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COURTESY OF WIM NOORDUIN Harvard University

These aren't blue flowers growing from soil. Rather they are crystals of silica and barium carbonate grown on the surface of a glass slide. Wim L. Noorduin, a postdoc at Harvard University, coaxes the crystals into forms that resemble leaves, stems and petals before photographing them through a scanning electron microscope. Afterward he adds false colors to the black-and-white images.

The variations in form come from tweaks to the temperature, acidity or carbon dioxide content of a chemical solution. His self-assembly technique, published in May in Science, could someday supplant costly, time-consuming lithography for making microchips. Noorduin's methods could also increase the efficiency of chemical catalysts by imbuing them with frilly, folded surfaces that accelerate chain reactions.

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