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Discover the Hidden Beauty and Science of the Invisible World of Water

Opening Nov. 13 at the Academy of Natural Sciences


PHILADELPHIA, October 6, 2021

We drink it. We swim in it. We can’t live without the life sustaining substance of water. A new exhibition opening this fall reveals the hidden beauty of water and the fascinating art and science histories that underlie our current understanding. 


Invisible World of Water, opening Saturday, Nov. 13 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, explores two phenomena of water — snow crystals and diatoms — that are invisible to the naked eye, yet have inspired artists, scientists and amateur naturalists alike for centuries. The exhibition uses artwork, visualizations, stop-motion animation, holographic light field displays, newly created sculptures, rare books, stunning images by leading photographers, video, and more to reveal the microscopic world of water. 


And visitors can explore this wondrous unseen world themselves by peering into a set of microscopes to discover Mother Nature’s unexpected artistry. 


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 admission. The exhibit coincides with “Water Year,” a 2022 initiative of the Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University aimed to increase public attention of the vital resource. 


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. 


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 call diatoms 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. 


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 download images, visit the Press Room.