“One picture worth ten thousand words” (Fred Barnard, 1927)
Images captivate and inspire us. From photographs of space through to diagrams illustrating scientific methodology, images can convey information in a manner that words cannot match. I have often thought that microscopy is an artform as well as a scientific pursuit. Much like a photographer uses a camera to capture an aspect of the world around us in order to tell a story, scientists use microscopy to delve into structures invisible to the naked eye and generate images that help us to interpret our world.
But is it art? Art and science were separated in their classification after the 17th century and there is constant debate about what constitutes art. Art can be defined as being an act of expressing observations, and it is under this definition that microscopy and all other forms of scientific art fall. Certainly, there is a valid field of photography using a microscope as the camera. There are many microscopy image competitions and exhibitions that indicate a passion and interest in producing images for their aesthetic value in addition to the scientific information such images also provide.
A Drosophila proboscis (left) and a lower magnification image of the same fruit fly capture using scanning electron microscopy. These were greyscale images that have been artistically coloured. The background was also removed in the isolated proboscis image.
Scale on the underside of a moth’s wing, captured using scanning electron microscopy and coloured by hand.
Transmission electron microscopy image of mitochondria (blue), endoplasmic reticulum (yellow) and Golgi bodies (pink) in an animal cell or unhappy characters in a story yet to be told?
Layers of lens cells from a sheep eye. The lens was fractured to expose the layers. The sample was imaged with scanning electron microscopy and coloured by hand.
Daisy pollen originally imaged using scanning electron microscopy and digitally coloured, extracted from its background and reflected to create an artistic image.
As a scientist and an artist, I have always been fascinated by the amazing structures that can be images using an electron microscope. The images are beautiful, even without the addition of false colour as shown in the pictures above and I am intrigued by the underlying information that each image can provide about the sample. It is for these reasons that I find the addition of compositional information in the form of colour to be intriguing. Colouring greyscale electron microscopy data with elemental information obtained using a technique called energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry (EDS). Not only can this produce stunning pictures, but they also convey far more information than normal electron microscopy micrographs for both scientists and artists, bringing to our attention features that we might not otherwise have noticed, even if we had coloured the image by hand.
Images showing accumulated pollution particles on a holly leaf from London, collected as part of a collaborative project with Professor Rob Kesseler. The left image is showing compositional information generated from the x-ray signal emitted from the sample. The middle image shows topographical information from the backscattered electron signal. The right image is an overlay of them both. It is interesting how different information is conveyed in each of the images depending on what signal from the scanning electron microscope is selected.
Backscattered electron image (top) and image showing an EDS image combining the signals from 4 elements, nitrogen (blue), calcium (yellow), phosphorus (pink) and uranium (green). The sample shows a calcium-phosphate bone implant (sample was provided by Zhidao Xia, Swansea University). A stain containing uranium was used to provide contrast to the cells, shown in green in the image. Positions of the cells is difficult to determine using the electron image alone, but they are immediately apparent in the EDS data.
Images showing accumulated pollution particles in a palm leaf from Italy, collected as part of a collaborative project with Professor Rob Kesseler. The left image is showing compositional information generated from the x-ray signal emitted from the sample and the right image is a secondary electron image of same region.
An ongoing art and science collaboration with Professor Rob Kesseler investigates air pollution on plant material from samples he has collected across Europe. Rob and I will be discussing this, the links between art and microscopy as well as the techniques mentioned in this blog during our webinar on the 17th March. There will be a Q&A session at the end of the webinar for viewers to ask questions about our work. Register for the webinar now to join in.