A sampling of glorious snow math

Snowflake 3-D numerical model NASA

A model image incorporating key properties of melting snowflakes. Image credit: NASA

Lately, the weather has seemed to taunt me. By traveling back from my family’s Thanksgiving festivities on November 24, I narrowly missed driving through a multi-state blizzard that slowed portions of my partner’s November 25 return down to a crawl.

Our house is just minutes from Des Moines. Off-and-on for the past several days, snow flurries have intermittently skittered through the air, only to melt upon hitting the ground. Minutes later, the snowflakes have ceased falling altogether. I know it’s only a matter of time before the snow will stick, pile up and remind me that winter comes and goes on it’s own timeline, regardless of what’s safe or convenient for humans.

I’ll admit that while I’ve always lived in states with snowy winters — first New York, then Missouri, then Iowa — I rarely feel excited to welcome mounds of snow into my life. Still, for all of the inconvenience and traveling problems heavy snow accumulations often cause, I’ll admit there are some upsides to snow itself. Such as watching the beautiful dances of individual snowflakes as they glide through the air or releasing stress by creating snowballs for a fight with your kids/partner/friends or to throw for your pet. (After a hearty snowfall, my golden retriever always stares at me insistently because she wants me to throw snowballs for her, even though she never learns that whether she catches them or lets them hit the ground, they just break apart, leaving her wondering where the ball went. Yet she never seems to tire of the game.)

The topic of snow has also prompted some exciting math content. Here’s a roundup.

“The most festive fractal”

On her “Roots of Unity” blog for Scientific American, Evelyn Lamb wrote about the Koch snowflake, which she describes as “the most festive fractal.” Lamb, who is also a former editor of the “Blog on Math Blogs,” also directs us to the “Instructables” website for a fascinating description (with photos) of Charless Fowlkes’s Koch pecan pie.

Back in 2013, Stephanie Blanda also wrote a post about the Koch snowflake for the AMS “Graduate Student Blog.”

Starting an indoor “snowball” fight with students

It’s not as messy as it sounds. On the Math=Love blog, Sarah Carter wrote about using “snowballs” made of crumpled pieces of white paper to, in her words “discuss common errors to avoid in solving equations without any students thinking that I was picking on them.” Basically, students grab a piece of paper that has an equation written on it and then they choose whether they solve the equation in a way they think is correct or incorrect (without telling anyone around them which choice they’re making). They then crumple the papers, throw them around the room and pick up a different “snowball.” Next it’s time for students to “grade” the work on the “snowball” they find. Anyone who finds an error shares what they found with the class. The activity seems to be a great way to combine fun and learning. It also shows potential to be used in classes of different levels. Even college.

Snowflake math art that might call for an “emergency protractor”

If you haven’t seen it already, check out Vi Hart’s 2012 video “Snowflakes, Starflakes, and Swirlflakes,” which has over 958,000 views on YouTube. At the 2018 Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, Hart was awarded a Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) Communications Award for “entertaining, thought-provoking mathematics and music videos on YouTube that explain mathematical concepts through doodles.”

Worried your holiday packages won’t arrive to their destinations on time?

Elizabeth Woyke, senior editor of business for MIT Technology Review published an article about how one package delivery giant uses AI to deliver packages during snowstorms.

NASA’s model of melting atmospheric snow

It’s the first 3-D model numerical model of it’s type, a news release notes. Check it out here.

Have more snow-themed math to share? Reach me in the comments below or on Twitter @writesRCrowell!

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One Response to A sampling of glorious snow math

  1. Evelyn Lamb says:

    This is fun! Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed Alexandra Witze’s article about snowflake formation in Knowable: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/physical-world/2017/how-snowflakes-grow
    People who want to make their own snowflake decorations can check out Laura Taalman’s Snowflake Machine, which helps you create 3-d printed snowflakes: https://mathgrrl.com/hacktastic/2018/11/the-snowflake-machine-2/

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