Are Snowflakes Really Unique and Other Questions From Our Readers

You asked, we answered

Ask Smithsonian
Yehrin Tong

Has anyone actually shown that no two snowflakes are alike?

Carol A. Colt, West Haven, Connecticut

Experts agree that each snowflake is different, based in part on evidence compiled by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865-1931), a farmer in Jericho, Vermont, and one of the first observers to study snowflake shapes seriously. Over the course of 40 years, Bentley perfected techniques for making microphotographs of snowflakes and made thousands of such images (500 of which he donated to the Smithsonian). Every flake in them is different.

Pamela Henson, Institutional historian, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Do poinsettias offer any benefit to humans or animals other than visual?

Lisa Sanders, Silver Spring, Maryland

In modern times, no; they are simply used as ornamental flowers during the holiday season. However, the plants are native to Central America, and there is a lot of evidence that the Aztecs used the bracts to make dyes for fabrics and the sap to reduce fever.

Monty Holmes, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

Dinosaurs are often portrayed as snarling, growling beasts. What evidence suggests that they could make these sounds?

Rob Neale, Fairfield, Pennsylvania

None whatsoever. Scientifically, we can theorize that dinosaurs may have had sound-making abilities similar to other reptiles, such as crocodilians—but most reptiles are not especially loud, and tend to hiss, grunt or rumble instead of sing or roar.

Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosaurs, National Museum of Natural History

Did James Madison switch over from the Federalists to the Democratic Republicans?

Jessica L. Leeper, Frisco, Texas

No. Though Madison advocated a stronger national government, and though he was an author of the series of articles published as the Federalist Papers, he was never a member of the Federalist Party. When America’s first political parties formed, during the Washington administration, he and Thomas Jefferson helped form the Democratic Republicans. In fact, Madison opposed the Federalists (who were led by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and John Marshall) in his insistence that the central government’s powers remain limited and enumerated.

Sid Hart, Senior Historian, Curator of “America’s Presidents,” National Portrait Gallery

When crews are laying fiber optic cables, how do they attach the ends so that the light pulse can continue unimpeded?

Charles Lusk, Leawood, Kansas

This is a very delicate operation. The specifics of the technology have evolved, but the essential steps are: Clean the fibers of any protective cladding (mechanically and/or chemically), cut the ends as close to a flat 90-degree surface as possible and then fuse them together with heat. Heat used to be applied by electrical current, but now lasers, electric arcs or even gas flames do the trick.

Bernard Finn, Curator of Electrical Collections, American History Museum

It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.