Surface Art

July 20, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight seeing science. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston has the story.

PAUL SOLMAN: This summer and into next year a curious combo is touring the country. “On the Surface of Things” is a marriage of art and science. It’s a project which not only shows, as its authors put it, images of the extraordinary in science, but actually uses the images to try to explain science, itself.

As both a book and exhibition, On the Surface of Things sucks you in with its magnified photographs of surfaces, lurid blow-ups of everything from frost on glass to microelectrodes. But the photographs are being exhibited by major scientific institutions because science is the inspiration here and the reward for your curiosity. Here at last, or at least in school, are answers to embarrassing questions like why does water form drops. So why does it? Well, joining us now to explain this image, among others, are the co-authors of On the Surface of Things. Felice Frankel is a photographer. Her pictures have made the cover of numerous magazines. And she now directs a National Science Foundation Project at MIT called “Envisioning Science.” Harvard’s George Whitesides is a chemistry professor Frankel met while on a design fellowship. He led her through the world of science and is the tour guide who will take us through the photographs. And, welcome to you both.

GEORGE WHITESIDES, On the Surface of Things: Thank you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ms. Frankel, what drew you to this collaboration?

FELICE FRANKEL, Photographer: Do you have four hours?


FELICE FRANKEL: I’ll tell you quickly that science has always been in my heart, if I could be that heartfelt about it. In fact, in PS92 I wrote that I was going to be a chemist when I grew up.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is a public school in New York.

FELICE FRANKEL: A public school in Brooklyn, New York. I majored in Biology in college and then left science after working in a laboratory and became a photographer. But somehow through various situations I wound up in a wonderful situation to introduce myself to George at Harvard University as an adult. At that point I was 47 years old–as an architectural and landscape photographer–and found this faculty associate, who is obviously very visual in how he expresses himself. And he then introduced me to some of his co-workers in his laboratory, and that’s how it all started.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you sort of sidled up to the scientist you always wanted to be or something?

FELICE FRANKEL: Exactly. That’s exactly it. And I’ve come in through the back door in a way, back to science.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, Professor Whitesides, why do you wind up annotating a book of photographs as a Harvard scientist?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: Felice had, I think, a wonderful idea in this book, which was that science is interesting and a way to make it interesting to people who are not necessarily technically detailed in their science is to put together a wonderful picture. If they’re interested in the wonderful picture, then they might be interested in the explanation for why things work. And I’m here to try to explain why things work.

PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Great. So let’s go back to the picture of the drops of water that we have here. And so, why does water form drops?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: A terrific question. The way to think about the problem is a little bit to anthropomorphize. It’s helps a lot, and think about water as a collection of molecules. There are the molecules that are on the outside border, and then there are the molecules of water that are on the inside of the drop. And for some interesting reasons the ones that are on the outside never want to be there. They always want to be on the inside.

PAUL SOLMAN: They’re being pulled.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: They try to retract their borders. And so you can think of a drop of water as if it had a kind of elastic skin like a balloon. And what it does is simply to shrink that skin as much as it can. So a drop of water tries to be a sphere. That’s the smallest area it can form. Though, sometimes it gets attracted to the surface, and it spreads out a bit. But the basic idea is molecules on the outside want to be on the inside, and they crowd in.

PAUL SOLMAN: So they’re pulling themselves around.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: Pulling themselves around and in, sucking in their stomach.

FELICE FRANKEL: The way this picture happened was that George and I sat down and we kind of went through a whole litany of what we should include in the book, and certainly George encouraged me to talk about drops of water. So then I had to come up with a picture of drops of water. That is the result. It actually looks quite simple. It wasn’t as simple as it looks.

PAUL SOLMAN: What is the water on?

FELICE FRANKEL: It’s on a gold surface that is somewhat hydrophobic.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hydrophobic meaning-oh, it doesn’t let the water spread out.


PAUL SOLMAN: It doesn’t attract the water the way-


PAUL SOLMAN: –Hates water, I see-hydrophobic.

FELICE FRANKEL: And there it is.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s the scale of these things? You brought along some stuff for us.

FELICE FRANKEL: Something like this, for example. I don’t know which one would you like to-

PAUL SOLMAN: Why don’t you do the agate there.

FELICE FRANKEL: The agate is kind of very nice to look at just as it is. But on the image that we finally wound up with, it’s kind of enlarged, I would say, about five times.

PAUL SOLMAN: Five times. And what about the next rock there, that’s opal?

FELICE FRANKEL: This is opal, yes, and this edge, I just took a section of the opal to emphasize the beauty of the diffraction of light that’s taking place.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much of the opal is in what we’re seeing in the picture?

FELICE FRANKEL: Well, you’re seeing about, oh, about a half an inch of it. That’s about the scale of that.

PAUL SOLMAN: What about the square drops of water? We have square drops of water. How are you–

FELICE FRANKEL: That really is how this all began in a way. This is the first attempt I made in George’s lab to photograph his work. And what you’re looking at is square drops of water, and each side of that-one of those drops measures about four millimeters. They’re colored. We put a fluorescing dye in the water to emphasize that they are keeping their square shape.

PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. Now so, Professor Whitesides, how could it be that there are square drops of water if they’re all trying to gather in and make themselves round, or drops become round as a result?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: What we did in that particular experiment was to start with a surface which was hydrophilic-that is, water loving.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not hydrophobic but hydrophilic. Okay.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: So, the drops in that case want to spread. But what we do in that particular system is to draw lines of, if you like, a paint on the surface, which the water can’t cross. And what’s interesting about the lines of paint is they’re about a micron across, meaning about a hundredth the width of a hair, so that the drop extends as far as it can, but there’s this very tiny stripe that it can’t cross, so it goes as far as it can within that square set of lines and stops.

PAUL SOLMAN: I see. So that’s why it’s rounded at the corners there.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: It’s rounded at the corners, because it’s trying to be round.

PAUL SOLMAN: Right. That’s what I meant. What about ink bleeding? My God, it looks like a great painting.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: That’s part of the same kind of phenomenon. What happens when inks bleed is that there’s a drop of liquid, that’s the colored ink, and in that case the attraction of the fiber over which it’s spreading is greater than the cohesion of the drop so that the surface is pulling the liquid away from a drop into a thin film. It’s covering itself with that film of water.

FELICE FRANKEL: And that’s an example of my saying, George, I want to put this picture in the book, can we say anything about it scientifically? That’s really how it went, back and forth.

PAUL SOLMAN: You can hear–the science of this is clear. Do you feel that there’s art to it too? I mean, are you vying with him?

FELICE FRANKEL: Always. No. I think we’re connecting the two. I’d like to think of it-I think of it as creating a bridge between art and science.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because you’re composing this picture, just as any artist would, right?

FELICE FRANKEL: I suppose so. But in my mind I always have in my mind the science behind it. That’s kind of what removes me from the artist perhaps.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: The composition also includes the idea that the science has to fit into something that’s explicable and that one can take a picture of. So there’s composition in a sense in both directions.

PAUL SOLMAN: Let’s look at Thero Fluid. I thought this was an amazing one. What’s going on here, Professor?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: Now, this is a case where one is really causing the material a great deal of trouble. It’s a mixture of two things. If you think about the drop, a drop wants to be the smooth, rounded surface. But this particular liquid has effectively small iron filings in it. And those, when you put them next to a magnet, tend to follow the lines. They follow the lines of magnetic force. And the liquid here is trying to do both at the same time. It’s trying both to bead up as a ball and also to produce the lines of iron filings that stick away from the surface. And what you see is a compromise.

PAUL SOLMAN: So those spikes, or something, that’s the magnetic force pulling?


FELICE FRANKEL: Exactly. And you might be interested that this look, this liquid, without all this fancy stuff next to it, is just a glob of ugly black color. What I did was I put a drop of this-measuring probably around two inches-on a piece of glass under which I put a yellow post-it and under the post-it are seven circular magnets, and that’s creating the pattern. And if you also look carefully, you could see windowpanes, which is the light that I used, the available light.

PAUL SOLMAN: I see, reflected in–

FELICE FRANKEL: You see reflected. And then I also bounced back some green-a green card to kind of add a little color in there.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wow! So you’re really playing with this stuff.

FELICE FRANKEL: I played with it, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Whitesides, has this changed your notion of how accessible science can be for the lay public?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: Absolutely. What we have found in thinking about problems in the fashion that Felice has outlined is that if one-if we are able to put together a part of a project which leads to an arresting image, then everyone is more interested, the scientist and the non-scientist. And building that idea into the beginning of a project not only helps to understand how to make it interesting to the scientific and non-scientific communities, but it also causes us to think a little bit how about to bring enough control into the experiment that we can build in the color of the composition or the form that might lead to an interesting picture. And that as an exercise for the students who are doing the work is a very useful thing to do as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, thank you both very much.


FELICE FRANKEL: It’s a pleasure.