Friday, July 25, 2008

The "Real" Surreal

I used to use electron microscopes a lot in some of the research jobs I had. One type is the scanning electron microscope (SEM), which makes images that resemble black-and-white photographs. (Nowadays, SEMs can be linked to computers that add false color to the images).

SEMs can be used in research, quality control and forensics. But for the artistically-inclined, they can be wonderful tools for showing the surrealistic world that exists right under our noses!

The scanning electron micrograph (the fancy name for a picture taken on an SEM) to the right is a highly magnified object common to many, if not all, of us. Can you guess what it is?

It's salted popcorn! The cubes that are scattered about are salt crystals.

The "mountain" that rises in the background is not part of the popcorn -- it's some of the dried electrically-conducting carbon paste that we use to adhere specimens to a sample holder which, in turn, is inserted in the SEM. But I always thought it helped give the image the look of a landscape, so I didn't crop it out.

We know about the concept of the universe being a vast place with stars, planets and many other things (but with LOTS of empty space). But we live in another universe as well, and one that is equally hard to see and comprehend -- the universe of the microscopic and the infinitely small.

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