Snowfalls and Screensavers

Over the past two weeks, Langley has seen a new snowfall nearly every day.  We must have accumulated about a metre of the wonderful white stuff from Dec. 17 to Jan. 2!  Some melted during the occasional thaws and/or rains, but more has compacted.  For several reasons, I've had plenty of exercise shoveling snow:  our driveway is sloped toward the house, our cul-de-sac is on an incline as well, and our teenage son has been coughing due to cold- and exercise-induced asthma.  And since the city has by now exceeded its snow-removal budget and given up the battle, we have had to shovel the road itself too.


These recent snowfalls remind me of a time when our son was about six or seven years old.  We were living in a small town in north-west Iowa, and we were driving home from a college orchestra concert one winter evening.  It was dark, and snow was falling steadily (that is, at the respective size- and shape-dependent terminal velocities of each individual flake or cluster of flakes).  Due to the motion of our car relative to the air, no matter which way we turned, it looked like the snow was coming toward us.  In fact, as we drove, it looked like the snow was coming straight at us from a point about 30 degrees above the horizontal directly ahead of us, so that as we drove into it, the snowflakes diverged from that location.  Our son excitedly blurted out, "That looks just like a screensaver!"  He was referring to the "stars" screensaver, which gives the impression of being in a spaceship traveling through the stars.  I've included a screenshot here (from  (Wait, maybe that's actually a multiple-flash photo of the snowfall!)

Now it is true that, in our son's case, he had seen the screensaver first, and then later saw the snowfall pattern.  Thus for him, the snowfall resembled the screensaver.  But I remarked that it was probably more correct to say that the screensaver looks like the snowfall instead.  That is, the designers of the screensaver used experiences and ideas from real life; they cannot do otherwise.  God's creation is the original, and it constrains our imagination in both art and science.  In the case of both the screensaver and the snowfall experience, what we see is due to motion (or modeling thereof) at a constant velocity relative to an approximately random, static, and uniform distribution of sources of light.  In order for this to be possible, there has to be number, space, motion, pattern, light emission and scattering, gravity, phase transitions, aggregation, electromagnetism, retinal impressions, neuronal synapses, visual perception, etc.  All of these are features built into the universe by its Creator.

Science seeks to explain, model, predict, describe the features of the "natural" universe.  And we have formulated a number of stunningly beautiful and accurate theories.  As a theoretical physicist, it is terribly exciting to explore --- and to introduce others to do the same --- the realms of quantum electrodynamics, general relativity, quark theory, anyons in the fractional quantum Hall effect.  But it is also marvellous to step back and realize that these are only our theories; the real world is far more intricate and beautiful and incomprehensible.  I do not mean to denigrate theories, for theories are actually more important in science than mere collections of facts.  But it is important to remember what the original is, as well as who its Origin is.  Retaining a sense of wonder and awe is important, and as Christians we can direct this in praise to the Creator.

Last updated Jan. 2nd, 2009 at 10:42pm by Arnold Sikkema