This article is from
Creation 40(1):12–13, January 2018

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Diatoms: artistry in miniature

Microscopic artworks in opal


Scenics and Science / Alamy Stock Photodiatoms

Abundant in both sea and freshwater, diatoms are microscopic single-celled algae that build elegant cell walls around themselves called frustules, made of opal (a type of silica). These transparent shells or ‘cases’ are beautiful and intricate, like tiny crystal jewel boxes. They come in an astonishing variety of geometric shapes representing the many different types of diatom.

Creative design and added beauty

Circular, elliptical, triangular, rectangular and multi-sided shapes are just some of the many variations, and they can shimmer with subtle structural colours. Frustules come in top and bottom halves that join together to encase the diatom. They are fascinatingly perfect in appearance and reveal great creative design, not only in their overall shape but also in the highly-ornamented surface patterns that can sparkle in the light. These patterns are made up of the precise arrangement of many tiny holes, slits, ridges and elevations. Sometimes star designs appear in the patterns.

Some Victorian-era microscopists made a hobby of arranging diatoms into kaleidoscopic patterns on microscope slides. Today, this tradition is being continued by microscopist Klaus Kemp, who has said of diatom frustules: “For anything to be so intricate, so well-sculptured, it is just astounding”.1 They are an example of what engineer and biomimetics expert Dr Stuart Burgess calls ‘added beauty’ in the world. The level of creativity and decoration of the frustule goes far beyond what would be necessary for the diatom to survive, and is the hallmark of an intelligent designer.2 The living diatom that builds the frustule is itself a wonder of design, being a fully reproducing, self-feeding and self-repairing organism, more complex and intricate than the most powerful computer.

Haeckel’s diatoms

bilwissedition Ltd and Co KG / Alamy Stock Photocircular-diatom

Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) is well known for his embryo diagrams. He doctored illustrations of human and animal embryos, giving inaccurate representations of them, for the now completely discredited evolutionary theory that human embryos pass through a stage closely resembling animal embryos. In stark contrast, however, Haeckel’s drawings of diatoms, which are far smaller, are correct and realistic. He likewise drew intricate drawings of radiolaria, protozoa (single-celled ‘animals’) with silica skeletons. This refutes the claim, sometimes made in an attempt to exonerate Haeckel of fraud, that he was merely poor at illustrations.3

God’s creativity is everywhere

With bright light shining through them, Klaus Kemp’s colourful diatom arrangements are reminiscent of the stained glass windows of cathedrals. Single frustules are stunning all on their own, too, being intricately-designed masterpieces in glass. In the tiny world revealed by the microscope, diatoms remind us that God is the author of beauty and perfection—“having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” (Revelation 21:11)

Posted on homepage: 8 April 2019

References and notes

  1. These kaleidoscopic masterpieces are invisible to the naked eye, nationalgeographic.com, 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=qxkbSk--EUY. Return to text.
  2. Burgess, S., The beauty of the peacock tail and the problems with the theory of sexual selection, J. Creation 15(2):94–102, 2001; creation.com/peacock. Return to text.
  3. van Niekerk, E., Countering revisionism—part 2: Ernst Haeckel and his triple-woodcut print, J. Creation 27(1):78–84, 2013; creation.com/haeckel-woodcut. Return to text.

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