Design or Pattern?
By: Jim Virkler
Many regions of our country experienced severe cold weather in late December 2017. Current forecasts indicate we will endure at least another week of below zero conditions, in some cases, substantially below zero. Some are already poking fun at the global warming climate change contingent without acknowledging that there is a distinction between weather and climate. The current cold snap afforded us an opportunity to rediscover the diversity and beauty of snowflakes collected on a dark, cold surface under ideal conditions. Careful collection and examination of snowflakes with a magnifying glass is an experience not to be missed, especially for our children.
Winter weather generates snow, a beautiful but sometimes hazardous product of Earth’s mid- and high-latitude regions. Snowflakes are one of nature’s most beautiful manifestations. It is true that no two hexagonally arrayed snowflakes are exactly alike. Snowflakes are six-sided or six-pointed with unique embellishments. As snow falls some cohere into larger particles or crumble in wind-driven conditions.
Several memories from my teaching experience highlight snowflakes and, more generally, impactful snow events related to teaching near the east coast in northern New Jersey, including the famous winter nor’easters. One of my colleagues, director of environmental education, once sponsored an activity with his students—collecting delicate snowflakes on a cold microscope slide and preserving their form with an application of hairspray. Once during my meteorology unit our neighborhood was favored with an unusual fall of huge snowflakes. I instructed students, “Hurry, get your coats and meet me outside at the nearest exit door.” Catching giant snowflakes in our mouths turned out to be a memorable impromptu activity. One student reminded me of her appreciation for that event several times in the next few months.
Differences among trillions of snowflakes is testament to the multiple subtle atmospheric variations in temperature and humidity. At temperatures below freezing water vapor molecules join with a nucleus of a tiny dust or mineral particle. Snowflakes form when water vapor molecules transition directly to a solid without becoming liquid. A solid snow crystal forms as additional water molecules are added. The variety of crystal forms is virtually unlimited because of extensive variation in atmospheric conditions. With as many as ten quintillion water molecules forming a snowflake, we imagine that the manner in which these molecules arrange themselves explains their unimaginable variety.
The concept of intelligent design has been raised in connection with snowflakes and hundreds of other beautiful phenomena in our natural world. Are snowflakes examples of design? Or are they patterns? The two terms are sometimes used synonymously, but the distinctions are important. Patterns may be esthetically beautiful with their beautiful repeating ornate features, but they are not the product of an idea. Designs are preceded by an idea. In turn, the idea is expressed as a language in which the language symbols mean something other than themselves. The best example is the design of living things. If we believe life originates as the product of an intelligent mind, we acknowledge that the idea originated in the mind of God. The idea resulted in the DNA genetic code—three billion digits—a purposeful, literal language directing the production of living things.
Whereas designs have a goal in mind, patterns do not. Snowflake patterns result from a self organizing process. The order in a snowflake is fascinatingly beautiful, but “no blueprint or genetic code guides their construction.” Instead, they form spontaneously from the simple action of water vapor condensing directly into solid ice in infinitely different ways. With respect to snowflakes the result is esthetically pleasing.
Kenneth G. Libbrecht, chairman of the physics department at Cal Tech writes in an article entitled “Snowflake Science.” Libbrecht states, “The snowflakes hexagonal patterning derives from the structure of the ice-crystal lattice. The lattice structure in turn derives from the geometry of water molecules and how they connect…So where is the creative genius capable of designing snow crystals in an endless variety of beautiful patterns? It lives in the ever-changing wind.”
The geometry of a water molecule may be described as follows: two hydrogen atoms bond with one oxygen atom at an angle of 105º. Therefore, the familiar H20 water molecule is polar because it is non-linear—it has a positive charge at the hydrogen end and a negative charge at the oxygen end of each water molecule. Such polar molecules bond with each other because positive and negative charges attract. The result is hexagonal structure in water at some temperatures. Water warming from 0ºC to 4ºC (32ºF to 39ºF) or water cooling a similar amount experiences reversals of the “rules” for expansion and contraction we have come to expect when liquids are warmed or cooled. This curious behavior of liquid water is due to slight changes in density related to the formation or breakdown of hexagonal structures of molecules in liquid water owing to its polar qualities. In snowflakes, the spectacular, visually appealing hexagonal structure is also related to the polar qualities of water molecules.
Snowflakes are formed in self-assembled, repeating patterns. Many phenomena in the natural world may be deemed patterns. They form spontaneously, but a complete explanation is difficult to fathom. Other examples are cloud vortexes, peacock feathers, ammonite shells, and sunflower seed patterns, to name a few. In contrast, we may draw an analogy to human production of music or literature which originate with an idea and are expressed by a symbolic language of musical notes or letters on a page. Compare the digital language of DNA—the genetic code of life. The design of living things is suffused with intelligent ideas and expressed in complex language.
The Creator of All Things is the intelligent Designer of all matter and energy. He also created our dimensions of time and space In the Beginning. Had God not created all things, there would be no such things as atoms and molecules with their charges and polarities. Atoms and molecules (and their constituents) resulted from the creation of matter at the beginning. The Book of Hebrews tells us that through God’s Son the universe was made (Hebrews 1:2). The universe was made—designed—by God and the Son, two members of the Trinity. Subsequently, (Hebrews 1:2) the Son sustains all things by his powerful word. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV).
The Creator of All Things produced (designed) the universe. In addition, the Son is constantly sustaining all things, including many patterns in the natural world. We bow in reverence before the Creator as the author of both designs and patterns!
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.