News at Princeton

Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014
 

Multimedia: Featured

'Catching Snowflakes'



Robert Vanderbei, a Princeton University professor of operations research and financial engineering, is a mathematician with a specialized hobby. Vanderbei tinkers with camera lenses and uses image-enhancing software to produce exquisite pictures of snowflakes. In this video, he demonstrates his technique and explains how the artistic endeavor inspires his research. Read more.


Video Closed Captions


ROBERT VANDERBEI:
I got interested

in snowflake photography
just a few months ago.

One of my colleagues
here in the department

mentioned it as how
snowflakes are all different

and how it's really
hard to understand

how they could be all different.

Then I did a little type
it into Google, snowflakes

or something, and quickly
stumbled on this guy

in Moscow who does these
amazing snowflake photographs.

And he has a website where
he explains how he does it.

And I did something
similar and went out

and took my first picture.

It came out pretty good.

And so for the last
two months, I've

been trying to make
it better and hoping

it'll snow every day.

I like to take
pictures of snowflakes

because I find it both
relaxing and stimulating.

And it helps inspire
projects for my classes.

This is my digital SLR
camera, which ends here.

And this thing down
here is the lens

from that camera that I bought,
which was a regular Single Lens

Reflex camera, an SLR.

But the lens comes off.

And so this is just the lens.

The camera body if it were
here would be below here.

So this is the lens
backwards in this setup.

And then I take this outside
and catch some snowflakes.

I was using a sock.

But I take that sock,
and I would hold it.

And it was snowing.

And the snow would fall, and you
can actually see the crystals.

They're not so tiny
that you can't tell.

So I would look and
see if there was

some that looked interesting.

I'd take several
pictures, and then I'd

spend hours at my computer
putting these pictures together

to make one final
picture of one snowflake.

I spent a lot of time
running a MATLAB program

to assemble the multiple images
at different depths of focus

because I may have 10
photographs for one snowflake.

And to sit there in Photoshop
and do it all by hand

got to be very tedious.

And I would call that
hardcore engineering.

So it's the nerdy side
of me and the artsy side

of me being combined
a little bit here.

And I've always been a
little bit of both, I think.

The coolest thing about the
snowflakes and the reason

I like to take their
picture is the symmetry,

the six-fold symmetry,
which physicists understand,

having to do with water, and
the shape of the molecules,

and how the ice crystals form.

So the six-fold symmetry at
some levels is well understood,

but at the same time it becomes
so intricate as it grows.

And it's more than just
the six-fold symmetry

but how it goes out, and
every one's different,

and the physics behind that is
certainly not well understood

by me.

And I think that that's
really fascinating,

and I would like to
understand it better.


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