose sleep with Henry D. Wilson, Lincoln's chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs?  Whose message resulted in Confederate victory at Manassas?

American women writers have been pushing boundaries since the Colonial Era. Anne Bradstreet was the first female author from the American Colonies to be published.  Her poetry book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was about colonial life, but was published in England in 1650. Her work was lauded by contemporaries and she continued to be an inspiration for female poets for at least a hundred years.
One of the first American novelists to gain acclaim was Kate Chopin, a Missouri native whose writings often focused on Louisiana and New Orleans. Published in 1899, The Awakening was one of the first novels to feature a strong female protagonist who rebels against society’s expectations for her. Critics immediately called it, "morbid, vulgar, and disagreeable."  Even Willa Cather said it was "trite and sordid" (  Today it is lauded as one of the best novels of its time. Chopin papered the way for future female writers to give their women characters a real voice.

In the twentieth century, many women authors gained popular and literary acclaim. One particularly outspoken figure was Dorothy Parker, a writer, critic and satirist who won two Academy Awards before being blacklisted for purported associations with the Communist Party in 1950.   In a Vanity Fair article titled, Rebel in Evening Clothes, (Oct. 1999), Parker is described as "cocktail swilling" and who "used her wit to skewer prejudice in pre-civil-rights America."  Her gin drinking, cigarette smoking, and sexy clothes were reflected in her honest and biting works.

Today, Karen Abbott’s focus on historical research and the role of women in historical events have already made her a New York Times Bestselling author.  Erik Larson says it best:
"With this book, Karen Abbott declares herself the John le Carré of Civil War espionage, with the added benefit that the saga she tells is all true and beautifully researched. Her four protagonists, exuding charm, adept at skullduggery, take us on a sweeping and bloody jaunt across the Civil War landscape, into an intimate realm of warfare that will yield for even the most hard-core Civil War buff a wholly fresh perspective on those deadly days."

— Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts

Abbott's works ascends women from traitors, prostitutes, and strippers to independent women who fought for their rights to live and work as they chose. Some call it sizzling history.

Hope to see you November 13th at 7pm at the Main library in downtown Harrisonburg.

Cheryl Metz and Kate Martin