The Art of the Nanoscale

In American Scientist:


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 the eye.

“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.