Ukichiro Nakaya

For people in countries with snow, appreciating the beauty of each snowflake is one of the many wonders that nature can bring. Each with a unique pattern, nature never fails to come up with beauty even in the smallest of frozen things. Being small, delicate, and unique, it is hard to imagine how to replicate snowflakes. However, Ukichiro Nakaya found a way around this. He is known for having created the very first artificial snowflakes. Nakaya was a Japanese science essayist and a physicist who was also known for his works on glaciology as well as low-temperature sciences. When it came to snow and ice research his name would definitely ring a bell. Basically, he is known internationally for his scientific contributions.

Early Life and Educational Background

Born on the 4th of July in 1900, Dr. Nakaya was a native of Katayamazu, Ishikawa-ken now known as Kagashi which is located off the Sea of Japan. This is the same area depicted in the encyclopedic work called Hokuetsu Seppu which contains about 183 sketches of natural snowflakes. This work was published in 1837. This was known to be what inspired Nakaya’s life’s work.


Nakaya wrote in one of his works how his father had originally wanted him to become a potter and even sent him to live with one during his years in primary school. Although his father died while he was still in primary school, his very first scientific paper which was published in 1924 was about Kutani Porcelain. This work was written for the Physics Department of Tokyo Imperial University’s inaugural issue.

Nakaya’s inspiration for studying physics were Laplace and Kant, mainly their nebular hypotheses and his interest for physics began to take off when he was in high school. Hajime Tanabe, a Japanese philosopher who was from the Kyoto School also had an influence on Nakaya’s works later on.

He studied at Tokyo Imperial University and was under Torahiko Terada, a Japanese author and physicist, while he majored in experimental physics. Nakaya graduated in 1925 and received his Master of Science Degree that year.

After graduating, he became Terada’s research assistant not long after and they worked on their research at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research commonly known as RIKEN. There he studied about electrostatic discharge while also being one of the assistant professors at Tokyo University.

He furthered his education by engaging in more physics-related work at Kings College in London and was under the tutelage of Dr. O.W. Richardson for a year from 1928. During his time there, he studied about long-wavelength x-rays. In 1931, he acquired his Doctor of Science from Kyoto University. A year earlier, he had been appointed as the Professor of Physics at Hokkaido University in Sapporo and he was associated with the university for the rest of his life.

Research on Snowflakes

When Nakaya had the chance to take over the Hokkaido University Department of Physics, they had less than sufficient funding for research and scarce equipment too. What he did have was an unlimited supply of snow which has accumulated and was still falling because of the long winter and a microscope. This was what sparked his research on snowflakes.

He had over 3,000 microphotographs and from these, he was able to establish a kind of general classification of the natural snow crystals. It was in 1935 when he brought the Low Temperature Science Laboratory to life and this was where he realized his next step for his research—finding ways to create artificial snow crystals.

From his studies about snowflakes, he was able to develop the “Nakaya Diagram” and the convective snow-making apparatus which he used to make the very first artificial snow crystal in 1936. He used the Nakaya Diagram for determining the growing conditions for specific snow crystals, and based on the shape of the snowflakes, he also found out how he can determine different meteorological conditions of the atmosphere from where the crystal was formed.

Because of his work on snow crystals and low-temperature-related research, he was awarded the Japan Academy Prize in 1940. In 1954, his work on snowflakes was published in an illustrated book called the Snow Crystals. Today, this work serves as a classic reference when it comes to classifying snow based on their shapes and is used by both scientists and artists as well.

For two years though, Nakaya and his family had to live at a certain hot springs resort on the Izu Peninsula while he was recuperating from clonorchiasis. This happened from 1936 to 1938 and for two years he wasn’t as active in his scientific endeavors as before.

In the year 1952, Nakaya was invited to have his own research done at the U.S. Army Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment and later on even after his research period was over, he frequently visited the United States to further his studies. He was very much engaged in his work and his studies even got him to places such as Mt. Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the Greenland Ice Cap, and the Ice Island. Because of his expertise and profound knowledge in snow crystals and low-temperature science, he was elected as the Vice President of the Commission on Snow and Ice of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics.


Nakaya had been the author as well as co-author of many publications and scientific articles; this part of him was only a facet of his personality and many talents. He had also made non-fiction books, an inkling for people who knew him that during his earlier years he had been very interested in oil painting and had become very good in “Sumi-e” which is a kind of Japanese art which uses single brush strokes with just black ink.

In Japan, he was also known as a great essayist, a reputable critic on topics about natural science, and also a great photographer. He had also been recognized as one of Japan’s ten most distinguished men and in 1960. He received recognition for his many different talents and scientific contributions. Even today he is still remembered for all these contributions, and in true to his words “snow crystals are the hieroglyphs sent from the sky.”