Saturday, January 20, 2007

On Snowflakes and Beyoncé

"How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat."
- Henry David Thoreau

Ken Libbrecht, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, is a snowflake expert. He's taken phenomenal photographs of actual snow crystals and flakes, even creating a "Field Guide to Snowflakes" that showcases these miniature masterpieces. On his website,, he basically affirms the old saying that no two snowflakes are exactly alike. But let's let Ken speak for himself!

"The number of possible ways of making a complex snowflake is staggeringly large. To see just how much so, consider a simpler question - how many ways can you arrange 15 books on your bookshelf? Well, there's 15 choices for the first book, 14 for the second, 13 for the third, etc. Multiply it out and there are over a trillion ways to arrange just 15 books. With a hundred books, the number of possible arrangements goes up to just under 10 to the 158th power (that's a 1 followed by 158 zeros). That number is about 1070 times larger than the total number of atoms in the entire universe!"

Ken, that's AWESOME!

"Now when you look at a complex snow crystal, you can often pick out a hundred separate features if you look closely. Since all those features could have grown differently, or ended up in slightly different places, the math is similar to that with the books. Thus the number of ways to make a complex snow crystal is absolutely huge. And thus it's unlikely that any two complex snow crystals, out of all those made over the entire history of the planet, have ever looked completely alike."

And now, a seeming digression...

Don't you love it when a catchy tune gets stuck in your head for the entire day and you CANNOT seem to shake it? Maybe it's the theme from the Andy Griffith Show, or Beverly Hills Cop, or that Empire Carpet commercial? And then you feel compelled to tell a friend like you're the Ancient Mariner and they say "AAAGHHH!! Nooo! Get that albatross away from me!!" and BLAM! You've spread the maddening melody and the beat goes on...

Enter Beyoncé and her infernal song Irreplaceable.

Played out, played to death, crammed down our ears a hundred times a day. You must not know about me, You must not know about me.... AAAGGGHHH!!!!! It's a catchy tune, granted. But it's got issues. Let's lend an ear to the lyrics:

"You must not know about me, You must not know about me
I could have another you in a minute
, matter fact he'll be here in a minute... "

Ouch. As William Congreve once said, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!" (I thought it was Shakespeare too, but it actually comes from a play called the "The Mourning Bride" (1697). Thanks Mr. Internet!)

"I can have another you by tomorrow
, So don't you ever for a second get to thinking you're irreplaceable."

Now Beyoncé's song is filling the airwaves (#1 on iTunes for weeks). The lyrics of this song have an angst that we can all recognize in our culture; it points to the ongoing war between men and women, the battle between love and lust, the dichotomy of seeing others as a gift or choosing rather to grasp at them as if they were objects just meant to sate our own selfish desires. Now in light of these battle scars, I would affirm Beyoncé's reaction in the song. If the woman has been abused or objectified in the relationship, she should jump ship and get out of the situation. The problem is, she jumped right past the lifeboat that carries us into the sea of seeing people as persons, and she turns around and treats men as objects herself! "I won't lose a wink of sleep 'cause the truth of the matter is replacing you is so easy..." What are we, vacuum cleaners? Washing machines? The truth is, we are not replaceable. We are not pleasure machines that can be exchanged when the pleasure dries up.

The truth is, we are like snowflakes. Each of us is unrepeatable. Every one of us is, in fact, irreplaceable. And yes, even when we fall for the lies of our culture, becoming just a face in a crowd, selling out our virtue for the quick and easy, becoming a number instead of that New Creation Christ calls us to be, we are still, deep in our being, utterly and inviolably unique and irreplaceable. There will never be another you.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his inaugural homily "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."

And Pope John Paul II sang this truth as well when he wrote "The human person is a unique composite - a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, fashioned in the image of God and destined to live forever. Every human life is sacred, because every human person is sacred."

So don't you ever for a second get to thinking you're NOT irreplaceable.
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