Algae kaleidoscopes were among the many creatively biological ways that Victorian scientists entertained themselves. Using the end of a piece of hair, they moved tiny single-celled algae known as diatoms on a slide, arranging them into beautiful, symmetrical patterns that amused wealthy amateur naturalists at social gatherings.

Now, one artist in England, Klaus Kemp, continues this Victorian art of diatom arrangement.

“The first time I saw a diatom, I was 16,” Kemp says in the video by Matthew Killip. “It was love at first sight.”

Kemp spent eight years researching how to create these microscopic masterpieces. He spends much of his time hunting for diatoms in bodies of waters, from horse troughs, ditches, and gutters. Kemp takes samples of the algae and cleans them in his studio before he starts the arduous process of arranging each single-celled organism.

At the 2:28-mark, we get a rare glimpse at his method. Unlike the Victorians who use hair, Kemp’s technique uses a precise needle. He patiently moves the circle-shaped diatom across the slide, each nudge just microns of movement, he says.

The glass shells of the diatoms gleam under the lens, Kemp’s careful hand creating stunning brightly colored patterns. It’s hard to believe that such delicate and extravagant pieces are made from organisms dwelling in murky puddles of water. 

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