“A lot of people told me that if they’d seen these videos in high school, they might’ve done much better in chemistry, ” says Liang Yan, creator of the award-winning series Beautiful Chemistry and Envisioning Chemistry.
The videos reveal stunning details that are sometimes not visible to human eyes. Under the microscope, we see metals “grow” like trees and “blossom” like flowers. A high-speed camera captures the fleeting moments of materials transforming through combustion. Even something as simple as M&M candies dissolving in water can be mesmerizing in a 4K time-lapse video.
“The intention is really very simple.” explains Liang, “We want people to know chemistry is a very beautiful subject.”
As a scientist with a background in chemistry, Liang says he’s often frustrated at how much the public misunderstands the science: “I remember years ago, China’s state broadcaster aired a cosmetics commercial capitalizing a central message: Everybody hates chemistry. You can see how much the public is misinformed about what chemistry is really about.”
Liang attributes part of the problem to the lack of visual stimulation in chemistry education. “Chemistry is a very visual subject.” says Liang. Yet it’s hard to see the beauty of the reactions with the naked eye, especially with distractions caused by reflections or distortions which usually happen in test tubes. Not to mention how costly experiments can be and how little they contribute to higher test scores. “In China, many students think chemistry is a very boring subject because there’s just so many things to memorize, the equations, the elements etc.” says Liang.
Liang wanted more people to feel the same wonder and excitement when he first witnessed a flower changing its color when dissolved in acid. It was a moment of magic as a teenager.
Taking advantage of his proficiency in photography and years of experience working as a scientific animator, he started making videos.
The first project was commissioned by top research institutes in China like the University of Science and Technology of China and Tsinghua University Press. Liang’s team launched the video series about three years ago and it went viral. The project also won the Expert’s Choice award in 2014-2015 Vizzies Visualization Challenge organized by National Science Foundation and Popular Science magazine.
The team also received responses from educators all over the world. Many shared the excitement from their classrooms. One American high school teacher wrote “the oohs and aaahs from the kids when watching the electrodeposition (video) is, in a word, awesome.”
Following the success, Liang founded a company called Beauty of Science, which partnered with the Chinese Chemistry Society to create the second video series Envisioning Chemistry. The company not only creates artistic videos to stimulate public interest in chemistry, but also sells high-quality recordings of chemistry reactions to educators. Liang hopes their content could make its way to the national science textbooks in China.
Liang says the team is invested in further exploring artistic aspects as well, especially after a member with no prior knowledge of chemistry came on board. Zhu Wenting, with a background in visual arts, recently created this video, portraying the beauty of the four seasons with pure scientific footage.
Liang hopes more people, especially kids, will come to appreciate the beauty of science—and not fear it. He thinks the change can start by helping them “see” science, rather than just studying it for better scores.
“My daughter used to scream whenever she sees a bug or a worm, especially after spending a lot of time with girls her age, ” says Liang. “So I started taking her out to the wild to catch bugs. Now she’s raising a butterfly and a pet lizard called little Dragon.”