Liquid crystals, as the name suggests, occupy a state somewhere between a liquid and a solid. Researchers long ago learned how to exploit the unique properties of liquid crystals by manipulating the crystals' rod-shaped molecules to control light in digital displays. Now a University of Pennsylvania team has developed a new optical approach. When the researchers dropped a silica bead into a layer of liquid crystals, capillary forces drew the crystals into hundreds of tiny petals around the bead to form the flowerlike pattern pictured here. The work was detailed in Physical Review X.

The self-assembling petals collectively act as a compound lens that focuses light much like a fly's eye. The lens could find use in solar panels, boosting the collection of sunlight, or could form the tip of a fiber-optic probe to give surgeons a better view inside our bodies.