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Originality is overrated, except maybe snowflakes

Here we are, amid winter, a tenacious virus and moping about trying to fend off the blues. Well, have you ever thought of looking closely at a snowflake? It’s a unique structure of water and cosmic particles, yielding the most exceptional beauty. Science says that the odds of two snowflakes being exactly alike are about 1 in 1 million trillion. That’s one followed by 18 zeros, so improbably uncountable! In mathematics, an uncountable set is an infinite set that contains too many elements to consider countable. The diminutive snowflake just might be the biggest winner for originality!

So, what’s the big deal about originality, and why are we so smitten by it? Well, first, consider how the threshold for originality evaluates whether a specific work can be copyrighted. In this context, “originality” refers to “coming from someone as the originator/author” (whether it reflects the author’s personality: cosmic, divine, or otherwise), rather than “never having occurred or existed before” (the protection for something new, as in patent protection). Secondly, originality and origination have different definitions. Origination is the (uncountable) process of bringing something into existence, while origin is the beginning of something. Originality assumes that there is a point of origin.

The Buddhist notion of “same but different” insinuates itself in every snowflake’s life, and we could say that snowflakes are merely snowflakes. But, are there no two alike? Unlike the five-pointed flowers of plants and trees, these darling little starlets of winter are often symmetrical and six-sided. One of the first scientists attempting to understand this phenomenon was the German scientist and polymath Johann Kepler.

Indeed, water molecules, with their two hydrogens and one oxygen, tend to lock together to form hexagonal arrays. But Kepler and his contemporaries could not have known how much this matters. Aside from helping grow snowflakes, this hexagonal structure makes ice less dense than liquid water, which hugely affects geochemistry, geophysics, and climate. According to Douglas Natelson, if ice did not float, “life on Earth would not be possible.” (excerpt from

We always begin something, at some time, somewhere in the middle; we neither start in the past nor in the future. Instead, we commence the moment we are attentive. The significance of the “cut” is what matters most. It’s the engagement of becoming and what appears to us to be the most promising. Each primary element (matter) occupies a position in the present moment. A disruption occurs whenever we enact a cutting or a carving out (an action). You might say that time carves out space. So it’s the when rather than the what that matters. But decision-making and discernment are a bit different: a decision is made when you have options to choose from, like: do I wear the blue sweater or the grey? So, making a decision is a particular act, and discernment encompasses the entire decision-making process. But I digress…

For me, the categorical imperative has always been to never stop starting; also not an original thought. It appears in Kant’s 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. What I think is original is the moment when I make the “cut.” Timing is everything, and taking this viewpoint on agency is how timing (the when) takes you into an experience. I digress yet again!

When do we encounter the “threshold for originality”? For my current Covid Project, I’ve grabbed my paintbrushes and begun to paint. I’ve calculated that it’s been about a forty-year hiatus and even longer if I factor in my art school days (1973-77). Dust and cobwebs collected about my paintbox and especially my brain, and I have to confess, it’s all a bit scary! But, I am pleased to report that it’s going relatively well, and I am working on a few landscape paintings. None of them appear accomplished, but that, my dear readers, is part of the process. The main objective is to get my painting “chops” back and create representational pieces that accurately describe the sensible world. There’s nothing very original to report here other than I’ve stepped over the threshold and the fear of failing. Mmm, maybe I’ll start painting snowflakes!

If you want to learn more about snowflakes? Check this out:

Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Snowflakes by Rebecca Boyle for

Featured image: Snow Crystal by Ted Scarpino

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A Maine native, Marc Jalbert is known locally as the former owner/baker of the Gettysburg Baking Co. and Pomona’s Cafe. His short essays have appeared in the Gettysburg Times as “The Baker’s Table.” He now bakes bread weekly for The Natural Food Co., Gettysburg, teaches a one-on-one, Covid compliant bread class, and supplies sourdough bread for The Mansion House (formerly the Fairfield Inn). Marc lives in Upper Adams county with his wife, Juli where he enjoys “building things” and playing his guitar.

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