The crossroads of science and art: photos of a small world

Edge of a microscope slide, photo: Jaromir Plasek

In today's Czech Science, we spoke to one of many Czech scientists who turn to the arts in their spare time, but never really stray far from their microscopes. Jaromir Plasek's photographs are extreme close-ups of very small things.

"What we can see in my picture is something like a green meadow with golden spikes on it. And that green meadow is the body of an ant's wing, and these golden spikes are some hairs that are covering that wing."

That's Jaromir Plasek, a biophysicist who is also the vice dean of the Math and Physics faculty at Charles University. He's describing a photograph he took of a queen ant, or at least a very small part of one.

His description fits that of many of the photographs by scientists who double as hobby photomicrographers. These are scientists who use microscopes to capture a world that can't be seen with the naked eye. So the photos make it easy to imagine that they are something else - maybe an eerie alien landscape, as in this example.

Photomicrography is more than just a way these scientists study what happens under the eye of a microscope. It's also a form of art.

For example, the photograph of the ant's wing emerged out of a failed experiment. Dr. Plasek was studying ant bowels, but it was impossible to see the process he was trying to observe because certain ant cells were auto-fluorescent, or glow in the dark.

"On one side this effect hampered my scientific project, but on the other hand I have got some spin-off effect finding that you can get nice microphotographs of ants made in fluorescence microscopy."

Dr. Plasek is one of the Czech scientists who have taken their art to the public. Another is Czech Technical University Professor Zdenka Jenikova. Two years ago, she came a very impressive second in an international photomicrography competition. The pastel-like colors and chaotic crisscrossing lines in her close-up of a sheet of polyethylene plastic resemble a painting by Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky.

Although all the equipment you need for photomicrography is a microscope and a camera, you still need the scientific know-how to bring out color in cells. Jaromir Plasek again.

"Cells are not colorful. Green plants are the only difference; red blood cells are the other difference, but the majority of our cells cannot be seen without coloring them. And during the past forty years, a new category of dies that can stain cells was designed - these so-called fluorescent dies."

For a different photograph, Dr Plasek used a piece of yellow glass to bring out the color in another sample from his microscope. To me it looks like a cross-section of soil, complete with roots winding through the dirt. He says it looks like mountains, but he blushed just a little when he said what it really is.

"I am a little bit shy to say which kind of sample this is. Actually, what you can see there was originally dried saliva - human saliva, my saliva - on a microscope slide."