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Watching liquid crystals undulate under a microscope will melt your brain

Rare footage of real liquid crystals

Sure, LCD displays are yesterday’s news compared to the swanky OLED displays we see on flagship handsets like the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9. However, the liquid crystals which allow them to function are pretty darn awesome — as a trippy new video makes abundantly clear. Serving as a promo video for musician Max Cooper’s Music of the Tides, it uses footage shot by scientist and engineer Ben Outram to give a glimpse of liquid crystals as they appear under the microscope.

“Most people are familiar with phase transitions like between ice and water, and water and steam,” Outram told Digital Trends. “In some materials, which are common in biological systems, there exist extra phases of matter called liquid crystals. Unlike water, they are fluids that have some crystal symmetry properties. This combination of fluidity and structure results in mesmerizing visuals under a polarizing optical microscope. They are especially beautiful when they undergo phase transitions, where what you are seeing is the rapid self-assembly of matter between different flowing structures: a process that is reflected in the cells of every living organism since the origin of life.”

If you’re wondering why Outram knows so much about liquid crystal science, it’s because it was the subject of his PhD at Oxford and Leeds Universities. The photos, meanwhile, will be the subject of an upcoming book he’s writing for the Institute of Physics.

“The main challenge is knowing which liquid crystals, and which conditions, produce the most effective visuals,” he continued. “The kinds of structures useful for science and technology tend to be uniform, controlled, stationary, and boring. [My photography is about] taking the liquid crystals into conditions that are outside of their use in technology. For example, I photographed a lot of unusual phases, columnar, smectic, and long-pitch cholesterics. I got a lot of suggestions and support from researchers and students at Leeds University. Messing around with floating pools of liquid crystal near their melting temperature, inducing flow, and adding additional chemicals like detergent [added up to] misspent hours of mucking around doing things you’re not supposed to, just to get the thrill of seeing nature doing something intricate and amazing.”

We think the results speak for themselves. Once you add Max Cooper’s music and editing by Jennifer Tividad into the mix, the whole experience resembles the nerdiest acid trip since Steve Jobs took LSD.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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