Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: Developing Perspectives


The relationship between imaging and scientific discovery at the nanoscale presents interesting questions about the nature of reality and how we establish knowledge of natural phenomena.  Nanoscience studies phenomena that occur at the level of atoms and molecules, where measurements are made in nanometers,  that is, billionths of a meter.  Imagine a yardstick, then divide it into one billion segments – each of th0se segments is a nanometer.  Our understanding of atoms and molecules is best described through quantum mechanics, mathematical formulas that estimate the positions of subatomic particles by probability.  There is no way for our eyes to see the phenomena described by quantum mechanics.  To communicate our comprehension of these phenomena, we can describe techniques for obtaining certain reproducible results, and we can create images that operate as metaphors so that by analogical reasoning we may produce an idea for the mind to contemplate.  Does the use of metaphoric imaging in the process of discovery compromise the validity of nanoscience as a branch of science?  Have the processes of observation and interpretation been so intermingled that we might suspect that there is no bedrock level of reality upon which to anchor their results?  If this is the case, how is nanotechnology different from alchemy, a discipline that was discredited centuries ago?


One approach to answering these questions is to broaden the scope of our investigation to analyze the images of nanoscience and nanotechnology as quasi-linguistic phenomena in the structuralist mode of Roland Barthes.  In his essay, The Rhetoric of the Image,  Barthes places images, visual objects, within a system of signs.  An image denotes a certain content, and a photographic image denotes a certain content in such a way that it makes the claim,”this is how it was” (Image, Music, Text, p. 44) .  In photography, there seems to be some bedrock level of reality in the mechanical process by which a photograph is produced that accounts for its veracity as a sense datum.  Because a camera produced the image, there is no opportunity for the types of distortion that we see in drawing and painting to occur.  An image can also connote various meanings within a system of signs depending on the culturally bound associations of meanings within a language.  For this reason, images function not only as presentations of fact but also as units of meaning within a culturally defined rhetoric.  Within a given cultural context, certain combinations of shapes and colors produce associations in the minds of viewers that transform an object in nature to a symbol that has the power to persuade.   

Another approach is to situate images of nanoscience and nanotechnology within the conceptual framework presented by Bruno Latour in his work Iconoclash ( 2002).  One of the main ideas of the book and the exhibit Iconoclash is that iconoclasm can arise from several different impulses, but that it always results in something other than what the iconoclast intends.  Images are never neutral; to conceive an image is to conceive something valenced, something charged with cultural or psychological significance.  Certain images, whether in religion, science or contemporary art, exhibit such force as to attract a destructive urge.  Throughout human history there have been many incidences of iconoclasm, the destruction of culturally or psychologically significant images, which have been almost universally followed by the creation of new icons.    The power of these images resides in their reference to something unseen.  The mystery of these types of images is that they require a certain kind of participation in their existence to disclose their positive value.  Iconoclasts tend to see them instead as a stumbling block on the path to “truth,” which  they conceive apart from images, in a verbal form.  Latour’s book and exhibit present images that have been broken to invite viewers to meditate on the value of images for presenting truth.


The following video presentation discusses the work of Felice Frankel, a science photographer who has co-authored a book on nanoscience with Harvard University Professor George Whitesides.

In this video, Frankel describes herself as a “visual ambassador,” someone who “uses the language of pictures to get people to be less intimidated by what is going on in science labs.” One might say she uses her art to make familiar the unfamiliar.  Very few people are able to grasp the mathematical equations and the indirect methods used to generate phenomena on the nanoscale, and very few people even have access to the equipment and practices that have made this new science possible.  But all of us have seen a drop of water, many have seen e-books or played vinyl record albums,  and many have played with pin art toys.  And most can appreciate the artistic value of the striking images she created to present the morphology of a Bacillus subtilis colony and the spectra created by a prism in front of a set of venetian blinds.

In her role as “visual ambassador,” therefore, Frankel creates images that are meant to communicate something about the scientific phenomena to which they refer.  The image of the water drop suggests that structures on the nanoscale are directly analogous to structures on the macro scale, though perhaps reversed in some way.  This particular photograph lends itself to the kind of analysis that Barthes employs in The Rhetoric of the Image.  It denotes a drop of water at the end of a syringe, something most of us have actually seen.  It is a good example to show how forces at the nanoscale work because we have all experienced the fact that drops of water hold together for a certain amount of time, and Frankel describes the nanoforces as a kind of “skin” surrounding the water molecules in the drop.  But then Frankel gets the photograph to connote so much more by having the grid of pastel colors in the background which are out of focus from the camera’s perspective but which are completely in focus inside the water drop.  The tiny drop of water contains well-formed information that traditional instruments such as a camera lens actually obscure.  The suggestion is, therefore, that the techniques of nanoscience yield better information about the way the world actually is than techniques we have used since the invention of glass lenses.


Another recent image of nanotechnology, on the September 2010 cover of Nature Nanotechnology, shows a set of images of the Chicago skyline made by beam-pen lithography on a surface about 300 micrometers across.

cover image

The cover image is discussed in an article on pages 637-640 of the journal.  The authors are a group of collaborating scientists at Northwestern University who developed techniques for fabricating arrays of pyramid-shaped elastomeric pens that can produce precise patterns of ink molecules on the nano scale.  The article contains four figures.  The first,  following a description of techniques for fabricating a beam pen array, illustrates two ways that nanoscopic apertures can be made at the tip of each pen in the array.  The second figure, following a description of a “proof-of-concept” experiment, illustrates how the tips operated to make an image on a substrate and shows the resulting images from the experiment.  The third figure, following a discussion of the capabilities of this technique to make arbitrary patterns, shows the cover image at three levels of detail.  The fourth figure, following a discussion of how the pens can be manipulated from the macro scale using selective illumination of the base of each pyramid, shows an example of a pattern repeated at several levels of magnification and a schematic of selective illumination to create these patterns.  The cover image is part of a group of images that have been generated through a series of reproducible techniques described in the article.

This image lends itself to the kind of conversation envisaged by Bruno Latour in Iconoclash.  “A scientific image,” he says, “. . . is a set of instructions to reach another one down the line” (p. 34).  By itself, this image cannot tell us very much about nanotechnology.  But in the context of the other images in the article, we see how it is an important example of a new technique that has applications for making customized integrated circuits or medical diagnostic equipment.   The authors of this article chose to make an image of a place close to home that is also charged with cultural significance for contemporary Americans.  The tips of the pens were coated with gold, and the process yielded patterns of dots made of gold.  Latour wisely concludes his article with a revision of the second commandment.  He thinks it should read, “Thou shall not freeze-frame any graven image!” (p. 38).  That is, images can at best provide a way to participate in a process of spiritual growth, but our attachment to any given image should be tempered with the understanding that times change and other images will present themselves as new vehicles for truth.


In conclusion, nanoscience and nanotechnology present us with a new set of images that connect the world of scientific discovery with the everyday world.  These images refer to an unseen reality.  Traditional ways of accessing unseen reality produced religion.  More recent ways produced abstract art.  The art of alchemy aimed to produce spiritual transformation expressed in physical changes.  Viewed as a spiritual discipline, nanoscience and nanotechnology may not be so different from alchemy after all.


Barthes, Roland.  Image-Music-Text.  Translated by Stephen Heath.  New York:  Hill and Wang, 1977.

Latour, Bruno.  “What is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?”  In Iconoclash:  Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art,   eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 16-40.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The MIT Press, 2002.




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