Sometimes there's a fine line between science and art. In Rachel Smith's case, the line is so fine that she needs high-powered microscopes to create her masterpieces.
Smith is a researcher in the National Science Foundation funded Center for Nanoscale Science at Penn State. Nanoscale science is the study of objects so miniscule that up to a million of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. Those atoms and molecules are the subjects of Smith's photography. Depending on one's point of view, her images might be described as artful science or scientific art.
"The science underlies everything," Smith said. "But you can display the data as a function of your creativity."
As artists do, scientists try to make sense of the world around them by looking for patterns, by examining objects closely, and by trying to show others what they see.
For at least a century, scientists have used technology to portray the invisible. X-ray machines and CAT scanners allow doctors to peer inside the human body. With powerful telescopes astronomers gaze deep into the universe. Satellite imaging reveals underground oil deposits and hurricanes in the making, and night vision goggles illuminate the darkest landscapes.
Nanoscale scientists face a unique challenge. Their subjects are not hidden or far away. Rather, they're unimaginably tiny.
To portray her micro models, Smith uses two types of microscopes: scanning tunneling microscopes and atomic force microscopes. In each case, the microscopes scan a surface, using either a current or a laser. The microscopes detect changes in the height of objects of the surface to produce a topographical map. "It works just as you might move your hand across a table and detect a change when you scooted your hand over a book lying on the table," Smith said.
Smith assigns colours to represent the different heights and to make the flat image appear to be three-dimensional. The results are colourful, dramatic, futuristic images suitable for framing. But like the Taj Mahal or the Golden Gate Bridge, Smith's images are both beautiful and functional.
"When we look at the data we collect, if we can present it in different ways it helps us to see what worked well in an experiment or what we should do differently next time," Smith said. "It's also an interesting way to communicate data to many sets of people."