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01/10/2011 08:00:00

The Eyepiece of the Beholder

Fifty years ago, Richard Feynman famously commented: "There's plenty of room at the bottom," articulating a dream that would one day be called nanotechnology. His audience consisted mainly of engineers and scientists. But, says Caltech materials scientist Dennis Callahan, there's also plenty of room down there for practitioners of the visual arts. 

A third-year graduate student in Professor Harry Atwater's lab, Callahan studies the microstructure of solar cells. His responsibilities include often-laborious electron microscopy—but, for him, that drudgery is the gateway to breathtaking new vistas. Even at the nanoscale, nature makes room for beauty—"much more room than in the macroscopic world," Callahan says. He'll present his findings as proof at Friday's TEDxCaltech conference, including a selection of stunning images.

How stunning? Good enough to win back-to-back first prizes in Caltech's annual "Art of Science" competition (tagline: "Is Your Research Beautiful? Is Your Art Scientific?"). Callahan's 2010 winner is a four-panel sequence capturing a moment of utter chaos at the microscale level: thin ribbons of gold film peeling away from a polymer substrate. The culprit was thermal stress, but under the scanning electron microscope, the ghostly, translucent filaments writhe and twist like cellophane tape in the hands of an inept poltergeist. The previous year, he won with a transmission electron micrograph of a cluster of impure molybdenum trioxide crystals. The overall impression was strongly reminiscent of a robotic dragonfly caught in an X-ray machine.

That the microworld might possess its own strange beauty is hardly a new concept; Feynman himself acknowledged it. Chapter II-6 of his classic Lectures on Physics includes a field emission micrograph showing the point of a tungsten needle. Individual atoms, magnified an astonishing two million times, shimmer in concentric clusters, producing what the poet Dorothy Donnelly described as:       

                 . . . a pattern flowered from a thousand 
                 scintillas of matter impeccably spaced 
                 in kaleidoscope-spoked motifs as baroque 
                 as the snowflakes' spiky shapes, ornate 
                 to the tips of their tines.

As for the future, Callahan predicts that "we will see exponentially more beautiful images from scientists everywhere." And from mathematicians too, since modern technology has the power to give visibility to things lacking tangible existence. The discipline known as "generative art" uses computers to unearth the beauty hidden deep inside functions and algorithms. Some of Callahan's most haunting works are the abstract "digiscapes" he's simulated from complex data sets, and although their particular allure may differ somewhat from that of Feynman's well-known sketches of the human form en deshabille, they can be just as mesmerizing. 

True, to some staunch right-brainers the electron microscope might come off as geeky, or even cheating—what oil paint was before Leonardo, perhaps, or the airbrush before Vargas. Yet it's proven itself capable of delivering images as sublime as anything produced by the hand of man. Callahan sees his work almost as an aesthetic imperative. Scientists, he points out, "have access to resources and technologies that very few people in the world have access to, and this gives them unique opportunities to create works of art that no one else can."

No doubt Feynman himself would agree.