Fernan Federici’s microscopic images of plants, bacteria, and crystals are a classic example of finding art in unexpected places.
A couple years ago, Federici was working on his Ph.D. in biological sciences at Cambridge University studying self-organization, the process by which things organize themselves spontaneously and without direction. Like a flock of birds flying together.
More specifically, he was using microscopes and a process called fluorescence microscopy to see if he could identify these kinds of patterns on a cellular level. In fluorescence microscopy, scientists shine a particular kind of light at whatever they’re trying to illuminate and then that substance identifies itself by shining a different color or light back. Sometimes researchers will also attach proteins that they know emit a particular kind of light to substances as a kind of identifier. In the non-microscopic world, it’s like using a black light on a stoner poster.
Federici grew up with photography as a hobby, so looking through the microscope at all the different colors and patterns he realized that the process was highly visual. He hadn’t seen many images like what he was seeing published for the general public, so he asked for permission from his adviser Jim Haseloffto post the photos on his Flickr site. Today that site is filled with pages and pages of microscopic images, some of which are from his work, while others are just for fun.
“Microscopy is always serious science,” says Federici, who is now a researcher at Pontificia Univerisdad Catolica de Chile. “For us [in the department at Cambridge] this was something we looked at as outreach. It was a way to bring this scientific data to the general public.”
Many of the photos on the site show particular bacteria colonies that were studied for their self-organizing principles. Others are just images of old plants that were used to teach botany at the university over a hundred years ago. Before fluorescence microscopy, scientists used dyes to try and single out certain cells or structures. Those dyes, which sat for decades on the plants, now make for arty images under a microscope. Other photos on the Flickr page include microscopic images of crystals and oil.
Federici says there’s still a lot to learn about self-organization so viewers can look forward to more art from him. If or when his colleagues are successful at what they’re chasing in self-organization, they eventually hope to be able to control it through something called synthetic biology, which will be a game-changer.
“We can imagine a future of intelligent material,” he says. “For example, instead of chopping a tree down to make a chair, scientists might eventually be able to control a tree to just grow a chair.”