Science Below the Surface

5/23/08Follow @wroush

When I took my dog out for a walk yesterday morning, the sidewalk was strewn with old EKG readouts, as if we had just missed a macabre ticker-tape parade. I picked up one of the sheets—probably flotsam from the hospital across the street—and gazed at the thin blue trace, tremulously crossing a field of pink squares.

The stiff, glossy paper was imprinted “Marquette Pressure-Scribe Recording 1976.” It was obviously old. In fact, a doctor’s scrawl indicated that the patient—a woman whose name I won’t print here, since I probably committed a huge HIPAA violation just by picking up the readout—had come in for the test in March 1987. I’m no doctor, but I could see from the trace’s violent, roller-coaster swings that she had not been well.

Finding this medical artifact made me think of how the line of an EKG, with its check-mark rising and falling, has become a kind of cultural icon for life itself. When the line pulses regularly, the patient is okay. When it goes wild—and especially when it goes flat—we all know what it means.

Or we think we do. But behind the blue thread on the old readout, there’s a complex skein of scientific causes and effects: the way rippling photons carried the colors of the trace from the paper to my retinas; the way the trace itself was etched by the seismograph-like arm of the old EKG machine; and the way the EKG arm was guided by amplified electrical signals, signals that ultimately originated in the convulsing muscle cells of one woman’s heart on a spring day 21 years ago.

Science explains our visual world, and visual representations help to explain science. That’s the central theme of On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science, a wonderful book that I discovered this week and that is the real subject of today’s column. The authors, science photographer Felice Frankel and Harvard chemist George Whitesides (who is also an Xconomist), have filled the book mainly with close-up images of the surfaces of inorganic materials such as oil drops and silicon transistors, rather than biological cells or tissues. Yet I feel certain they’d look at the discarded EKG as its own kind of surface, one telling a vivid story about our physical world and the beings who move through it.

On the Surface of Things — Book CoverOn the Surface of Things first appeared in 1997, and Harvard University Press issued a revised, 10th-anniversary paperback edition last month. I picked it up at Barnes & Noble Wednesday night, immediately after attending a talk by Frankel and Whitesides at the new Apple Store in Boston (which is, by the way, a true marvel of glass, brushed steel, and architecture-as-advertising). I’ve only begun to examine the 58 detailed images Frankel created for the book, each of which is paired with an elegant caption by Whitesides. But I’m already under the spell of the ravishingly detailed imagery, and I intend to clear a permanent space for the volume on my coffee table.

Frankel, who is a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Initiative in Innovative Computing and a former research scientist at MIT, said Wednesday night that she doesn’t use any special tricks for her photography—just a Nikon F3 with a 55mm or 105mm macro lens, shooting on Velvia and Ektachrome film that she later scans and cleans up digitally (using her Mac—hence the appearance at Apple). The genius of Frankel’s images is really in the way she conceives and constructs her subjects. And this is, of course, the essence of science photography, a field just as demanding and content-driven as science writing.

A Swedish foundation recently recognized Frankel for her leadership in this field with the 2007 Lennart Nilsson Award for Medical, Technical, and Scientific Photography—basically, the Pulitzer of explanatory photography. As she put it Wednesday, “I’m not just making pretty pictures. I understand the science.” And she arranges the pictures to illuminate that science.

Her photo of ferrofluid, chosen as the cover image for the paperback edition, is a perfect example. (See the book cover thumbnail, above left, or click here for a larger version.) Frankel arranged seven small magnets beneath a glass plate, then placed a drop of ferrofluid—powdered magnetite suspended in oil—atop the plate. The fluid took on a disturbingly beautiful formation that calls to mind 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