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Sculpting flowers smaller than a human hair

Through careful modification of simple chemicals in a beaker, Wim Noorduin is able to grow beautiful crystalline structures at the nano scale.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

This rose wasn't grown in a field, but in a beaker. Wim L. Noorduin

Harvard University postdoctoral research fellow Wim Noorduin isn't a typical sculptor. Instead of using clay, he uses chemicals. And instead of viewing his art in a studio, he uses an electron microscope in a lab.

In fact, Noorduin isn't a sculptor at all, but a sort of chemical botantist. Or architectural chemist. Or, well, he just does really cool work!

By combining chemicals in an ordinary beaker and observing the reactions under intense magnification, he's has been able to grow, assemble, and sculpt some strikingly beautiful structures, some of which resemble flowers and others that look similar to undersea coral gardens.

A flower garden invisible to the naked eye (pictures)

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"Over the years, I've been growing thousands of these samples, and I've tried many ways to stack structures on top of each other, and to sculpt them while they're growing," Noorduin told The Creators Project, which just did a short documentary about his work. "I notice, of course, that with all these experiments, some things aesthetically simply work better than others. That's how I started to develop a sort of style in which most of the structures started to look like flowers."

The Creators Project is collaboration by Intel and VICE Magazine that spotlights people who use scientific methods to create art. They've previously examined the world of super-small art by looking at the work of Vik Muniz, who etches sandcastle images onto grains of sand.

To create his captivating shapes, Noorduin uses two main chemicals: barium carbonate and sodium silicate, (also known as waterglass). "As CO2 from the air slowly enters the beaker, it triggers a complex cascade of reactions that results in the formation of microscopically small structures that are made from bariumcarbonate and silica," he told Crave.

To find out more about exactly how the structures are formed through small tweaks to the conditions in which they grow, have a look through this gallery of his work -- quite possibly the smallest flower garden you'll ever see!