Category: "More philosophical musings"

Musings on Bentley’s ‘no two alike’

February 22nd, 2022

[This is the second of the re-posted articles, from 2007.]

Wilson Bentley is famous for his phrase ’no two alike’, but what did he really mean by it? Excerpts in Duncan Blanchard’s book suggest that Bentley was usually referring to only the crystals he photographed (1).

Sometimes though, Bentley seems to be referring to all snow crystals. Maybe sometimes he meant it one way and sometimes the other; however, I wonder if he also had a third, and more profound, meaning in mind, a meaning suggested in his passage (2):

The deeper one enters into the study of Nature, the
further one ventures into and along the by-paths that,
like a mystic maze, thread Nature’s realm in every
direction, the broader and grander becomes the vista
opened up to the view.

If Nature becomes ‘broader and grander’ the deeper one looks, as he so eloquently stated, then of course every snow crystal will be unique; indeed, so too will everything else in Nature. In this meaning, ‘no two alike’ is a very condensed way of saying that Nature will always show you something new. Bentley arrived at this opinion by observing various forms of water, but he applies the idea to all of Nature. This third meaning of ‘no two alike’ reminds me of Kamo no Chomei’s opening line of his early 13th century classic of Japanese literature (3): “The river flows on unceasingly, yet the water is never the same.” Both phrases, Chomei’s and Bentley’s ‘no two alike’, can be interpreted (4) as meaning that the closer one views Nature, the more details one sees. Regardless of Bentley’s intended meaning, I prefer to think that he had this deeper interpretation in mind.

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