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.
Ukichiro Nakaya is known for having created the very first artificial snowflakes. He was a Japanese science essayist and a physicist who was known for his works on glaciology and low-temperature sciences.
Early Life and Educational Background
Born on the 4th of July in 1900, Ukichiro Nakaya was born near the Katayamazu hot springs in Kaga which is located of the Sea of Japan.
This is the same region depicted in the best-selling encyclopedic work “Hokuetsu Seppu” (Snow Country Tales) by Suzuki Bokushi which included over 180 sketches of natural snowflakes. This work was published in 1837 and helped inspire Nakaya’s life’s work.
Nakaya’s father originally wanted him to become a potter and sent him to live with one during his years in primary school. Nakaya developed an interest for physics when he was in high school. Studying at Tokyo Imperial University under Torahiko Terada, Nakaya majored in experimental physics and graduated in 1925 with a Master of Science Degree.
After graduating, Nakaya became Terada’s research assistant in earthquake studies at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN). He then moved on to study electrostatic discharge as assistant professor at Tokyo University.
In 1928 Nakaya furthered his education studying at Kings College, London under the tutelage of Dr. O.W. Richardson researching long-wavelength x-rays.
He was appointed assistant professor of physics at Hokkaido University in northern Japan in 1930 where he remained for the rest of his career.
In 1931, Nakaya acquired his Doctor of Science from Kyoto University.
Research on Snowflakes
When Nakaya joined the Hokkaido University Department of Physics, they had insufficient funding for research so equipment was scarce. Thanks to the climate, there was, however, an unlimited supply of snow during the winter months. So, inspired by Wilson Bentley’s recent 1931 book “Snow Crystals” containing over 2,500 photographs and “Hokuetsu Seppu” (Snow Country Tales) he began his research on snowflakes.
Nakaya initially found that regular hexagonal crystals were not as frequent as more irregular ones and wondered why snow crystals were all so different.
In 1935 he founded the Low Temperature Science Laboratory to try to duplicate nature in the laboratory. He devised convective snow-making apparatus and produced the first artificial snow crystals in 1936 on rabbit hair in cold humid air. Rabbit hair has small “knobs” at convenient lengths which made an excellent starting point to grow snow crystals. It took between 30 and 60 minutes for a crystal to form.
With the aid of a microscope he took over 3,000 microphotographs of snowflakes and from these, he was able to establish a system of classification of natural snow crystals into seven major groups and many minor groupings.
From his snowflake studies he developed The Snow Crystal Morphology Diagram or “Nakaya Diagram”. He discovered that from the shape of a snow crystal, it was possible to determine the meteorological conditions in the atmosphere in which the crystal was formed.
He discovered that plate like crystals grow when the temperature is just below freezing point at low humidity. A few degrees colder and slender columns and needles are formed. Colder still, and with increasing humidity the edges and corners grow the fastest and cavities are formed, making more interesting designs. Increasing the humidity further creates snow crystals with broad points, these points then narrow as humidity rises still further and at the highest humidity beautiful dendritic crystals (tree like) are formed.
As a snow typically passes through one environmental condition to another as it falls, mixed crystals are formed. Nakaya said:
“Snow crystals are the hieroglyphs sent from the sky”
Nakaya spent two years, 1936-38 on the Izu Peninsula recovering from clonorchiasis, an infectious disease caused by the Chinese liver fluke.
For his work on snow crystals and low-temperature-related research, Nakaya was awarded the Japan Academy Prize in 1940.
Finally, in 1954, his beautifully illustrated book “Snow Crystals” was published. The book had been delayed because of the Second World War as much of the original wording and illustrations were destroyed by bombing. This work still serves as a classic reference for classifying snow crystals based on their shapes and is useful to both scientists and artists alike.
During the Second World War, Nakaya worked at the newly built atmospheric icing observatory at Mt. Niseko-Annupuri researching the prevention of icing on plane wings.
In 1944 he moved to the Nemuro coast to study artificial dissipation of fog.
He helped found the Institute of Agricultural Physics in 1946 and he was involved in research concerning flood and snowmelt in drainage basins.
In 1949 he accepted an invitation by the International Glaciological Society to tour the United States and Canada.
Nakaya became a research fellow at the Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE), in 1952 living in Illinois for two years, where he studied Tyndall figures and single crystals.
He visited Greenland in 1957 as a member of the United States expedition for the International Geophysical Year. Returning several times, Nakaya studied the ice cap. His research also took him to Mt. Mauna Loa in Hawaii and to Ice Island T-3.
In 1960 a group of Antarctic islands were named in his honor, the “Nakaya Islands”.
In addition to his scientific research he also wrote many popular science books on various topics and become proficient in “Sumi-e” Japanese art which uses single brush strokes using black ink.
In Japan, he was also known as a great essayist, a reputable critic on topics about natural science, and also an excellent photographer.
Nakaya was married twice and had three daughters. Ukichiro Nakaya died on 11 April 1962, aged 61, after a bone infection.