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Ice Crystals Under a Microscope are Unicorn Tears

Ice Crystals Under a Microscope are Unicorn Tears

Feast your eyes on this, children of the ’90s, for each of these colorful images offers a microscopic look into the tears of a lonely, forgotten Lisa Frank animal.

Image: Tom Wagner

OK, it’s just ice. But it’s awesome. This rainbow-exuding phenomenon, known as birefringence, is caused by most asymmetrical crystals – usually we can’t see it. When light moving in different directions, or polarizations, travels at different speeds within a material, the light waves are split unequally. As the light makes it out, its waves vibrate in all directions and orientations, which is perceived by our eyes as a stunning array of colors. It’s the same thing that happens to plastic when it’s stretched thin.

“It was first discovered by NASA scientist Dr. Peter Wasilewski, who studies the properties of glacial ice,” explains Tom Wagner of F16 photography. Wagner has long been interested in photographing things beyond our visual scope, but his move into birefringence photography happened mostly by accident. “It all started when a friend of mine was taking pictures of frozen soap bubbles and snowflakes,” he recalls. “I thought ‘How can I make mine better than hers’? While working on the project, I’d noticed some faint iridescence in the crystals, and thought it might be birefringence.”

When one piece of polarizing film is placed on top of another at opposing (or crossed) angles, birefringence can be seen with the naked eye. This is because one filter blocks some of the light, allowing your eyes to pick up the rest. Wagner grabbed a pair of sunglasses and a camera filter he had lying around. “But nothing happened,” he says. “The ice was too thin to show off these properties. Too thick, and birefringence is lost as well.”

Endless hours and frostbitten fingers later, Wagner perfected the technique, which he has now posted for all to recreate – even with a smartphone. “I had not achieved super duper frozen bubble pics but instead had landed on something much better, and new, to me anyway.”

Image: Tom Wagner

Image: Tom Wagner

Image: Tom Wagner

Image: Tom Wagner

Image: Tom Wagner

Image: Tom Wagner

Check out the rest of the gallery here!

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