Art in the Professions
Introduction: What is Microscopy?
No matter if you are an artist or a scientist, we cannot help but to be fascinated by the world around us. Nature is a perpetual source of inspiration for humans as we learn to live with it and live as a part of it. And since a picture speaks a thousand words, both artists and scientists have worked hard to capture the profound beauty found in our everyday lives. The field of microscopy started from these simple principles and are applied to looking at things that are very, very small.
The world we live in is made of some really small things, indeed. And ever since the beginning of scientific discovery, humans have tried to get a glimpse of these building blocks of life. However, our search into the very small could not properly take place until the physics of optics and the skills of lens-grinding were understood and perfected by scientists. But since Galileo cobbled together his "Occhiolino" in 1625, the door has been opened. And the world of the very small had finally opened up to the human eye.
In the very beginning, we have to rely on the artistic skills of the observer to faithfully record what they have seen through their lenses. The rest of us have to collectively wait until our recording devices have caught up to our ability to see the microcosm around us. At the beginning, this was accomplished through exposure of a biological sample to radioactive elements in the hope that they would leave imprints on photographic emulsions. The results were black-and-white, grainy and potentially hazardous to the health of the scientist-artist. It wasn’t until the creation of analog video cameras and CCTV technology in the 20th Century that we have been able to systematically record the amazing world of the very small right under our noses. It’s the Macro-photography’s ultimate goal: “To see a world in a grain of sand.”
Types of Microscopy
Not all microscopes are built the same. And not of all of them acquire the same kinds of images. Depending on what kind of sample is being observed, there are multiple ways to bring out the best pictures forward. And if a picture speaks a thousand words, we’ve been working on how to deliver the best speeches.
This is the first type of microscope invented and the most commonly used. The image is carried by photons (beams of light) and is magnified through a series of lenses. The quality of the lenses (the grind, the material they are made of and the quality of the mirroring) determines the quality of the images you can get from them. There is a top limit, however. An optical microscope cannot magnify anything more than ~1500X. However, the if we use light with a shorter wavelength (like ultraviolet light), we can get an even higher magnification.
Photos taken with Optical Microscopes:
Variations on Optical Microscopy (static)
To challenge the limits of optical microscopy, scientists and artists alike have been trying to change up different aspects of the path which light travels through in order to get different effects to keep the images in focus. These techniques can be divided into changing the background to bring out the foreground picture (“bright field” versus “dark field”) and changing the incoming light quality (“Cross-polarized” and “phase contrast”) While these techniques don’t really drastically improve the amount of magnification that the optical microscope can offer, they can provide a clearer picture by bringing out the contrast between the desired object and the background.
Bright field Microscopy:
Dark field Microscopy:
Variations on Optical Microscopy (Confocal microscopy)
Confocal microscopy uses a scanning point of light through a pinhole to prevent out-of-focus light from reaching the object being observed. This means the images you see will appear to be at a higher resolution. The downside to this technique is that your depth-of-view would be much shallower as compared to conventional microscopy. However, those who use confocal microscopy use this property to their advantage. A thicker sample can be virtually “dissected” by these moving points of light in order to recreate a 3-D digital image.
Variation on Optical Microscopy (Fluorescence/immunobiochemistry)
Very few things in life – when viewed under a microscope – actually have any colour. In order to distinguish different structures in a biological sample, several techniques have been developed to add a splash of colour into our otherwise muted world of the very small. This can involve a series of dyes (both natural and synthetic) that will react with certain molecules to change their colour. But much more effective is the field of tagged antibodies. Biochemists have worked together with geneticists and immunologists to create antibodies that can recognise specific structures in a sample. These antibodies can be tagged with small fluorescent proteins to allow them to reflect light when excited. These spots of reflected light can be artificially coloured and enhanced in order to distinguish different structures, different proteins and different functions of these structures. Not to mention these little blinking lights put on one heck of a show. And they are usually best seen under dark-field or confocal microscopy.
Fluorescent Confocal Microscopy:
Electron Microscope was designed to bypass the limits of optical microscopes. Instead of using light particles (photons) to bombard and carry the image, the electron microscope uses beams of electrons instead. The first electromagnetic lens was developed by Hans Busch in 1926 and the first practical electron microscope was built in 1938 in Toronto, Canada. Since then, we have been using beams of electron to magnify things one- or two-million times larger than life.
Transmission electron microscope (TEM)
There are two kinds of electron microscopes. The first is constructed based on the same principle of optical microscopes. The principle of construction was largely the same except that the sample is bombarded by electrons instead. The advantage is that for the first time, we are able to see inside the cells to the level of individual organelles. We are able to see aggregates of proteins that literally build life from the ground up. The downside, however, is that the depth of view is extremely shallow and it takes a lot of skill to prepared and read a sample… which are monochrome grey. Also, while optical microscopy allows us to see living cells, a sample prepared for electron microscopy have be especially treated so that they can withstand being bombarded by beams of electron. This is usually done by coating the sample in heavy metal. It means everything seen under electron microscopes are quite dead.
Transmission electron microscopy:
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)
The second kind of electron microscope works similarly to a confocal microscope in theory. The sample to be scanned is once again coated in a layer of heavy metal. A smaller source of electrons provides a small beam that scans across the surface of the sample. What comes out is an image of the outer shell of the sample. While the resolution of SEM is not quite on par with TEM, the amount of details that could be shown with SEM is nothing short of incredible. It has allowed us to see the intricate surface details of animals, organ structures and even groups of cells. These samples can be coloured in post-processing by using “false colours” to create even more contrast to the different structures. They are some of the most stunning images we have produced.
Where science meets art
Every year, Nikon’s Microscope department hosts the “Small World” Competition. It’s an art contest open to everyone in the world who deal with photos taken by microscopes. It doesn’t matter which type of microscope is your specialty or indeed if you work with gray-scale or glow-in-the-dark samples. This contest is held every year in August. And while the 2015 winners have not been announced yet, you can see all the previous winners and their entries right here: www.microscopyu.com/smallworld…
At the smallest scale… there really is no difference between a scientist and an artist. And these winners show with ample proof that they are both at heart.
1. Timeline of microscope technology: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline…
2. More about the electron microscope: fav.me/d5quv07 (Great article written by one of the electron microscopists here on dA. Explains the technology in layman's terms with great photos to match.)
3. A more in-depth look at different kinds of microscopy: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsco…
4. Want more stunning images? Check out these groups:
5. For more "Science-meet-art" goodness, check out this forum: www.photomacrography.net/forum…
Questions for you:Have you ever used a microscope? Have you tried to record what you have seen under the lens?
Have you encountered microscopic art before? Where?
What's your impression of scientists creating microscopic photography? Do you consider this art?
Do you consider these scientists as "artists"?