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SPIE Professional October 2010

Visualizing Science

Surprise can be an effective education and outreach tool.

By Kathy Sheehan

copyright image from Felice Frankel

Who says science education can't be fun? Easy? Or visually beautiful?

Science photographer Felice Frankel creates gorgeous, innovative images that explain scientific phenomena to students, researchers, funding agencies, and the general public. Her images - some acquired through microscopes and others taken of everyday objects that she "re-presents" as a scientific principle in abstraction - teach about quantum mechanics, nanostructures, prisms, lenses, and other physical behaviors and properties.

Frankel is one of many in a growing community of scientists committed to conveying the importance, need, and beauty of science to the world at large. SPIE supports such outreach efforts by providing numerous opportunities and grants in support of science education.

At SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego in August, for example, SPIE hosted an "Optics Outreach Olympics" and an all-day conference on Optics Education and Outreach, as well as an SPIE Women in Optics presentation featuring Frankel and her work, which is considered highly instructive and artistic.

Abstract beauty

Frankel holds research positions at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School's Systems Biology, the Wyss Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, collaborating with science and engineering researchers to visually represent their work. She explains the need for scientists to make their work accessible to those outside their field in her 2002 book, "Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image."

Ralph James and Felice Frankel
SPIE President Ralph James with Felice Frankel.

Her many prizes and awards include the Photographic Society of America's 2009 Progress Medal "for the innovative creation of images through synthesizing photographic artistry and computer technology to visually clarify scientific phenomena."

In her most recent book, No Small Matter, Science on the Nanoscale, Frankel and her coauthor, renowned Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides, cultivate critical thinking about and interest in science by describing and depicting various phenomena in nanoscience.

No Small Matter
No Small Matter, Science on the Nanoscale reveals the virtually invisible realities and possibilities of nanoscience. Published by Harvard University Press in 2009, Frankel co-authored the book with George Whitesides. More information www.felicefrankel.com.

To explain interference and diffraction in quantum mechanics and how white light can be turned into a "spectral peacock's tail" of color, Frankel propped a prism on a box in front of window blinds in her home. The resulting colorful photograph is a way to show the wave-like nature of light to young scientists and the general public.

Frankel also uses a photo of a light shining through a household magnifying glass to illustrate the techniques of photolithography. A droplet of water suspended from a tiny pipette (below) shows how a liquid lens works.

water droplet lens
Above: A drop of water is suspended from a clear plastic pipette tip, approximately 3 centimeters long. The water forms a lens, drawing the lines of the color tiles in the background into sharp focus.
prism rainbow
White light passing through window blinds and a prism separate into colors.
glass apple square shadow
The digitally-created shadow from the "quantum apple" above is Frankel's metaphor for the sometimes bizarre behaviors discovered in nanoscience.
writing with light
Felice Frankel's photo, "Writing with Light," is intended to illustrate the techniques of photolithography. Just as children can use sunlight and a magnifying lens to burn a piece of paper or wood, photolithographers use light and lenses to write intricate patterns on transistors and microchips that are used in cellphones, music players, and all kinds of electronic devices. In real life, lithographers use powerful lasers (This photo was digitally rotated 180 degrees on its horizontal axis for the print edition of the magazine by SPIE with permission.) Read about the development of laser applications for lithography in this issue. Photos © Felice Frankel.

Frankel's book also uses visual metaphors and digital manipulation to illustrate the elusive and sometimes unexpected behavior on the quantum level. A digitally altered image of a crystal apple casting a square shadow, for instance, is a metaphor for the contradictions and surprises often found in quantum physics. The image teaches people that light behaves in counterintuitive ways at the quantum level, she explains.

The glass apple "is both visually and tactilely pleasing and seemed in some ways to crystallize the notion of a quantum world where an apple isn't really an apple," the book explains. "What you glimpse depends on how and when you look. Even the act of looking changes the thing that is looked at."

SPIE Women in Optics

SPIE Women in Optics promotes personal and professional growth for women through community building, networking opportunities, and encouraging young women to choose optics as a career. The next Women in Optics event will be at SPIE Photonics West in January 2011.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201010.10

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