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The Diatomist

17 October 2019

PG had no idea some diatomists – those who study diatoms – engage in the art of arranging diatoms.

The first diatom arrangements date back to the early 1800s, but the art form reached its peak in the latter part of the century. It was a period of intense interest in the natural world and also a time when the arts and sciences were more closely aligned. Diatom arrangements are a stunning example of that particularly Victorian desire to bring order to the world, to display nature in a rational way.

If you’re a little rusty on your knowledge of diatoms, according to The Smithsonian, diatoms, very tiny forms of plant life, range in size from 5 microns to 200 microns. A micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter. A diatom arrangement of 100 forms would fit inside a punctuation mark of average-size text. A single drop of water can contain hundreds of thousands of phytoplankton, free-floating plant life, most of which will likely be diatoms.

Diatoms are also the tiny friends of all life upon the earth – about half of the oxygen in the atmosphere originates from plants living in the ocean, chiefly the untold numbers of phytoplankton in the oceans of the world. The other half comes from plants on land.

Diatoms are not to be confused with Zooplankton, microscopic free-floating animals which feed on phytoplankton and are, in turn food sources for slightly larger aquatic life forms.

Typically, you would view artistic arrangements of diatoms either through a microscope or via microscopic photos or videos.

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2 Comments to “The Diatomist”

  1. Wow!

    Thanks for this, PG. I’m sure I’ve seen diatoms, but not like this.

    My question is: How do you preserve the appearance of a diatom after is is dead? They must have very brief lives, but these arrangements persist. Something in the glue?

    Gorgeous.

    • You’re welcome, Alicia.

      As far as preserving diatoms after they die, I’m not sure. They do have a cell wall made of silica, which sounds like it might help.

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