SFU scientist captures the beauty of chemistry

September 12, 2023

Beyond the formulas and theories that can make chemistry daunting to many of us, SFU professor Vance Williams is attracting students and the general public by showcasing another side of chemistry—its beauty. Using images of stunning patterns created through his microscopic work with crystal and other materials, art is helping to make chemistry more accessible.

His extensive photo library—with more than 10,000 images, and counting—is creating a bridge between science and art and helping others to see chemistry in a new light.

“Visual art has the capacity to create connections and break free from the tyranny of chemical jargon,” says Williams, a scientist and artist, who’ll present the first talk in SFU’s Café Scientifique series on September 26. He’ll demonstrate how science and art, often considered opposites, might be more connected than we think.

“Those of us in chemistry, like any science, have a language of our own, and to new students or the general public, using art can help to give a little glimpse into our world,” says Williams, who began following his passion for “SciArt” after stumbling upon it more than 30 years ago. Today he shares his art routinely in class and on his social media sites.

He first found interesting patterns in a molecule of menthol, and decided to further explore the molecular structure of the antibiotic isoniazid, used to treat tuberculosis infection. The drug benefited his mother who was diagnosed with the illness as a youth.

While his images highlight his artistic side, they sometimes help inform his scientific understanding of materials by illuminating things he might not have noticed.

“I’m not breaking new ground—this is art for art’s sake—and there are certainly others doing it,” he says. “In the days before film, some scientists would create beautiful drawings and renderings of what they saw through the microscope, bringing the science to life. My hope is that what I’m capturing can open a new window to chemistry—and science in general.”

Williams says sharing the work on its own merits or as part of a wider effort to communicate science is time well spent—and is one more example of how all science fields have their own visual appeal. “We have little to lose by sharing the beauty of our disciplines,” he says, “and much to gain.”