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Polarized light and the magic angle: Scientists making art

by Craig Bettenhausen
June 17, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 25


A colorful polarized light microscopy image reminiscent of feathers.
Credit: Chris King
Feathery: Chris King combined amino acids β-alanine and L-glutamine under a polarized light microscope.

Masterpiece microscopy

Chris King is a histology technician at the National Institutes of Health, near Washington, D.C. He enjoys his work, which features heavy use of microscopy, but used to find it hard to explain what he does to friends and family. “So I started taking pictures of some of the tissue stains and other things at work, and they seemed to get it better,” he says.

Soon he was doing experiments to see how he could manipulate various substances to produce interesting colors and shapes. His family was interested in what he was doing, so they helped him get his own microscope at home. He picked up other used lab equipment on eBay. Now his lab-studio dominates his apartment. “It’s in part of my bedroom, and then most of the kitchen, and the dining room is pretty much dedicated to it.”

Polarized light microscopy gallery

King tells Newscripts that most of his time outside work is spent on microscope art. “Usually Thursdays I kinda dedicate the whole night to it. I’ll spend an hour or two every day, including editing.”

But polarized light microscopy is not just pretty colors. The technique is used to spot defects in transparent materials, visualize tissue features, and spot kidney stones in biopsy samples, King explains. It can also be used to identify chemicals that have a fixed refractive index by taking a sample of a known thickness and comparing the colors to known values.

“I get the prettiest results out of amino acid combinations,” he says. “I really like to make compounds that we see in our everyday lives stimulating or inspiring for people to look at who maybe aren’t as familiar with chemistry as we are.”

Magic angle art

Credit: John Muntean
Rotation: John Muntean’s sculptures make three different images from three different angles.

Speaking of scientific work that is hard to explain at a party, consider the challenge for John Muntean, a solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopist at Argonne National Laboratory.

NMR is normally done in the solution phase, where molecular motion averages out the orientation of the molecules being studied. In an amorphous solid, every orientation is present, he explains. But by spinning samples at what’s known as the magic angle, researchers can get a single value for all those different directions.

It may sound mystical, but Muntean notes that it’s just geometry. “Some people struggle with understanding the importance of the magic angle,” he tells Newscripts. “So as a means of demonstrating it, I created the first magic angle sculpture.”

Muntean’s sculptures spin at the same magic angle as his molecules. At each of three iterations of that spin, the pieces cast a different shadow. He says the math he uses to create his artwork is exactly the same as what he uses in his science. The art is “a way to explain to people, without any math, without any understanding of chemical shift tensors, what it is that we’re doing.”


His artwork has taken him to some unexpected places. “I’m in museums, I have a patent pending on the design methods, and I’ve been featured in national ad campaigns,” he says. An advertising firm asked if he could do his sculptures in Lego. For an artist, “the answer is always yes, even if you can’t. So I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ That’s the kind of confidence that chemists bring to problems all the time,” he says.

Craig Bettenhausen wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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