For applications from electronics to tissue engineering, researchers have been striving to devise materials that distort into complex shapes in response to heat, light, or other stimuli. Sometimes the goal is to create a device that undergoes a reversible mechanical change; other times it’s merely to manufacture three-dimensional shapes that are difficult or impossible to make in any other way.

One promising approach involves embedding a liquid crystal in an elastic matrix. By driving the transition from the nematic phase—in which the liquid-crystal molecules are aligned—to the disordered phase, one can force the material to change shape. The shape change is governed by the director field—the initially spatially inhomogeneous orientation of the molecules—which can be difficult to precisely control. So far, researchers have successfully prepared the director fields to make arrays of cones and other simple geometries, and they’re working to expand the range of shapes they can create. (See...

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