Entering enlightment

My interest in Microscopy certainly got nurtured by the exhibition at the Glass Tank Gallery. It was with great exhilaration that I managed to get on a 'school trip' with Rob Kesseler, the Chair of Art and Science at CSM, who kindly organized this game changing experience. A group of initially 7 and then 5 students went to the Oxford Brookes' laboratories in order to experience looking through microscopes. We were hosted by Dr. Louise Hughes and Jake Richardson who kindly guided us through the lab, showing us around different types of microscopes, most of them state-of-the-art and the possibilities each one could unveil and some other fun factors in science. For example, liquid nitrogen! I had no idea that one could touch it, well... guess what, I have dipped my hand into it. What an experience! It felt cold (it's on -197ºC), dry and wet at the same time, like a wet spray that disapears, much lighter and thiner than water (2 against 18 in terms of atomic weight). We also got some thrown at our hands!

Eventhough I knew it was safe, engrained myths in my brain activated my reflexes into pulling my hand out as soon as the liquid fell onto my hand. I also flinched it out of the liquid when I dipped my hand into it. It was beautiful though, and 'magical' (it's called science, not magic I know) how the liquid turned into gas as soon as it touched surface, and also how tiny spheres rolled all over the floor, perfect spheres, 'full of beans' as if this liquid had cracked and they were the crumbles. This happens due to the fact that liquid nitrogen is boiling and because of the Leidenfrost effect it makes the particules hover on the surface.

We were shown some of the health and safety procedures, of which the main aspect was avoiding asfixiation due to the low levels of oxigen (the alarms sound at 18% and it gets dangerous when at 12%) that some gases can consume in some of the rooms.

We were also shown what Microtomy is and how they do it for different purposes. Microtomy is the preparation of samples that go under the microscope. For some materials it's necessary to coat the samples, if they are going into an electron microscope, so the electrons bounce off and allow the laser beam to read and interpret the gaps, giving us the beautiful images we can travel through via magnification.

So, my samples are on the left and they have just been coated with a very very very fine layer of gold. Gold because it's a stable metal, conductive and cheaper than other stable metals. This is the coating chamber after process, and the round brown circles you can see are carbon based stickers that measure 1.2cm in diameter, so you can guess how small the actual sample is. I am looking at paper. I will be looking through paper. More than that, I wanted to look at the diference between torn, cut by my knife, cut by guillotine, folded and scrunched paper. I also wanted to have a look at different types of textures, so the samples on the stub are carbon paper, fabriano, heavily printed glossy paper and paperback (possibly recycled) printed (just type) paper. On the right stub the bottom left carbon sticker has paper mixed with fabric (cotton) which I shared with Deng.

Below is the electron microscope we used to look at these samples. This microscope doesn't allow living matter in, as the laser would burn it off. The beam is very intense and it cracked some of the carbon stickers, which we could see when we took the stub out of the vacum chamber (next image).

When this happens, we are able to see it on the screen, and in visual-scientist talk this is called charging. What this means is that sometimes the laser has stayed in one area of the sample for too long and this causes striations or black squares in the image, not allowing for concise analysis. There is a lot to be said about the quality of the samples and how stable they are too. For example if the sample is poor, you might need more voltage into the beam, but with materials made of few chemical components like graphite for example, not only you don't need to coat it (because in this case carbon is conductive), but also it will provide you good exploration, because it's not as volatile as other materials. Also, air gets in the way of the electrons, hence the vacumm chamber, to allow the electrons to bounce off in the best possible environment. Air also contains dampness and water cannot enter the microscope, all samples need to be dry, for which there is an appropriate dissecating cabinet in the lab for materials that are naturally found in more wet envirnoments.

So we were ready to start observing, and there you are, I leave you with a few glimpses of my explorations:

This is all paper! I spent the whole day grining and smiling! I sometimes thought I was probably being too enthusiastis by asking a thousand questions, but opportunities like this don't happen often. I just couldn't believe I was investigating, scientifically, my subject matter (there's a pun in this because matter means material in latin). This visit was enlightning in many ways. In the broadest and deeper sense of the masters it made feel in a palpable way that Arts' investigation can be thorough and made me believe and experience by feeling that I am truly an investigator. At project level, it made me enter - literaly - the world of paper, an experience that made me realize that I have always felt that the entering was the exciting part for me in various aspects of my life, including that of books. The microscope was for me what a portal is to another dimension and the knowledge of operating and understanding it the key to open this portal. In this case a physical dimension that is reachable by touch but not by sight. It reminded me of when I was a kid when I travelled by car across Lisbon, imagining how did everyone's house looked like on the inside. I didn't want to live there. I just wanted to enter their world visually, to see how they 'space managed' their living. Space management has always been an interest to me and I do envisage my books taking up a space, as if they were walk-ins, so you can be surrounded by the book. This experience made me realise that not only being surrounded is important to me, but the entering is the novelty that triggers my interest, my curiosity. At a less physical level, there is always the reading methaphor: when you read a book, you enter two worlds, the one that is written and the one you create through the writing. At a yet more focused level, this visit gave me visual insights of how paper behaves and this is great in terms of the work I am doing because the results couple with other experiments I am conducting. It was invaluable, to cross-reference areas of knowledge at such a high standard.

Entering means a lot, colliding knowledge means a lot, my books are the space to enter. Now... what is my portal, the materiality of it, what is my key and its motion? this is what I have been trying to investigate and this incredible experience illustrated it so well, that I now realise it with much more clarity, factor which helps the scientist to achieve results.

I do have to thank Rob, Dr. Louise and Jake for such an amazing time!

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