Published February 1, 2024

We got a lot of snow where I live this year. It has all melted at this point due to some unusually warm weather for January, but for about a week everything was coated with inches of snow.

Snow, of course, is comprised of snowflakes. And a fact I have not forgotten is that every snowflake is unique. Buried in the back of my mind in stunning clarity is a memory of being a little kindergartener making paper snowflakes while the teacher explained that every single snowflake was unique.

I find this idea improbable and intriguing.

How much snow falls every year? And how many more snowflakes never touch the ground but are formed and then melt somewhere between the sky and the ground? The number of snowflakes must rival the number of grains of sand on the beach, if not far surpass it.

Something so small and so plentiful, how is it possible that every single one would be completely unique? No, I think that based on the massive economy of scale that nature employs to mass produce snowflakes nearly disproves the notion itself. Law of big numbers + pigeonhole principle, etc.

I can’t imagine we’ve taken an enormous number of photographs of snowflakes, especially when you compare that number to the unsurmountable backlog that nature continuously produces. How many photos would you need before you found identical twins?

And what is identical? Is it sharing the same basic shape? Do they need the exact crystal structure? I’m sure there’s interesting applications of graph theory or computer vision here, but that may be a tangent for another night.

But it is a remarkable statment. Given billions, trillions, I-don’t-even-know-illions of snowflakes each year, and yet we confidently declare every single one unique and special.

Why do we look to snowflakes as a metaphor for our own uniqueness, where each person is a snowflake and special in their own right? Maybe the idea of a small, insignificant snowflake being special just because it exists appeals to the part of us that feels small when faced with society and the history of the human race.

But if every person is a snowflake, each person serves a greater purpose outside of their own selves. They may be beautiful and unique, but it is through their participation as a part in the whole that real change happens. Without the trillions the landscape is left ungarnished and dead.

The snow may add beauty, it may add harm, it can destroy and damage or be built up and be played with. But it is through the collective snowflakes that it is worth anything at all.

So I guess my real question is how did snow become a metaphor for individuality when it so clearly points to a metaphor for community?

Each person can be special and have a part to play, but maybe it is together that we get the actually important things done.

Or we could just keep taking pictures of snowflakes.