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Keep the Faith

Last spring, I visited Caltech in Pasadena, California, where a physicist named Ken Libbrecht was growing snow crystals in his lab. Most of Libbrecht’s work and energy is spent on large-scale stuff, like helping build machines that detect waves in the fabric of the space-time continuum, but tenure and curiosity and a few discretionary dollars in his budget allow him to pursue whatever catches his fancy. For the last year or so, that’s been snowflakes: snowflakes and snowflake development.

With help from grad student lab-slaves, Libbrecht built a diffusion chamber in which he could create ice crystals on the end of a wire charged with electrical current. When he runs voltage through the wire, water molecules attach themselves and form a tiny needle crystal. Then, by manipulating the wire, Libbrecht can alter how the molecules attach themselves to the needle—as arms, plates, whatever. The result is an amazing display of snowflake beauty, much of it rendered later on a video screen  in stunning time-lapse photography that a snow geek can watch again and again. These moving images were one of Libbrecht’s goals, a way of bringing art to his science. But, aside from just being enchanted by aesthetics, Libbrecht the scientist wanted to discover and chart which weather conditions (humidity, temperature, etc.) cause which type of crystals to form. Essentially, he’s using his lab in an attempt to create a Rosetta stone that would allow you to decode the “history” of any given flake.

I spent hours with Libbrecht, and our conversation eventually turned to the math of snowflakes, to the equations that describe the physics of frozen water, and that’s when he lost me. Trying to get back on comprehensible ground, I asked him, “So, what are the unsolved mysteries of snowflakes? What’s left to be discovered?”

He laughed. No, he snorted.

“What’s left to be discovered?” Leaning forward over his cluttered desk, he paused for effect and arched an eyebrow. “Almost everything. What we know about snowflakes is a tiny fraction of what we don’t know.”

Months later, long after I’d forgotten most of what I heard, those words continue to echo in my head. I hear them when I’m looking at ski pictures, I hear them when I’m falling asleep at night, I hear them when I’m daydreaming at my desk.

“What we know about snowflakes is a tiny fraction of what we don’t know.” Of course.

So now I think about a snowstorm, about a raging maelstrom of a snowstorm, with big, fat flakes that scream horizontal on the wind, and I think about the equations, the swirling hurricane of numbers, that somehow might be able to describe the fury before me, and I think that even with the biggest computer in the world, even with the unified might of every brain in the universe, you could never truly capture or convey or explain the magic and mystery and majesty of the storm. It’s something that can only be experienced, experienced with your whole being. With your soul.

So it is with powder skiing, and with POWDER Magazine. After years of pursuing a deepening knowledge of skiing through the pages of POWDER, I think I finally understand this weird relationship between knowledge and ignorance and gut-level comprehension. This motion over snow, this paper and ink, are bound together inextricably, connected and made whole in ways that can’t be described by equations or even words, that can only be understood through the shared experience and collective spirit of lives spent on skis. In the end, you know it by doing it, and by doing it you know.

I have been honored and blessed to be a part of this magazine for 12 years, but the time has come for me to say goodbye. In leaving, I want to thank you for everything: the letters, the calls, buying the magazine, the whole enchilada. I wish for you nothing but the best, for the deepest, lightest snow, for friends that say, “No, you go first,” and for huge grins and goggles that don’t fog and a desire for freshies that never, ever wanes. Remember that POWDER means freedom, that it means getting away to a place where there are no lines, no ropes, no fences, just snow, and that it is, ultimately, an expression of thanks. Remember that, and keep the faith.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 27.3, November 1998. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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