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Ken Libbrecht

Professor of Physics, CalTech; authority on snowflakes

Ken Libbrecht is a professor and physics department chair at Caltech. After a brief stint at the University of North Dakota, Libbrecht graduated from Caltech in 1980, followed by graduate studies at Princeton University. He joined the faculty at Caltech in 1984 and has been there ever since. Ken's research covers a broad range of topics in physics and astrophysics — helioseismology (the study of global oscillations in the Sun), stellar seismology, laser cooling and trapping of neutral atoms, diode laser technology, the search for gravitational radiation from astrophysical sources, and the physics of crystal growth. A recent and ever-increasing distraction is a detailed study of how ice crystals grow from water vapor — essentially, the physics of snowflakes. The symmetry and complex structures of snow crystals derive from a number of remarkably subtle processes, some of which remain quite puzzling to this day. This unfundable research is not aimed at any direct practical applications. It simply seeks to clarify the molecular mechanisms governing crystal formation, and to better understand how such complex, beautiful patterns emerge in growing crystals and other seemingly simple physical systems.

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