Issue Date: January 15, 2010
A Big Picture Look At The Small Scale
If you think that science at the micro- and nanoscales is an unlikely topic for a coffee-table book, you'll be pleasantly surprised by "No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale," the second collaboration by Harvard University chemist George M. Whitesides and photographer Felice C. Frankel. Their new book is a follow-up to "On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science," published more than a decade ago.
The 60 brief essays and accompanying photos of "No Small Matter" encompass a broad range of scientific topics, from information technology to microfluidics to biology to alternative energy such as solar and fuel cells. All of the pieces share the attribute that they are in some way related to the micro- or nanoscale, even if the image depicts an everyday macroscale object. Although loosely organized into the volume's six sections, the essays stand on their own. You can read the book straight through—as I did in two sittings—or you can flip through the book, stopping to read those essays that catch your eye. Open the book to any page and you're unlikely to be disappointed by what you find.
None of the essays is simply a caption for the accompanying photo. The text alludes to the photo and usually provides a brief explanation, but the prose and image work together to convey a larger point about life or the world. The prose is full of metaphorical—dare I say philosophical—musings. For example, in one vignette, Whitesides says: "As a chemist, I've come to uneasy terms with the weirdnesses of electrons and photons, and with their ability to meld into the ordinariness of macroscopic things. But sometimes, lying awake in a strange hotel room at 4 a.m., considering what I might say that I really understand about anything, I fret that the answer is: almost nothing."
But I must be honest. The selling point of this book is the gorgeous images. They keep coming with each turn of the page, and every reader is likely to have his or her favorite.
One of the most arresting images in the entire collection is the atomic force microscope tip that illustrates the second piece. In the accompanying text, "Seeing is Feeling," Whitesides describes the AFM tip as "a finger that brushes surfaces with such delicacy that it can feel individual atoms." The concept of delicacy is at odds with the image of that incredibly sharp AFM tip.
Some of the images can be deciphered only by reading the text. The image that most surprised me was a close-up of the grooves in a vinyl recording of the Beatles' album "Revolver." When I first saw the photo, I thought I was looking at the grain in a piece of decaying wood. The gradual revelation of what's in the picture is one of the joys of the accompanying essay, entitled "Eleanor Rigby." Whitesides explains how vibrations of the record player needle generate voltages in a crystal that are amplified through speakers to produce pressure waves in the air that our brains process as music. But his ultimate point is that these physical phenomena "transmute sound into emotion."
I learned the most from the selection "Counting on Two Fingers." It briefly explains binary addition—something I learned in high school but have not needed to use since—and then illustrates it with an array of wine glasses photographed from above. Some of the glasses are empty and some are filled with deep red Shiraz, signifying 0 and 1, respectively. The arrangement of the glasses illustrates the equation 001100 + 010110 = 100010 or 12 + 22 = 34, for those of us more fluent in decimal than binary. I went to the Internet to remind myself how binary addition works, so I could check up on the sum.
"Counting on Two Fingers" is also one of the pieces featured in the explanatory epilogue, "Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: Notes from the Photographer." In this section, Frankel lets us in on the magician's secrets and explains the thinking behind five of the illustrations encountered in the book and the tricks she played to capture the final images.
This book is aimed at a wide audience and is written at a level to be enjoyed and appreciated by all, scientists and nonscientists alike. Scientists are unlikely to learn any new fundamental science—although Whitesides touches on such a broad range of topics that I could easily be wrong—but they may be spurred to think about old things in new ways. If nothing else, there are the stunning images to savor.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society