Scanning Nature

For this exercise, I wanted to use the Nature Lab facilities to try and understand the anxiety that Robert Hooke writes about in Micrographia. As he sees a different world than the one he is familiar with, he is forced to meditate on the inadequacy of human senses. I have tried to roll my analysis of the assignment into my description of practice and observation.

I decided to use a Scanning Electron Microscope to probe as deep as possible. The microscope sprays the surface with a focused electron beam, and then watches for what bounces back to construct an image. While operating the microscope, I am using a very complex prosthetic to enhance my vision. The operating procedure is simple and intuitive, removed from the messy and complicated physical processes that mediate my interaction with the sample. This process might be thought similar to the way in which sight seems to be the most fundamental and intuitive sense, but the complexity and mediating biases of the perceptual process hides underneath. Using a graphical computer interface on a touchscreen monitor, I move the visual window around the sample area, zoom, focus, and adjust image quality as the electrons keep bouncing. At each move of the focus area, I hear a high pitched whine characteristic of stepper motors. Even though I know that my engagement with the sample is mediated by this mechanical experimental process, I find myself trusting the black and white images that emerge on the screen to be a faithful rendition of what things “are really like” at the scales that I probe.

To Hooke, the needle seems to be an example of perfect human manufacturing. The tip of the needle is precisely machined to be as sharp as possible. Under the microscope, it is revealed to be filled with pockmarks and the tip appears blunt. It seemed fitting to me to look at an analogous object under the SEM.

Integrated circuits on a printed board are often considering one of our greatest manufacturing achievements in terms of precision. Packing millions of transistors into small black plastic slabs requires fabrication facilities that cost billions of dollars. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to peer into the middle of these chips, because the Nature Lab doesn’t have an ion slicing device. I confined my experiments to probing around the fabrication of the board itself, and specifically the solder joints that connect integrated circuits to the network of metallic traces that compose the printed circuit board. At a macroscopic scale, the solder joints look glassy and beautiful, little beads of melted and hardened metal that dot the board.

Macro view of Printed Circuit Board

As we zoom, a new terrain fills the visual field. The smoothest parts of the joints show us flat, hardened formations that look like a desert floor, complete with weblike cracks and plunging cliffs.

In other places, we see a foam of solidified metal and metal oxides reaching up like an ocean surface frozen mid-day.

When I looked at the plastic casing of the large integrated circuit under maximum magnification, I found myself lost, something the microscope attendant had warned me about. The visual scene resolved into a series of floating orbs, seemingly with infinite depth of field, but no clues as to their relationship with the macroscopic experience of plastic that I had. This, perhaps, was the closest I got to the anxious stance towards the natural world that Hooke embodies.

When confronted with the imperfection of the needle he looks at, Hooke finds that natural objects can have much sharper points than the needle. To trace this progression of discovery, I examined a coral specimen.

The coral, at macroscopic scale, has a somewhat regular but organic pattern of holes that permeate a somewhat porous, hardened structure.

Macro view of coral

The idea of truth-to-nature as a virtuous epistemological stance, traced in Cornelia Hesse-Honneger’s work and the book Objectivity, kept popping into my head. The coral, as I zoomed, seemed to constantly represent some regular, describable pattern, while deviating from perfection in every way. It looked chaotic and natural, and as I zoomed into the ‘solid’ part of the structure, it resolved into a tangle of organic forms reminiscent of a forest floor.

When I looked at the cavernous, visible holes, I saw flaky, rocklike structures around a vast dark absence of form.

It seemed like the visual scene was in some sort of loop that bound together senses of scale and spatial references. Perhaps my years of experience viewing organic forms had trapped me in a pattern recognition algorithm that couldn’t see anything it hadn’t before. This feeling of looping visual references permeated my time with the scanning electron microscope.

My final sample was a specimen of Linen, just like Hooke looked at all those years ago.

Macro view of linen cloth

Like Hooke found, the piece of cloth which looks constant and uniform to the human eye, resolved into something savagely chaotic and jumbled. The strands are grouped into noticeable groups of fibers, all pulled in one or another perpendicular direction. Each group was twisted so that an individual fiber would have some vaguely helical form, and throughout the groups of fibers, individual strands broke out into jagged broken edges.

Zooming in on a misshapen fiber, I saw a solid structure with jagged faces, seemingly sheared against each other, forming a facade I would expect from some rare, geometric mineral. After picking another fiber and zooming in as far as the machine would let me, I found myself nowhere. Only more jagged, vaguely organic forms.

This defined the experience of the SEM for me.

Reality didn’t open up like I thought it would. The first feeling of microstructure revealing itself is intoxicating, like a glimpse into a world that is under your fingertips. This is in itself a misleading feeling, the mechanical mediation disappearing under an image that presents to the mind as just another instance of visual sense. You know this, but you want to see more of the hidden world. So you crank the dial to try and get another level down, to see some other reality come into view, but things don’t open up the second time. Just more of the same, but you know it’s smaller.

In all, the experience didn’t make me feel like Hooke did, at least, as he portrays his emotion through his writing. I’m not an early adopter of SEM technology, and I’ve seen images on the internet of fantastically small physical structures in high resolution. Operating the machine definitely added to the experience, but the electron beams and mechanical wizardry behind the scenes doesn’t show itself to you, only a high-contrast computer monitor with simple, bright buttons. That said, something draws me back with a desire to see more, to lay my fingery electron eyes on something new.

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