Images from the nanoworld challenge viewers' thinking
I recently saw some startling images of the nanoscale world at an
exhibit of scientific art in Italy. They led me to think about what
we actually see, and what we make of the often magical pictures of science.
The images appear in an exhibition called "Blow-up" at the
Genoa Science Festival. With a title like that, one cannot escape
thinking of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film of the same name. The
film is an existentialist thriller in which a fashion photographer,
desensitized to life, is drawn into a murder mystery. In a stunning
sequence, the photographer enlarges a snapshot of two lovers in a
deserted park. And enlarges the photo again. In the grainy
magnification (we begin to see the silver halide crystals) he sees a
man and a gun. Or does he really see them?
The film Blow-up—to me Antonioni's best—is art.
The exhibition "Blow-up" (and the accompanying book) shows
remarkable images of real things seen at tremendous magnification.
But … "image," "show" and
"real" are fuzzy words, even for a dyed-in-the-wool (now
there's an image!) realist. There's more to this story than meets
"Blow-up" shows the work of scientists associated with the
National Center on Nanostructures and Biosystems at Surfaces in
Modena, Italy, headed by Elisa Molinari. The images have been
manipulated in a variety of ways by an excellent photographer, Lucia
Covi. She in turn was inspired by the work of Felice Frankel.
(Frankel writes the "Sightings" column in American Scientist.)
We are so used to looking at photographs, on film and now digital,
that we think of these extremely small-scale images—the
other-worldly mountain landscape of the gold tip of a near-field
scanning optical microscope (a), or the diffraction pattern
of a silicon crystal (b)—as snapshots, perhaps taken
through some microscope. But they are not photographs.
Are they faithful images? Not really. But neither are
"real" photographs, as anyone knows who has developed her
own film or tinkered with an image electronically in a computer. The
process of representing an underlying reality in these images is set
into motion by some perturbation, usually electromagnetic in nature,
of the object. A sensor transforms signals from the sample into an
electronic signature (in classical photography, neat chemistry
intervenes) that is manipulated and amplified, eventually becoming
an array of black or colored dots on the paper before you. Light
reflecting off the paper is transformed by the retina into another
electrical signal that our brain processes into an image. What a
journey, what a rich sequence of transformations!
Given the layers of abstraction, why do some of these images seem
"real" and some "other-worldly?" A
Cézanne orange, when seen in the artistic context, is as real
as a photographed orange. Actually, perhaps more real than real
because of its associations. This despite the fact that the
Cézanne orange as an isolated visual object, stripped of its
bowl and our knowledge that it is art, may appear to be a "less
successful" representation of an orange.
The humming, air-conditioned, programmer-studded rooms of Pixar or
DreamWorks have shown us something else. If the intent (read
"profit") is to make us believe something is real, then
these wizards of modern animation can do it. Most of the high seas
in the movie The Perfect Storm were computer-generated.
Those terrible seas!
The pictures in the Blow-up exhibit were not intended to impress you
with their quotidian naturalness. Although some images look
"realistic," most do not, for instance the gold tip of
a, the nanocantilever of c. Some are in-between.
Image d shows the surface of a multilayered cake of copper,
silicon dioxide and silicon that contains a precise hole carved into
it by a beam of ions. The rectangular orifice is shadowed so well it
seems realistic, but the way the light comes off the jumbled edges
in the cavity doesn't feel right. Cézanne, unencumbered by
trivial fidelity to the orange before him, yet faithful to the
essence of all oranges, would say you don't need better rendering.
So would Antonioni.
Raw electronic images have no color, only intensity among shades of
gray. Wavelength information (color) may be communicated later, but
most of the images in the exhibit were not recorded that way. Yet
they appear colored. Immediately, in the choice of color(s), hue and
intensity, one is led to artistic decisions.
The choices offered by the software that scientists use for this
task are simply garish. What's sad is that with the push of a
button, the outcome of a sophisticated experiment, with ambiguities
of interpretation (not a weakness) and real achievement, looks like
the cover of Astounding Science Fiction from the 1930s or
the Italian comic books that Umberto Eco interleaved in The
Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Not the images before you.
Lucia Covi (and Felice Frankel before her) taught the scientists
that less is more and that a palette of gentle pastels and browns
can be very effective.
The visual style of an age is set by the images that have taken hold
in our minds. A look at advertisements in the current New York
Times or Vogue reveals out-of-focus images, cubist
photomontages, surrealism and computer iconography.
Blow-up,the movie, placed the anomie of the protagonist in
the world of high fashion, a world in which feeling comes only
Will the images in "Blow-up" shape future style? Some of
the design elements in them point to a past: Tin oxide nanowires
(e) call up the aesthetic strictures of classical Chinese
painting, evoking a bamboo-like feeling coupled with the tension of
Japanese calligraphy. And a Jackson Pollock drip painting. That's a
lot of artistic allusion for a few nanowires.
The black-and-white images of the nanocantilever (c) and
microscope tip (a) are, to me, different. These images
border on the alien, with starkly illuminated softness that seems to
hide something and too-sharp peaks and ridges like teeth. I find
these images scary, the stuff of nightmares. Antonioni could have
used them. I think there is a good chance that these, or like
images, will enter the stylistic vocabulary of this century.
Art or Science?
These pictures are separated from their scientific source in several
ways. First, they depict the very small—500 nanometers, or 500
millionths of a millimeter, is the typical width. For the sake of
comparison, a baby's hair might be 25,000 nanometers thick. These
objects are blown up, but also homogenized in scale. Some are
nanometers across, some micrometers (1 micrometer = 1,000
nanometers); the medium of presentation—exhibition or
book—pushes the pictures to one rough size. The images are
also printed on fine paper, neatly framed, accessible. All these
maneuvers invite us to contemplate the representations as art but
unintentionally distance the viewer from the real objects.
But we are "connoisseurs of chaos." All the associative
power of linked human neural pathways is set loose when we look at
pictures. In Ugo Valbusa et al.'s glass surface bombarded
with argon ions (f), I see sand dunes. Which happen to be
blue. No matter—the image has already sent me off to another
planet, to Frank Herbert's novels, and I look for signs of
Shai-Hulud in the valleys. The gold tip (a) is a digital
Tower of Babel, or a wedding cake. Also a fractal set and the
electron microscope image I once saw of a small worm's mouth.
Is it OK to view as art, or build stories around the images of the
nanoworld? I think so. An object can have multiple uses, both
material and spiritual. The images we see are beautiful. That beauty
is complemented by the intellectual beauty the scientist perceives
in the surface, as he or she thinks hard about it. Beauty resides,
as Kant said (in a fuller and more involuted way, you can be sure),
in the interplay of cognition and imagination.
The nervous motion between art, narrative and science—taking
in visually the formal qualities of the image, letting it please or
disturb us, setting the associations loose, thinking about the
underlying microscopic structure and function and how a scientist
discerns and creates it—all of these make for a richer life,
for understanding. For art, and just perhaps, for better science.
Thanks to Sylvie Coyaud for introducing me to Elisa Molinari's
exhibition and for her ideas. This essay is adapted from my
introductory essay in the catalogue to the "Blow-up"
exhibition (Blow-up. 2006. Images from the Nanoworld.
Bologna: Damiani Editore)
© Roald Hoffmann