Invisible World of Water Opens Nov. 13

The first project in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ yearlong focus on water renews our appreciation for the vital element of water through artworks that combine the marvel and insight of both scientific and artistic inquiry. 

Centered around two micro-phenomena — snow crystals and diatoms — the exhibition Invisible World of Water, opening Saturday, Nov. 13, presents parallel histories of observation and shows the interplay between the micro-cosmic and macro-cosmic.

Diatoms — microalgae — the wondrous jewels of water encased in glass, exist in virtually every body of water, lie at the heart of the food chain and generate a major portion of the world’s oxygen. They often are compared to snow crystals.

Different species of diatoms marked by their different shapes and sizes. Credit: ANS Diatom Herbarium

The exhibition includes illustrations of rare books (by Robert Hooke, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg and Ernst Haeckel); Victorian-era arranged diatom slides by Harold Dalton and others; microphotographs by Snowflake Bentley and Ukichiro Nakaya; artifacts documenting the groundbreaking research of diatom scientist Ruth Patrick; contemporary ceramic sculpture by Marguerita Hagan; holographic light field display scanning electron microscope images of diatoms; stop-motion imagery by physicist Kenneth Libbrecht; and high-resolution photography by Nathan Myhrvold.

Invisible World of Water considers the hidden connections and the flow among water, land and air through Earth’s hydrosphere. 

The Academy of Natural Sciences’ important role in waterway ecology began with Ruth Patrick, a diatom researcher who advocated for an integrated, holistic approach to waterway health in her groundbreaking work in ecology.

Diatom sculptures by Marguerita Hagan

Invisible World of Water  renews our appreciation for the vital element of water and is grounded in the beauty of forms,” said Marina McDougall, the Academy’s chief learning and engagement officer. “Our inspiration comes from the parallel histories of the Academy’s ground-breaking research with diatoms and a Japanese physicist’s observation and classification of snow crystals.”

Invisible World of Water will be on view from Nov. 13 through April 17, 2022 and is free with general museum admission. The exhibit coincides with Water Year, a 2022 initiative of the Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University aimed at increasing public attention to the vital resource. 

Sea creature illustrations by Ernst Haeckel

Nature’s Hidden Gems  

People have been captivated by snow crystals for centuries. A snow crystal is a single crystal of ice. Using a microscope, one can see the shapes of ice crystals that make up a snowflake.  While some snowflakes are made of a single ice crystal, others can contain 200 ice crystals fused together.   

Ukichiro Nakaya (1900-1962) was a renowned Japanese physicist who photographed snow and created the first scientific classification of snow crystals. He even grew his own artificial snow. Invisible World of Water showcases his stunning photography, classification chart and interesting personal history.

A magnified snow crystal

 Visitors also can compare the time-lapse photography of Kenneth G. Libbrecht , of the California Institute of Technology, with the precision photographs of Nathan Myhrvold, and trace how they were influenced by Nakaya as well as Snowflake Bentley who preceded him. 

Some people refer to diatoms as “snow crystals of the sea.” To pioneering Academy botanist Ruth Patrick (1907-2013), these single-celled algae that exist in virtually every body of water (whether in a puddle or in the sea) were invisible instruments whose presence indicated whether a creek, stream, river or ocean was healthy or polluted. Diatoms lie at the heart of the food chain and generate 25% of the oxygen we breathe. Their shapes are also lovely to look at under a microscope.  

A display dedicated to renowned Academy scientist Ruth Patrick including instruments she used to collect diatoms in waterways

 The Academy houses the world’s second largest collection of diatoms and named its Patrick Center for Environmental Research after its founder. Visitors to Invisible World of Water  will see Patrick’s microscopes and instruments, colorful Victorian diatom arrangements, scientific illustrations from the Academy’s remarkable rare book collection, scanning electron microscope  images from the Academy’s working diatom collection, and more.  

“Nakaya described snow crystals as  ‘letters from heaven’ since they tell us of conditions high in the atmosphere,” said McDougall. “He found it difficult to walk on snow when contemplating the beauty of all those snow crystals in a pile of snow. Once you behold water at this scale, you’ll never experience it the  same  way again!”

To get your timed tickets, visit our webpage here.

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