November 19, 2013
In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher published a book of remarkable images that captured the honeybee in an entirely new light. By using powerful scanning electron microscopes, she magnified a bee’s microscopic structures by hundreds or even thousands of times in size, revealing startling, abstract forms that are far too small to see with the naked eye.
Now, as part of a new project called “Topography of Tears,” she’s using microscopes to give us an unexpected view of another familiar subject: dried human tears.
“I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tears, amid lots of change and loss—so I had a surplus of raw material,” Fisher says. After the bee project and one in which she’d looked at a fragment of her own hip bone removed during surgery, she’d come to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually,” she explains. “So I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’”
When she caught one of her own tears on a slide, dried it, and then peered at it through a standard light microscope, “It was really interesting. It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane,” she says. “Eventually, I started wondering—would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”
This idle musing ended up launching a multi-year photography project in which Fisher collected, examined and photographed more than 100 tears from both herself an a handful of other volunteers, including a newborn baby.
Scientifically, tears are divided into three different types, based on their origin. Both tears of grief and joy are psychic tears, triggered by extreme emotions, whether positive or negative. Basal tears are released continuously in tiny quantities (on average, 0.75 to 1.1 grams over a 24-hour period) to keep the cornea lubricated. Reflex tears are secreted in response to an irritant, like dust, onion vapors or tear gas.
All tears contain a variety of biological substances (including oils, antibodies and enzymes) suspended in salt water, but as Fisher saw, tears from each of the different categories include distinct molecules as well. Emotional tears, for instance, have been found to contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.
Additionally, because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close. “There are so many variables—there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate and the settings of the microscope,” Fisher says.
As Fisher pored over the hundreds of dried tears, she began to see even more ways in which they resembled large-scale landscapes, or as she calls them, “aerial views of emotion terrain.”
“It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale,” she says. “You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.”
Closely studying tears for so long has made Fisher think of them as far more than a salty liquid we discharge during difficult moments. “Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage,” she says. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”
October 25, 2013
You’ve probably seen a bee fly by hundreds of times in your life, if not thousands. When it arrived, maybe attracted by something you were eating or drinking, you likely shooed it away, or perhaps remained entirely still to avoid provoking a sting.
One thing you probably didn’t do was consider how the bee would look under intense magnification, blown up to 30, 300 or even 3,000 times its original size. But—as photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher has discovered over the past two decades working with powerful scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) to capture images of the insects in remarkable detail—everyday bees feature incredible microscopic structures.
“Once you scratch the surface, you see there’s a whole world down there,” says Fisher, who published her photos in the 2010 book Bee and is having them featured in the new exhibition Beyond Earth Art at Cornell University in January. “Once I started, it became a geographical expedition into the little body of the bee, with higher and higher magnifications that took me deeper and deeper.”
Fisher began creating the images back in 1992. “I was curious to see what something looked like under a scanning electron microscope, and a good friend of mine was a microscopist, and he invited me to bring something to look at,” she says. “I’ve always loved bees, and I had one that I found, so I brought it in to his lab.”
When Fisher first looked at the creature through the device, she was awestruck by the structures that comprised its body at scales naked to the human eye. One of the first that captured her attention was the bee’s multi-lensed compound eye. “In that first moment, when I saw its eye, I realized that the bees’ eyes are composed of hexagons, which echo the structure of the honeycomb,” she says. “I stood there, just thinking about that, and how there are these geometrical patterns in nature that just keep on repeating themselves.”
Fisher was inspired to continue exploring the body of that bee, and others, continually looking at their microscopic structures and organs in greater and greater detail.
Her creative process started with the obvious: collecting a specimen to examine. “First, I’d find a bee, and look at it through my own regular light microscope to confirm its parts were intact,” she says. “The freshest ones were the best, so sometimes I’d find one walking on the ground that looked like it wouldn’t be around much longer, and I’d bring it home and feed it some honey, to give it something nice for its last meal.” Some of these were rejuvenated by her care, but those that weren’t, and perished, became the subjects of her microscopic exploration.
At her friend’s lab, in off hours, Fisher used a model of scanning electron microscope called a JEOL 6100, which can detect objects as small as 40 angstroms (for comparison, a thin human hair is roughly 500,000 angstroms in diameter). Before scanning, she’d carefully coat the bee in an ultra-thin layer of gold sputter coating.
This coating, she explains, enhanced the electrical conductivity of the bee’s surfaces, which allow the microscope to detect them in finer resolution. “The SEM uses a very finely focused electron beam that scans across the surface of the prepared sample,” she says. ‘It’s akin to shining a flashlight across the surface of an object in a dark room, which articulates the form with light. With an SEM, it’s electrons, not light—as it moves across the bee’s surface, it’s converting electrical signals into a viewable image.”
Once the bee specimen was prepared and mounted inside the SEM’s vacuum chamber, Fisher could use the machine to view the insect at different angles, and manipulated the magnification to look for interesting images. At times, zooming in on the structures abstracted them beyond recognition, or yielded surprising views she’d never thought she’d see looking at a bee.
“For instance, when I looked at the attachment between the wing and the forewing, I saw these hooks,” she says. “When I magnified them 700 times, their structure was amazing. They just looked so industrial.”
Zoom in close enough, she found, and a bee stops looking anything like a bee—its exoskeleton resembles a desert landscape, and its proboscis looks like some piece of futuristic machinery from a sci-fi movie. At times, Fisher says, “you can go in deeper and deeper, and at at a certain level, your whole sense of scale gets confounded. It becomes hard to tell whether you’re observing something from very close up, or from very far away.”
For more beautiful bee art, see Sam Droege’s bee portraits shot for the U.S. Geological Survey
October 16, 2013
Stephen Young is geography professor at Salem State University. He studies vegetation change on Earth using satellite imagery and displays his photographs outside his office.
Paul Kelly, a colleague of Young’s, is a herpetologist. He studies snakes’ scales under a microscope to determine which species are closely related evolutionarily. His classroom walls are decorated with scanning electron micrographs.
“I saw some similar patterns there,” says Young. As a joke, last year, he put a landscape image on Kelly’s door. The biologist mistook it for an electron microscope image that his office mate had created, which got the two talking and comparing imagery. “We found that we had this similar interest in understanding scale and how people perceive it,” Young explained.
The two scientists have since created and collected more than 50 puzzling images—of polished minerals and glaciers, sand dunes and bird feathers—for display in “Macro or Micro?,” an exhibition currently at both Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery and Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Kelly notes, “After I saw Steve’s images, I could think of things that would look something like his satellite images from knowing how tissues and organs are built microscopically.”
But what do you see? Is the subject something massive, viewed from space, or something miniscule, seen through the lens of a microscope? Test yourself here, with these 15 images curated by Young and Kelly.
Answers can be found at the bottom of the post.
1. Macro or Micro?
2. Macro or Micro?
3. Macro or Micro?
4. Macro or Micro?
5. Macro or Micro?
6. Macro or Micro?
7. Macro or Micro?
8. Macro or Micro?
9. Macro or Micro?
10. Macro or Micro?
11. Macro or Micro?
12. Macro or Micro?
13. Macro or Micro?
14. Macro or Micro?
15. Macro or Micro?
“Macro or Micro?” is on display at Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts through November 1, 2013, and at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery through November 6, 2013.
H/T to Megan Garber at the Atlantic for the formatting idea. Check out her “NASA or MOMA? Play the Game!”
1. Macro: Lakes surrounded by steep sand dunes in the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia (Data downloaded from the European Space Agency. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
2. Micro: A polished mineral surface (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
3. Macro: The Matusevich Glacier in East Antarctica (Original image: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
4. Macro: Sand dunes in Algeria’s Sahara desert (Landsat Thematic Mapper data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility. Image processing by Stephen Young.)
5. Macro: Cumulus clouds over the South Pacific Ocean (Image created by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
6. Micro: A rotten human tooth (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
7. Micro: The surface of a snake eggshell (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
8. Micro: The interior of a leopard frog’s small intestine (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
9. Macro: The Ganges-Brahmaptutra river delta in South Asia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
10. Micro: A polished sample of boron (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
11. Macro: White lines cutting through China’s Gobi Desert (Image downloaded from Satellite Image Corporation and cropped by Stephen Young)
12. Macro: Sea ice forming around Shikotan Island, at the southern end of the Kuril Islands, north of Japan (Image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data provided by the NASA EO-1 team. Downloaded and cropped from NASA’s Visible Earth website.)
13. Micro: The surface of a leopard frog’s tongue (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
14. Macro: A Landsat thermal image of western Australia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
15. Macro: A Landsat image from North Africa (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
October 9, 2013
On March 10, 2006, seven months after an Atlas rocket boosted it into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter fell into place in the Red Planet’s orbit. Since then, the $720 million spacecraft has been hovering 150 to 200 miles above the surface of Mars, surveying for suitable landing sites for future missions and any evidence that water once flowed there.
On board the MRO is one of the heftiest and most adept cameras ever to document a planet’s terrain. The HiRISE, short for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, has captured more than 29,000 insanely-detailed images—of a highly-concentrated 1.8 percent of the surface of Mars—in seven years.“The images taken by HiRISE…reveal all of the beauty of Mars,” writes Alfred S. McEwen, a planetary science professor at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for HiRISE, in This is Mars, a new book published by Aperture. “While their quality and precision are indispensable for the scientific success of the MRO’s mission, they also faithfully capture the planet’s mysterious splendor.”
“Physical processes have produced pleasing patterns on its surface, such as polygons, stair-stepped layers, flowing sand dunes, meandering river deposits, lava flows with spiraling coils, explosive impact craters with dramatic radial patterns, eroded mesas with vertical cliffs, layered ice deposits over the poles, icy flows over the middle latitudes, dust deposits with strange textures, and,” he continues, “sharp-rimmed gullies that look like they formed just yesterday (some of them did).”
The wonder was certainly not lost on French photographer, designer and editor Xavier Barral. Barral grew up in the shadows of the Paris Observatory and has been interested in space for decades. For the purposes of compiling This is Mars, a half-art, half-science glossy coffee table book, he approached NASA and was granted access to a massive archive of Mars images.
Barral scanned multiple times the roughly 30,000 photographs taken by the MRO—an equivalent of more than 300,000 miles were he to have walked the distance represented by each photo by foot. Along the way, he consulted with McEwen and other scientists, including astrophysicist Francis Rocard and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold, who helped identify and explain the geological features he saw. But, first and foremost, Barral sought compellingly composed photos—he hand-selected about 150 images to feature in his book.
Each black-and-white photograph in the book covers a swath of Mars 3.7 miles wide, and yet no two are alike in their swirls, ridges, pock marks, blotches and striations.
“I can’t prevent myself from seeing references to all of art history,” says Barral. “It is all intertwined. All these geological shapes have artistic qualities.”
The designer extracted the most surprising points of view, in his opinion, from the MRO’s collection. “What surprises me in these observations of Mars is the unsuspected shapes of the landscape, showing 4.5 billion years of history,” he says. “These observations bring us closer to the remote—in time and in space—and fuel our imagination.”
In his book, Barral wanted to replicate his experience of coming to these enigmatic compositions, unversed in the geology of Mars, for his viewers, and so reproduced the photographs at a fairly large scale, nearly 13 inches by about 9 inches, without any labels. Only in the back of the book does he provide a key, detailing the actual landmarks and their geographic coordinates.
“At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates,” writes Barral in the book. “These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.”
July 19, 2013
Norman Barker was fresh out of the Maryland Institute College of Art when he got an assignment to photograph a kidney. The human kidney, extracted during an autopsy, was riddled with cysts, a sign of polycystic kidney disease.
“The physician told me to make sure that it’s ‘beautiful’ because it was being used for publication in a prestigious medical journal,” writes Barker in his latest book, Hidden Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetics of Medical Science. “I can remember thinking to myself; this doctor is crazy, how am I going to make this sickly red specimen look beautiful?”
Thirty years later, the medical photographer and associate professor of pathology and art at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine will tell you that debilitating human diseases can actually be quite photogenic under the microscope, particularly when the professionals studying them use color stains to enhance different shapes and patterns.
“Beauty may be seen as the delicate lacework of cells within the normal human brain, reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, the vibrant colored chromosomes generated by spectral karyotyping that reminded one of our colleagues of the childhood game LITE-BRITE or the multitude of colors and textures formed by fungal organisms in a microbiology lab,” says Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital who diagnoses gastrointestinal diseases.
Barker and Iacobuzio-Donahue share in interest in how medical photography can take diseased tissue and render it otherworldly, abstract, vibrant and thought-provoking. Together, they collected nearly 100 images of human diseases and other ailments from more than 60 medical science professionals for Hidden Beauty, a book and accompanying exhibition. In each image, there is an underlying tension. The jarring moment, of course, is when viewers realize that the subject of the lovely image before them is something that can cause so much pain and distress.
Here is a selection from Hidden Beauty:
Research shows that close to 50 percent of those over 85 years in age have Alzheimer’s, a degenerative neurological disorder that causes dementia. Diagnosing the disease can be tough—the only true test to confirm that a patient has Alzheimer’s is done post-mortem. A doctor collects a sample of brain tissue, stains it and looks for abnormal clusters of protein called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. In this sample (above) of brain tissue, the brown splotches are amyloid plaques.
A person’s stomach produces acids to help digest food, but if those acids enter the esophagus, one can be in for a real treat: raging heartburn. Gastroesophageal reflux, in some cases, leads to Barrett’s esophagus, a condition where cells from the small intestine start popping up in the lower esophagus, and Barrett’s esophagus can be a precursor to esophageal cancer. The biopsy (above) of the lining of an esophagus has dark blue cells, signaling that this person has Barrett’s.
The electron micrograph (above) shows what happens in the circulatory system of someone with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The blue in the image is a white blood cell, referred to as a CD4 positive T cell, and the cell is sprouting a new HIV particle, the polyp shown here in red and orange.
This pile (above) of what might look like nuts, fossils or even corals is actually of gallstones. Gallstones can form in a person’s gall bladder, a pear-shaped organ positioned under the liver; they vary in shape and size (from something comparable to a grain of salt to a ping pong ball), depending on the specific compounds from bile that harden to form them.
According to estimates, about 2 billion people in the world have Hepatitis B virus (shown above), or HBV. Those who have contracted the virus, through contact with a carrier’s blood or other bodily fluids, can develop the liver disease, Hepatitis B. When chronic, Hepatitis B is known to cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.
When a person develops cirrhosis, typically from drinking alcohol in excess or a Hepatitis B or C infection, his or her liver tissue (shown above, in pink) is choked by fibrous tissue (in blue). The liver, which has a remarkable ability to regenerate when damaged, tries to produce more cells, but the restricting web of fibrous tissues ultimately causes the organ to shrink.
Emphysema (shown above, in a smoker’s lung) is the unfortunate side effect of another unhealthy habit, smoking. With the disease, what happens is that big gaps (seen as white spots in the image) develop in the lung tissue, which disrupt the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and result in labored breathing. The black coloration on this sample is actual carbon that has built up from this person smoking packs and packs of cigarettes over a stretch of many years.