A friendly chat with snowflakes

  • 2005-11-30
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - "Conversations with Snow and Ice" - the exhibit title touched me at once. As for the exhibit itself 's a scientific and artistic look at snow, ice and every atom in between 's in comparison to Europe's phenomenal science museums, the four-room setup seems almost trite. But its heart is in the right place.

I truly hope that, one day, Latvia has the budget for a state-of-the-art European science center, but for now The Latvian Nature Museum does a fine job in trying.

The Nature Museum's attempt to capture the infinitely fascinating science behind the snowflake is admirable. As I watched a group of school children eagerly crowding over a microscope, I realized that "Conversations with Snow and Ice" had accomplished all that it set out to do.

The exhibit is both dedicated to and inspired by Japanese experimental physicist Ukichiro Nakaya (1900-1962), so that bits and pieces of his research can be found in every room. As the exhibition's concept explains: "Ukichiro was guided by his aspiration to nature's wonders, beauties and mysteries and created the world's first artificial snow crystals." Nakaya's message, "Snow is a letter sent from heaven," resonates from every display.

"Conversations with Snow and Ice" opens with inspirational quotes from a sample of the world's greatest philosophers and scientists: Aristotle on clouds and dew, Lucretius on water, Leonardo Da Vinci on how clouds dissolve into vapor, Kelper on snowflakes and Kant on the free formations of nature.

Beneath these posters of majestic words sit display cabinets with yellowed science books, meteorological journals and detailed diagrams of snowflakes. There is even work by Latvian scientists, such as Reinis Kaudzite, a 19th century writer and pedagogue who studied meteorology.

The second room, by far the most scientific, glows with white light and the silent hum of "snow noise," an experimental project by Germany's Karstens Nikolajs. In the middle of the room sit five frosty glass capsules, protruding from a metal icebox of sorts. The neon-lit capsules steam and glow as if they contain Kryptonite, and are carefully guarded by a white-haired granny.

Clearly the exhibit's most prized display, each refrigerated tube contains an artificially created snowflake growing within. Under the careful watch of granny, children can peer into the icy capsules and gasp over five glittering snowflakes that hover from thin wires.

As I walked into the next hall, I was overcome with elementary school nostalgia. In essence a fifth grade science class, the room was filled with children running from one hands-on station to the next. There was even an unrecognizable, yet intriguing, Japanese invention ruminating in the corner of the room, equipped with instructions (although in Japanese) on how to use the cow-sized invention. My guess is that it had something to do with the systematic micro-development of stellar dendrite snow crystals. But who really knows.

Since the exhibit aspires to capture both the scientific and artistic value of snow and ice, a photo gallery of winter images ends the tour. The professional nature photographs covered everything from snow-covered birch trees to melting icicles and cobwebs glistening with dew. But it was the room's video set-up that really touched me.

In the corner of the room a dozen chairs were set up in rows before a television set. Having been to several science museums, I was expecting a Discovery Channel-like film on meteorology.

Ten minutes into the video and I couldn't help but smile to myself 's they must have dug it up from a dusty box of Soviet education videos. The film was pure 1960s science-lab material, with men in white lab coats and beehive-haired women sporting thick-rimmed glasses. I hadn't seen anything like it since my third grade biology class.

What a heartwarming exhibit, I thought on my way out, and I wondered how long it would be before the like ceased to exist in Latvia.

"Conversations with Snow

and Ice"

Latvian Nature Museum

Runs until Dec. 30

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