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The Abstract

Atom Art: Beauty at the Atomic Scale

Image credit: Jim LeBeau

“Nature makes some beautiful patterns with atoms.”

That’s what Jim LeBeau wants people to take away from an art exhibit he is helping to curate at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C that runs from Sept. 20 – Nov. 20, 2016.

“We want to show people that we are now able to actually see atoms, and the orderly way that atoms are arranged in a material,” says LeBeau, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at NC State.

And how those atoms are arranged, the patterns they make, is key to understanding a material’s properties – and how engineers can control those properties.

For example, the image above shows silicon nitride, and highlights how differently atoms can organize in a material depending on how it was manufactured. All silicon nitride is composed of the same atoms, but those atoms can be arranged in very different ways. In this example, the silicon nitride whose pattern is shown in the upper left is much harder than the silicon nitride whose pattern is shown in the lower right.

“Some of my work is supported by the National Science Foundation, and NSF thinks it is important to share our discoveries with the public,” LeBeau says. “I agree. By partnering with the Museum of Life and Science, we are able to help people of all ages understand how we can glean insights into what materials look like at the most fundamental level.

“The beauty of these patterns highlights just how amazing nature is. Hopefully, we’ll reach young people who may not have otherwise thought about pursuing science,” LeBeau says. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll see some of them in my classroom one day.”