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How Do Snowflakes Form?

Welcome to 2014 – the year of family farming, small island developing states and crystallography. These are the three subjects that the United Nations has chosen to promote over the next 12 months, following last year’s focus on water cooperation and quinoa (a grain identified as a “new ally in the fight against hunger and food insecurity”).

The UN’s first international year was declared in 1959, and designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees. Many more observances have followed, each with a particular focus. Some, like 2009’s International Year of Astronomy, have helped stimulate interest in important areas of research. Others, such as 1987’s International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, have aimed to improve the lives of vulnerable groups around the world. And others have commemorated major historical events: in 2004, the abolition of slavery, and in 1995, the victims of the Second World War.

This year’s observances have a range of objectives. The Year of Small Island Developing States aims to highlight the problems facing small island nations such as Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu in the Pacific, Haiti and Belize in the Caribbean, and Mauritius and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Small island nations face a number of unique challenges, from limited resources and over-dependence on imports and foreign trade, to the threat of rising sea levels caused by global warming.

The Year of Family Farming aims to raise the profile of small-scale, family-run agricultural projects. As well as its importance to local economies and rural communities, family farming is integral to global food security, helping ensure there is enough food to feed the planet’s growing population. Family farming also helps to preserve traditional food products and maintain the biodiversity of crops worldwide.

Finally, the Year of Crystallography is intended to increase public awareness of an extremely important area of science. 2014 marks 100 years since German physicist Max von Laue won a Nobel Prize for his work on X-ray diffraction – work that, the following year, allowed British physicists William and Lawrence Bragg to develop a technique called X-ray crystallography. Crystallography is the study of the arrangement of atoms in solids, and it has since contributed to groundbreaking research in just about every branch of science – from the discovery of the structure of DNA to the development of advanced nanotechnology. The Year of Crystallography also roughly coincides with astronomer Johannes Kepler’s investigation into the structure of snowflakes, conducted over 400 years ago. His essay On the Six-Cornered Snowflake is credited with inspiring subsequent research into the symmetry of matter, thereby laying the foundations for the field as it stands today.