Science Below the Surface

5/23/08Follow @wroush

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tiny silica diatoms, some strange manifestation of the Mandelbrot set, or perhaps a grain of pollen, but is in fact just the liquid’s attempt to trace out the lines of the magnetic field.

It’s a shame, in a way, that visuals this marvelous are confined to the printed page. Frankel’s images would look stunning on the Web—in fact, this nice Wired Science video interview contains several more of the images from the book. They’d also be perfect as slide shows for high-definition TV screens. (Hello, GalleryPlayer? Somebody there needs to get on the phone to Harvard University Press.)

George Whitesides explains one of Frankel’s images at the Apple Store, May 21, 2008As if the images weren’t enough stimulation, Whitesides’ captions are the work of a scientist-poet on a par with Lewis Thomas—full of just-right metaphors of the kind we science and technology writers spend all day searching for. His text for the ferrofluid image begins: “Pity the gryphon, the mermaid, the silkie, the chimera: creatures assembled of incompatible parts, with uncertain allegiances and troubled identities. When nature calls, which nature is it?” It may sound like the introduction to a lost tome of mythozoography, but Whitesides quickly explains: “A ferrofluid is a gryphon in the world of materials: part liquid, part magnet…when placed in a magnetic field, [the particles] develop a useful schizophrenia…[shaped by] the conflicting attractions of gravity magnetism, and surface tension.” All I can say to that is—Wow.

Felice Frankel and George Whitesides at the Boston Apple Store, May 21, 2008I introduced myself to Frankel after the Apple lecture, and told her I shared her interest in the way art overlaps with science. I was surprised when she immediately corrected me. “I’m not an artist,” she said. “I’m a scientist who does photography.” Fair enough—I can see how such a calling card might give Frankel and her camera easier entree into the world’s leading laboratories. But Frankel is also the author of Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image, and leads a Harvard workshop series called “Image and Meaning,” which she herself states is “about the visual expression of ideas.” Frankel and Whitesides, who are collaborating on a new book about nanotechnology to be titled No Small Matter, are both polymaths of the same species and genus as Leonardo—striving to understand the world by endlessly re-visualizing and re-expressing it. I don’t believe you can take the artist out of the scientist, or the scientist out of the artist. How else can you get from the surface to what’s below it?

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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