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Hidden structure

Hidden structure

I went outside one morning after it had snowed overnight and noticed something truly fascinating about two nearby cars.  The snow revealed the support frame under the metal sheets of their hoods.  These cars had been parked for hours before the snow fell so it wasn’t direct melting from engine heat, but a very subtle temperature balance between the changing air temperature and the car which was visually magnified by snow accumulation differences.

The snow subtlely reveals invisible details under the hood

This made me think about how cars aren’t the only things with unseen structure, everything in the universe has structure, laws, and order with much of it unseen until conditions occasionally reveal it or scientific investigation illuminates it.

It would be utterly insane to claim that these patterns are a cryptic message from god…

It would be utterly insane to claim that these patterns are a cryptic message from god, impressions left by an unseen angel’s wings, or a sign from the spirits of dead ancestors.  This is because the most minimal investigation of opening the hood would reveal the metal frame as the source of the pattern and looking at the weather report would show how the changing air temperature was at the threshold of freezing – a condition that easily causes snow to accumulate differently based on the details of where it lands.  Yet attributing such understandable phenomena to religious or mystical reasons is unfortunately something a vast number of people do.

…it’s unfortunately human nature to do convoluted mental acrobatics and make up explanations

Seeing the snow on these cars made me think about how when people don’t know something, it’s unfortunately human nature to do convoluted mental acrobatics and make up explanations that are often way more implausible than what they are witnessing.  These explanations are also often more complex than the phenomena they are attempting to explain and raise two questions for every one they answer.  Humanity has been doing this since ancient times with made up stories about gods and deities whose motivations for floods, volcanoes, creating mountains, illness, placing stars in the sky, etc., sound surprisingly human (or maybe that’s not a surprise.)

I know people who would unhesitatingly call the patterns in the snow “signs”, even though the only intelligence implicated is that of the automotive engineers who designed the cars.  The fact is that the world and the universe is full of structure, laws, and order which either perfectly or at least plausibly explain most phenomena.  We need look for this while avoiding the temptation to take the mentally easy path and put the explanation in the hands of an unseen supernatural force.

 Macro photo of a snowflake by Alexey Kljatov

Macro photo of a snoflake by Alexey Kljatov (

It might seem satisfying to believe that an angel or god left a sign for you in the snow.  But knowing and understanding the intricate interactions that bring about phenomina in the real world brings an equal if not deeper sense of beauty, awe, and amazement.  This is in part because knowing more about the true world allows you to better understand a little more about your own existence in the world, because we are not separate from it.  It also comes without the nagging inconsistencies, guesswork, fallacies, and gaps that inevitably accompany the supernatural explanations.

If you think the world of science is not beautiful look at the beauty of a REAL snowflake through a macro lens (a product of science) and consider how the uneven electro-magnetic forces within water molecules are responsible for crafting its near infinite variety of always 6-sided shapes.  Simple, explained, yet still stunningly beautiful.

-William A. Milberry





Comet Pan STARRS (C/2011 L4)

Comet Pan STARRS (C/2011 L4)

Comet Pan STARRS (C/2011 L4) can be seen right of center, just above the horizon with it’s tail going up. This is a non-periodic comet (meaning it doesn’t come regularly like Haley’s Comet.) My wife and I watched the sunset together and waited a long time for the sky to darken so it would be visible. It became freezing cold and windy outside and we were about to give up when I decided to do a slightly long exposure in the general direction where the comet was supposed to be.  While it turned out to not be visible to the naked eye, it showed up in my picture! I shot this with a 50mm lens, but am going to go out with my telephoto lens again tomorrow night and take another stab at it now that I know where it is.

-William Milberry