Light that renders forces feelable

In a previous blog post in Swedish, I have written about the “scientific entrepreneur” within nanoscience as an actor attempting to stage a kind of “double visibility”. (The term is from Brigitte Gorm Hansen’s presentation at 4S in Tokyo; see her PhD dissertation here.) The person in question endeavours to not only render particles on a nano scale visible, but also represent the process by which such renderings come into being.

Visualisation has, of course, played a crucial role in scientific endeavours. Indeed, the “Galileo moment” that Whitehead is interested in has a visual component, as described by Edward Tufte in Beautiful Evidence:

From then on, theories about the universe had to be tested against the visual evidence of empirical observation. This is the forever idea in Galileo’s book. And so armchair speculation, parsing Aristotle and religious doctrine, and philosophizing were no longer good enough. (97)

Tufte on Galileo

This type of in-your-face evidence furnished the “revolt against reason” that is modern science. For Whitehead, this anti-intellectual/anti-speculative revolt came in the form of an “idealist materialism” – a reckless mode of abstraction borrowed from mathematics, and applied to all forms of concrete matter. This matter is also to be isolated from other systems – like in the DNA sample below, that we had a look at when visiting the labs at Chalmers University of Technology the other day.

Sample with nano stuff in it

So, on a theoretical level, I know something about these connections between science and visualisation. Still, when visiting the labs, I was struck by how much the work centres around how to render nanoparticles visible. For some reason, I was under the impression that “photography” only mattered for science a hundred years ago… and throughout the tour that Jonas had prepared for us, I kept on repeating “so this machine is basically a fancy camera?”.

I know, this is a bit of a stretch – the camera is more direct, contains less mediations. But regardless of whether we are doing UV-Vis Absorption Spectroscopy, Time-Correlated Single Photon Counting, or Single Molecule Fluorescence Spectroscopy (see below), we are still talking about efforts to elicit “feelable forces” by examining how light is reflected as it interacts with the material at hand.

Nano images 1

Nano images 2

Nano images 3

After the tour, Magnus asked whether the researcher is ever surprised by what these tiny little things do, when viewed in these machines. “Not really”, Jonas replied – experiments are engineered as yes/no questions. That is not to say that the visualisations say nothing – when the materials are being shone upon in different lights, one can get a composite view of the “triangulated” matter. However, at the same time, the renderings in the screens represent a tiny facet of the multifaceted nano-scale beings that the scientists may have in their heads. And if we were to subject Magnus to similar light experiments, he would no doubt exhibit very little of himself.


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