The Miracle of Snow

A little dusting of snow last night, so every branch and twig is outlined, a picture postcard snow, a magical snow.  The sky is still grey, so the colors are all soft pale pastels.  It made me think what a miraculous sight I see from my windows.  In order to have snow and trees, a number of conditions must be fulfilled.  First, there has to be a planet the right distance from its sun such that water exists as vapor, liquid and frozen.  A process of water evaporating, rising up into colder air and becoming clouds,  clouds high enough and cold enough so the water will crystallize into the wonderful delicate hexagonal shapes of snowflakes which then start to fall.  They have to meet with the right conditions as they fall, if it gets warm they melt and become rain, if it gets warmer still they evaporate again and never get to the ground.  A phenomenon I’ve seen here in New England, but it’s more likely in desert areas — you see the cloud, and the rain, but the slanting lines of rain stop partway down.  There also can’t be any warm updrafts, or the snowflakes melt, become droplets, and freeze again, falling as hail or sleet.  Then there’s always freezing rain, as rain falls on a very cold surface and freezes.  I expect the processes that deliver the different types of precipitation are more complex than I’ve offered here, but that only makes snow more of a miracle.

As for trees, to create a tree requires atoms of Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nickel, Iron, etc. in a chemical soup, in a warmish puddle or pond or lake.  Each of the atoms that are heavier than hydrogen have to be synthesized inside a giant star which then explodes, scattering the heavier atoms back into the cloud of hydrogen where they can combine to form a planet.  Where did the hydrogen come from in the first place?  Some think it was just there to be the material for the “Big Bang.”  Others make the assumption that it is a property of space to create hydrogen atoms.  Now that we’ve discovered that atoms aren’t “atom” — indivisible — but made up of smaller parts, of which new ones are discovered every day, it’s possible to imagine that these smaller parts, in another dimension, self-organize to become a hydrogen atom which emerges into our space-time.  Once you’ve got hydrogen, you can go on the create stars, which create the heavier atoms, etc.   But I digress.

Back to trees, back to carbon, oxygen, hydrogen in a puddle on a planet that’s just the right distance from the sun.  The atoms do a beautiful thing, they self-organize into molecules, which then self-organize into cells, which then self-organize into multi-celled creatures, which then become plants which then co-evolve into many sizes, shapes and types to create healthy ecosystems.  And there were trees.  And it was evening and it was morning, the Third Day.

By the way, Darwin never said “survival of the fittest.”  That was a convenient phrase for the wealthy creators of industrialism who wanted to justify their exploitation of natural resources and people.  Unfortunately there are still people who believe in survival of the fittest as justifying rich people not helping poor people.  The understanding now is that a particular eco-system consists of creatures co-evolving to make the most use of the available resources.

Finally, there is the question of seasons on the planet.  I suspect that the planet also has to have its axis tilted to the plane of its orbit, or trees and snow won’t co-exist.  I’m guessing that the range of angles the axis can take is somewhere around the earth’s tilt of 23°.  If a planet’s axis is hardly tilted at all, there will be ice and tundra at the poles and rainforest around the equator, and only in the temperate latitudes will there be a chance of large trees evolving that then occasionally have snow falling on them.  That’s likely to be extremely rare.  I’d love to know if someone has made a study of this.

For more information:  do a google search for “complexity” or “complex adaptive systems”    Slideshare is helpful, but you have to create an account.  The book Complexity is good, and there’s probably a lot of other stuff out now.  There’s also a page on my blog called “At Home in the Universe,” that talks about this process.  For myself, I am very happy with this idea of how the universe creates itself.  This process, so complex and beautiful and elegant, is nothing less than divine.  The fact that it gives rise to sentient beings who are capable of cooperation, self-organization, and compassion leaves me with no doubt at all that it is a spiritual process.

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