Picturing Snowflakes, 1611-1966: A New Approach to Global, longue-durée History of Science

A 17th-century astronomer, an 18th-century doctor, a 19th-century whaler, and a 20th-century farmer discover an exquisite work of art… it turned out to be a flake.

Combining approaches from visual and material studies with more traditional close-reading approaches, my project explores the history of observing and visualising snow crystals from the early seventeenth century to the mid twentieth century. It uses archival and published material spanning three continents, giving insight into the construction of visual cultures of snowflakes and their place in our understandings of the environment. It draws from methods in the history of science, but also from cultural and global history, art history, sociology, and environmental literature, combining them to trace the long-term history of this science in its cultural, visual, and environmental contexts.

This project has two overarching conceptual aims. The first involves demonstrating the benefits of using a case study like snowflake science as a means of interrogating how natural phenomena are shaped and understood through visualisation and observation practices. Given that specific environmental conditions make snow a challenging object to study, this history can also help reveal ways in which observers have negotiated and manipulated different environments in relation to their scientific inquiries. The second aim concerns the history of science as a discipline. By taking a long-term approach, and elevating the role of environments in shaping scientific practice, I hope to help create a framework for “environmentalising” other areas of the history of science and technology. Ultimately, snowflake science has often defied traditional disciplinary compartmentalisation, being practiced by individuals with varying backgrounds and motivations. Since practices were often influenced and dictated more by environments than, say, disciplinary training, we may prefer to define this science in environmental rather than disciplinary terms. This is a perspective I hope others will also find useful.

Floris Winckel is a Ph.D. student at the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich. Contact: floris.winckel@rcc.lmu.de