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Small is beautiful

By Guo Ying | China Daily | Updated: 2018-02-28 07:58

 Small is beautiful

Science popularizer Liang Yan (top) in his project titled Envisioning Chemistry displays the sheer beauty of chemistry in a wide range of chemical reactions including precipitation, crystallization and combustion. Photos Provided to China Daily

Chemical visualization specialist aims to show beauty at the microscopic level to students. Guo Ying reports.

His creations resemble fast-growing trees, blossoming flowers and the vast, starry night sky.

But these are not just images of nature - they are actually close-up shots of chemical reactions such as precipitation, crystallization, metal displacement and combustion.

And with a background in chemistry, it seemed only natural that Liang Yan offered these new perspectives of beauty at a microscopic level.

Liang compiled the images into videos under a project titled Envisioning Chemistry, which included 15 films with a total length of 25 minutes. His videos were also accompanied by instrumental music to complement the artistry.

His team used professional photography equipment such as high-resolution microscopes and high-speed thermal imaging cameras to capture the chemical reactions.

"We experimented with a large scope of chemical reactions and explored their artistic side. New ideas and inspirations always emerged after we started the experiments. Some ideas did not work while other reactions created beauty beyond our imagination," says Liang, 38.

Envisioning Chemistry tries to capture a purely objective record of chemical reactions, he says.

"We did not add any special effects or change the colors to make it more beautiful, as we hoped to hold true to the chemical reactions," Liang says.

Most chemical experiments occur in glassware such as test tubes and beakers, but the reflection and refraction of glassware makes it difficult to film what is actually going on inside.

To make the glassware "invisible", Liang used a cuvette device made of optical glass as the container, which greatly reduced the distraction posed by the glassware in the filming process.

According to Liang, Getting Hot (with Thermal Imaging) was the most challenging film to make. Using a thermal imaging camera, his team hoped to visualize temperature changes in the chemical reaction.

"For each reaction, we shot both the normal visible light footage and infrared thermal imaging footage. We couldn't see much under the visible light but we could see a lot more in the thermal imaging, and the comparison made the film a little more interesting," Liang says.

Liang has been fascinated by all kinds of chemistry experiments since junior middle school and he majored in chemistry at Tsinghua University. In his spare time, he developed an interest in computer graphics and even published a book on image editing software Photoshop with his classmates.

While studying in the United States, Liang was also greatly inspired by Janet Iwasa, a biologist and animator who explores the intersection between science and visualization. He realized he could combine his background in chemistry and his hobby in computer graphics for a career in scientific visualization.

"Scientific visualization is a very broad concept, which is used in many fields such as medicine, physics and astronomy. The basic idea is to visualize scientific data or processes that are invisible to the naked eye," Liang says.

After obtaining a doctorate in materials science from the University of Minnesota in 2011, Liang worked for Digizyme, a company that creates visual contexts for understanding science. He also did freelance illustration work for researchers all over the world.

After returning to China, he led a small team from the University of Science and Technology of China and Tsinghua University Press to launch the "Beautiful Chemistry" project in 2014, which earned wide acclaim and gave him the confidence to focus on the field.

To bring the beauty and wonder of chemistry to a wider audience, Liang started Envisioning Chemistry in 2017 and invited Zhu Wenting, a visual communication major, to help the team adopt a more artistic approach to filming.

His videos have gone viral on several social network platforms, garnering comments such as "If I had seen these videos in high school, I might have done much better in chemistry".

The videos have also received feedback from educators worldwide. Many have shared their experience of using these videos to engage students in the classroom.

"You have brought together visualization at a level of detail that does get my students excited. The oohs and aahs from the students when watching the electrodeposition (video) is, in a word, awesome," wrote a US high school teacher.

These comments prompted Liang to think more about the project's potential in helping science education.

"Many Chinese students consider chemistry to be a boring and abstract subject as they have to memorize a lot of elements and equations. I hope these videos can arouse their interest and curiosity in chemistry from a young age," Liang says.

Liang has moved beyond chemistry and set up the Beauty of Science brand, providing inspiring science education products and services for schools and families to encourage children to be curious and expose them to the beauty of science.

His efforts are also in line with the importance that the country attaches to science education to nurture talent. Since September 2017, primary schools in China have been providing science courses from first grade.

Liang also believes that rote learning is not suitable for young children and teachers should go beyond textbooks to get their students involved in science.

"I hope to do my part in making science education more interesting and inspiring," he says.

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