Visualize Science with Yan Liang Ph.D.

Gaining a deeper understanding of what we are and what surrounds us, is all about visualization. It is the key method to communicate in a comprehensive way and to help people getting an idea of your topic and your motivation. If you lack comprehension, an image may help you to find it. Communicating visually with success, means entertaining your audience. There are unlimited media experiences just a mouse click away, so if you want to stand out you got to show something outstanding.

Beautiful Chemistry is a scientific project about the visualization of chemical reactions, which made it once around the world. Like never before we were able to enjoy such detailed and high defined motion pictures from a completely new point of view. And if it comes to dealing with tiny spaces, macro reproduction scales and an approach between art and science, we are pretty close to the basic idea of this blog, my work and my passion: experimental cinematography.

What a perfect match!

Time for a conversation with the scientific visualization director at


Yan Liang is a contract associate professor at the Department of Science and Technology Communication at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). He is also the creative director of the New Media Institute at USTC. In 2012, Yan was one of the scientific animators of E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, a revolutionary digital textbook for Apple’s iBooks platform. His illustrations appeared on the covers of Science, Nature Materials, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Photonics, PNAS and other well-known scientific journals.

Visit Yan’s personal homepage

Yan, first of all congratulations to you and your team for this great work. “Beautiful chemical reactions” became many positive reviews all around the globe and made it close to one million plays. Did you expect this enormous feedback?

Thanks Roman. No, we did not know it would be so popular. It seems that many people like our video because they all had some experience with chemical reactions but never knew how beautiful they are.


When did you start the project and how long did it take you to complete the final video?

Last July, we shot our first reaction and it took about 3 months to complete the final video.


Where did the work take place and who was operating camera, setup and lights?

The reactions were shot in a college chemistry lab. I was responsible for all things related to filming and editing. I had two experienced chemistry teachers, Wei Huang and Xiangang Tao, helping me performing the chemical reactions.


Chemical reactions run very differently, and sometimes in an unpredictable way. Is there a method of controlling the elements in front of the camera?

You are right, it would be impossible to have complete control when shooting chemical reactions. But I was lucky to get help from two chemistry teachers who had years of experience in teaching chemistry labs. Basically, we know what was going to happen during a chemical reaction. But to get the best shots, we need to run a reaction many times.

Do you work out specific formulas in detail or is it rather an experimental approach?

We planned what we were going to shoot in advance. But during the shooting we might experiment a bit and see if we would get anything interesting.


What I found most spectacular is the “lead trees” reaction. Could you tell us a bit in detail what kind of reaction this is and what we see there?

Yes, this is one of my favorite reactions as well. This is a metal displacement reaction. First we made a water solution of lead nitrate (Pb(NO3)2) and sodium silicate (Na2SiO3). Then we added acetic acid to the solution. The acid reacted with sodium silicate to form H2SiO3, which turned the solution into a soft, transparent gel. Then we inserted a piece of zinc metal into the gel and zinc reacted with Pb ions to generate the tree-like metal lead. The H2SiO3 gel was very important here: since lead is very heavy, it would fall down if there were no support of the gel.


Do you have an all-time favorite formula or a special visualization you like most?

Besides “lead trees”, I also like the “chemical garden” series. The reagents are very simple inorganic compounds, but the dynamic forms generated by the reaction are like living things.


In the last few years, experimental macro videos, especially with fluids, are gaining more and more attention. Did you come across the work from people like for example Susi Sie or Clemens Wirth? Would this match with your interest or do you prefer to keep it strictly scientific?

I love and get a lot of inspirations from the beautiful macro work by Susi and Clemens. I love your movie “Stream” as well. Since I came from a science background and I am now working in the area of science communication and education, projects like Beautiful Chemistry might still be my main focus for the next a few years. But the inspiration I get from the wonderful work above do help me a lot when working on my own projects.

Scientific visualization is relevant to a lot of different fields of science. Could you imagine other topics in physics or other disciplines which seem appealing and might be worth filming in macro mode?

Absolutely! Biology is a subject that would have tons of visual treasures to be revealed by macro lens. Playing with time in terms of time-lapse and high-speed videography would be very cool too. There are wonderful time-lapse about flower blossom. But I think there are much more to film in biology.


When teaching your students at university, do you experience a better understanding of what chemistry is if you implement you clip?

The video gets the students interested in Chemistry. Many students think chemistry is boring. But if our video can make them want to learn more about chemistry, our goal is achieved.


What are your plans for the future? Will there be a new project from

We are building a new version of with modern design. Also we have just started shooting a new short movie of chemical reactions. Hopefully, audience would love the new one as well.


I am very looking forward to see your next work and I guess that I am not the only one. Thank you very much!

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