Silica microspheres in liquid crystals offer the possibility of creating every knot conceivable: "The glass plates were treated in such a manner as to force the liquid crystalline molecules to align parallel to the surface", explains Tkalec. A single silica microsphere entering the layer changes the surrounding alignment substantially: around the sphere a ring-shaped region forms in which no preferred direction can be discerned... "It looks as if every microsphere were surrounded by its own ring – similar to the planet Saturn..."
In an essential step, the researchers discovered a way of manipulating the regions between the spheres by joining and separating neighbouring rings. First, they heated the region between the spheres with a laser. This destroys the characteristic alignment of the molecules. After switching off the laser, the alignment is re-established – but often in a different way than before.