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Revealing the Imperceptible

To cite this article  use:  Herrera, J.Revealing the Imperceptible. J. Nano Sc. Tech, 3(2015)57-70

Art and Science: Dialogs and Differences

José Ignacio Herrera

Executive Director

Museum  of Fine Arts

For the occasion of celebration in Caracas  of nanoSUR 2014 Forum and the 3rd National Congress of Science, Technology and Innovation, the Museum of Fine Arts takes part in the educational program of the above mentioned event, with the exhibition Art and Science: Dialogs and Differences, which originates from a group of photographs that gather the observations from the behavior of nanomaterials done by the Colombian Physicist Edgar González and the Spanish chemical engineer Víctor Puntes, published in the book Nanocosmos Architecture.

Nanotechnology is a new process of transformation which increasingly has been spoken about over the last years in the field of science and technology as well as in the industry. It refers to the manufacture of materials, devices and functional systems for the manipulation of matter on a scale invisible to the human eye: a nanometer is equivalent to one thousand millionth part of a meter (1 nm = 10-9 m). This allows us to imagine, for example, machines smaller than a red blood cell that travels in the blood torrent to eliminate carcinogenic cells, destroy a virus or remove arterial plaques.

To understand a bit more about what these new investigations mean, it is necessary to remember the physicist Richard Phillips Feynman (EE. UU. 1918-1988), who in the middle of the last century, before the term nanotechnology was coined, wondered in the middle of his speech at the American Society of Physics1, why we cannot write 24 entire volumes of the British Encyclopedia in the head of a pin? He warns that a biological system can be extremely small and a great part of cells, nevertheless their small dimensions, turn out to be very active: they produce substances, move, store information, and realize all kinds of things. Because of this, it seems to him to be possible to construct miniature objects capable of executing multiple functions; this offers a wide access to a range of properties of materials and the creation of many applications.

From the date of that prophetic speech up to the present, tiny scales have become usual for physicists from all around the world who work with the elementary particles that form atoms, or biochemists and molecular biologists who make molecules and obtain enzymes, proteins and fragments of DNA. For this, the transmission electronic microscope (TEM) has been an essential tool that allows entrance to the nanoscopic world to explore its architecture and composition and fundamental features in the behavior of matter at these scales. For this, nanoscience and nanotechnology need powerful instruments that register useful images for research in the above mentioned fields.

This leads to the introduction of one of the topics of the exhibition which reflects on the sense or function of a type of scientific photography2 from the images obtained and prepared in the laboratory of the Inorganic Nanoparticles group of the Institut Català of Nanotechnology and in the Center of Science and Technology Nanoescalar, as also published in the book before mentioned.


Among the Art and the Science: The Photography

“It is necessary, therefore, that (the photography) fulfills its
duty, which is to be the maid of the sciences and arts “.

Charles Baudelaire
The Modern Public and the Photography

In 1839, the scientist and liberal politician, François Arago, presented in public the subject of photography to the former Academy of Sciences in France. These are times marked by the transition from the preindustrial society to the industrial era, characterized by technical innovations. Associated with objectivity, loyalty and veracity, the photo turns out to be a great ally of positivism since it serves to take the exact record of the observed phenomena that is necessary for empirical verification. For example, in medicine of the time, mental illnesses are indicated by abnormal facial appearances and expressions. The camera serves as the analytical tool of research in this field with the use of portraits. Photography also plays a role for astronomy since in 1852, the British Warren de la Rue (1815-1889), was the first to obtain photographs of the moon. The photography also plays an important role in anthropology, dermatology, judicial sciences and all the branches of knowledge that can use an image for their studies. The path in which photography is preferred over engravings and drawings as a “faithful” reproduction of reality remains open since the end of the 18th century, when studies on the physiological vision and other senses reveal the subjectivity and capacity of our perceptive, generating therefore a loss in confidence in the information obtained by photography3.
In that time, although the romantic complaint establishes the split between sensitive and formal as two ways of approaching the world, scientists and artists meet each other with photography (the term includes both images themselves and technical and institutional devices that assure their production, diffusion and reception).

At the end of the 19th century, the French Photographic Society, which aims to improve capturing and revealing techniques, conceives this new technology as an ace, a skill that both scientists and artists need. From its beginnings, this institution organizes exhibitions with the condition that photos are not retouched so that the talent of the authors is measured only by their degree of skill. Therefore a historical link is created between the artistic photo and the scientific one.

For the artist, photography represents the possibility of catching “reality” in an “objective” way, which can also lead to reformulating the proper essence and practice of painting. Hence, painting the transitory impressions of outdoor landscapes happens in the same way as cameras proliferate in the sidewalks of cities catching instants of the urban life; the agile and rapid brushstrokes that are superposed in the surface of the linen are equivalent to the grain that gives texture to the emulsified paper. Painting and photography stop being the renaissance window that offers a vision of the world from a unique point of view (that must be the same for the author of the image and the observer).

Now, when science uses photography, it does not try to evoke similarity, it is not the copying of the appearance of things that matters, but the translation of a structure, a function. Thus, the scientific image with the properties of real things, is a translation into visual data and the analysis thereof. It is not a simple analogy or a copy, it reveals a comprehension of what is represented like the way Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings carry the seed of an explanation within. These are the photographs from Edgar González and Víctor Puntes, as they were created to show how matter endures at the imperceptible scale to the naked eye.

Paradoxes of the image

About the photographs of Edgar González and Víctor Puntes

As human beings we want to see, know, and with the help of certain equipment (such as a camera, sensor satellite or a device for X-ray photography) we can reach realities impossible to perceive with simple sight: the horse who wins the race “ by a nose “, the bones inside our body, the bullet that overcomes the sound of speed, the most bottom of the oceans, the edges of the universe in continuous expansion, the surface of the earth or the matter at nanometric scale that González and Puntes achieve to catch with an Transmission Electronic Microscope (TEM)4.

The photographs of science exert a great attraction because of the forms that acquire the unknown seduce us, is atonishing the technology which they are possible, but undoubtelly, beyond their accurate testify, they are images, and according to Peirce (1839-1914), are also signs that determine actions and behaviors and whose meaning is extracted by the actions that are provoked in the interpreter of the image. Every sign has one or more observer. Signs of the second order produce another observer in a process without end, because the interpretations can be unlimited and the meaning of the sign is never completely determined (Peirce, 5-283).

One of the fundamental characteristics of nanotechnology is that it explores the microscopic world from visual observations through instruments. Here it is worth wondering if, even though, the machine does an automatic reading the resulting photograph contains subjectivity. The satellite that overflies us, the equipment of X-ray photography, the safety camera of the elevator or that of the cash dispenser at the bank, offer rich images in intentions, because their production and especially their delivery is determined by cultural, historical, and individual factors.

The photographs from González and Puntes reveal a very important aspect of the matter at the nanoscale since the form, size and composition determine physical and chemical properties such as the behavior with light, chemical reactivity, etc.

In any case, a photo is not a mere reproduction of anything that exists or has existed, it is an iconic representation much more codified of what is usually thought. And although it is insisted that photography is a “faithful copy of reality”, the fact is that this is far from the truth. On one hand, because photography eliminates any information that cannot be reproduced by optical means, such as smells, sounds and flavors and on the other hand it also reduces the visual three-dimensional information that normally we have associated with what surrounds both dimensions of the plane and remains noticed by the picture, which is chosen by the photographer as the limit of the image. This leads to an evident alteration of the representation scale.

Photography stops time, therefore it also does not reproduce movement, but rather suggests it by conventional visual language resources. It also eliminates or alters color. This means, that the photographic image is a carrier of information which transmits a codified message that needs to be decoded by the observer. Then, a photo is not the reality but a representation of reality.

Electronic microscopes, González (2013) says, do not produce images in color. On the other hand, the Atomic Force Microscope and Tunnel Effect, also used in this kind of research, produce images in color, but these are adopted from the software of the equipment and are very important in the visual interpretation of the results. Thus, these photographs demonstrate the product of a construction, and this includes the generality of this type of image. They seem to carry contradictory systems, simultaneously objective and subjective.

Tools of visualization and recording seduce us with their artistic values, and these qualities create links among scientific authors (and therefore in science) and the nonscientific spectators. We can deliberate that the function of these photographs is not only visualizing the invisible but also to prove it.
González also declares (op.cit.) that the work of drilling the interior of a particle in the search of new geometric relations and form, leads to the expression of their properties, something that he describes as “carving the invisible matter to make possible the visible things “. The evocative power of images published in his book is not only because of the addition of color, for instance in case of the dark field microphotograph of silver-gold cubic boxes with a 56 nm edge p. 147). We appreciate the color directly associated with the registered material that is related to its size, composition and form. Nevertheless, the dark background suggests a great depth and the small spherical and brilliant forms that seem to be floating in the background stimulate our imagination and invite us to escape, obviating the image’s purpose of “revealing” the reality. Everything we evoke, associations established among what appears in this photo and other information secured in our visual memory are proof that in the process of receiving an image and of decoding it, multiple related external factors are involved in the vision of the observer. This also tell us that the scientific image, although it is hoisted as irrefutable proof, does not contribute anything in this respect, therefore in order to be clarified, the enlightening speech of the researcher is needed.

Art and Science

Dialogs and differences

“If some ask the science to theorize on art, I rather would ask the art to help me to practice the science”.

Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond
La science n’ est pas l’art

Although the purposes and in many cases the work methods of art and science differ, some connections are evident. For example, for some years is has been usual to use information and communication technologies as an application used in different artistic practices: video art and mapping, are scarcely two examples among the most contemporary demonstrations. In the field of scientific knowledge, already in ancient times, the relation between scientific knowledge and artistic disciplines, in terms of their conceptual aspects, has been established. The laws of optics, color theory or perception have generated proposals that determine meaningful ways of conceiving the visual space across history. Another possible link between art and science is observed in forms or formal aspects. Some works from the collection of the National Museum Foundation (Fundación Museos Nacionales) and certain photographs taken by Edgar González and Víctor Puntes, present big similarities in forms and visual qualities. We select pieces that surprisingly seem taked with a Transmission Electronic Microscope to reveal properties that create technological applications that improve our daily quality of life and not what they really are: products of the handcrafted work created in the workshops of the artists, who seek to give form to the matter on the macro-scale in their intention for discovering possibilities of expression and communication. In this regard, in Man and His Symbols, of Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz refers in her essay The Science and the Unconcious to the Jung´s concept of uniqueness between psychology and microphysics which presents itself in all phenomena of life (p. 309). He says that the unconscious is linked, in a way, to the structure of inorganic matter, and that an archetype or model of emotive and mental conduct presents an almost material aspect when it appears in a simultaneous way (according to Jung “acts of creation in time” or a “synchronous event”), provided that this fact is a significant arrangement of interior psychic and external events.
Here, von Franz also describes active imagination as “ … a way of pondering imaginatively which about why we deliberately stay in touch with the unconscious and make a conscious connection with psychic phenomena “5.

For this topic, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, recognized as a physicist and also as a distinguished enthusiast for art, is often invited to speak about his vision of the interface between art and science. Lévy-Leblond (2011) comments that, what is most interesting when these two practices link is their different drives. As a physicist, the art allows him to see his own tours, to specificity, and he prefers to speak of walking paths that scientist and artist take, each one following their own itinerary, but time to time they their paths cross and in consequence the individual trajectories can be modified.

The objective of nanotechnology is the study, design, development and application of materials, equipment and systems of natural and artificial structures at a nanometric scale. As objects become smaller, they lose volume and becoming surfaces on which atoms are less in number and this allows them to escape easier from the material and to react with other external atoms. This leads to changes in their properties, well known as the finite-size effect, which derives from their quantum nature. It is to say, that when we speak about these dimensions, the laws of classical physics no longer apply.
Quantum physics demands a new way of thinking. To understand this jump in the scientific development it is necessary to evoke the so called universal principles that Isaac Newton established in 16876.
We address some concepts of the visual arts language and quantum physics with which nanoscience works, using a group of works from the collection of the National Museums Foundation which relied on the differences between the group of works and classic physics.
Space, time and movement
Classical physics and quantum physics

At the end of the 17th century, Isaac Newton established the principles that affect both the movement of a grain of pollen and a comet in his interplanetary trip6. Nevertheless, these laws stop being effective in two scenarios:
– When the speeds of the objects are elevated (near to the speed of light). This was expressed by Albert Einstein with his relativity theory7.
– When the dimensions of the objects are very small (below the nanometer). This corresponds to the elaborated theory created little by little with the contributions of many scientists who, from the beginning of the 20th century, realized that in the atomic world contradictory behaviors between our experience and the Newtonian logic appear.


Color is a physiological perception interpreted in the brain based on wave lengths of light that strikes the eye that receives it. At a scale near to nanometers, the interaction of light with the matter is completely different from the one that takes place at the macroscale. For example, the color of golden nanoparticles depends both on their shape and sizes. In this way, instead of the typical golden color of an ingot, the matter at the nanoescale projects the wave that corresponds to the color red if they are 25 nm, green in case of 50 nm, and orange for 100 nm spherical forms.


Carbon is one of the elements that according to how it is organized, generates a great diversity of properties as well as physical and chemical behaviors. One of its allotropic varieties is the graphite, a black metallic material is a good electrical conductor and therefore, has the ability to increase the efficiency and profitability of solar power stations. Another one of its properties is the ability to slide which allows the pencils artists use to create different types of visual effects, lines, textures or to suggest the volume of the forms.


1. The conference There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, was given in the United States by Feynman on December 29, 1959, in the annual meeting of the Physical American Society in the California Physics Institute. This conference prompted the first works realized in the area, sowing the seed that would many years later become nanotechnology.

2. You can distinguish a photograph that illustrates texts of scientific dissemination intended for a slightly knowledgeable public, and photography, as those of González and Puntes, which capture, fix and demonstrate the visual observations during the process of scientific research.

3. Briefly, we can trace three stages of research development in the area of physiology while taking into account the subjective component of perception. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), radically suggested that it he should give up the Kantian notion of the noumenal (the thing itself) world and instead, accept the fact that the consciousness is not based on the so called represented “real world” imaginatively represented as “outside” of the cognitive awareness. He argued that the consciousness does not need any more foundation than itself; so no knowledge of the phenomenon itself, but only the subject since him, himself provides meaning to the same cognitive process. Johannes Müller (1801-1858) defended the thesis that the quality of sensation does not depend on the type of stimulus that affects our senses but the type of nervous fiber that intervenes in the perception. In other words, if the visual system is stimulated we will have visual sensations, if the stimulated nerves are specialized in provoking heat sensations, we will have heat, independently of whether the stimulus is light or not, if it is heat or not. This thesis is called the “Müller’s Law” or “Law of The Specific Energy for the Sensory Nerves”. Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) accepted the previous law emphasizing that the mind “interprets” sensory stimuli by unconscious and automatic processes. The thesis is known as the theory of the “unconscious inference of visual perception”, and proposes that the constantcy in perception, as well as the depth perception and most perceptions, are the result of the individual’s ability to synthesize sensory signs of experiences from the past and the present. As an animal or a newborn child explores its surrounding world, he learns to organize his observations inside a three-dimensional representation scheme based on Leonardo da Vinci’s discoveries: the linear perspective, the concealment of a distant object for a nearby one or a slight visual precision as objects moves away. In a way, this thesis is history, from the standpoint of cognitive psychology, of understanding the role of the subject in perception. An example is the story An Enigma, by Edgar Allan Poe, where a small insect acquires the dimensions of a monster depending on the angle, distance and psychic perspective of the character that observes it.

4. Unlike the optical microscope, which power is limited by the length of visible wavelength, the Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) uses electron beams to visualize an object. Because they have a much lower wavelength than the visible light, much smaller structures can be seen. With these devices, it is possible to increase an object up to a million times.

5. In his text, von Franz says that the complementarity principle of the physicist Niels Bohr refers to the duality wave particle enunciated at the beginning of the 20th century, by Louis de Broglie: light and electrons operate alternatively as waves or particles, and these properties cannot be observed together since they manifest in one way or another according to the circumstances and therefore they are complementary. The author clarifies that for Jung this principle is of interest since it also conceives the relation between the conscious mind and the unconscious one as complementary oppositions (p.308).

6. Newton’s laws can explain the movement of stars as the movements of artificial missiles created by humans, as well as all the mechanical functions of machines. His mathematical formulation was published by Isaac Newton in 1687 in his work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematical. Newtons´s Dynamic also called Classical Dynamics, is only true for inertial reference systems which move at constant speed and applies to bodies which speed is considerably below that of light (300.000 km/s).

7. The theory of relativity from Albert Einstein includes both the theory of special relativity and of general relativity, and both were formulated by this physicist at the beginning of the 20th century, attempting to solve the incompatibility between Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism. Jose Belandria, in Art and Science. Approximations (Arte y Ciencia. Aproximaciones), mentions an anecdote from Einstein to illustrate the interrelationship between space, time and the observer. According to the author, the German physicist uses daily examples saying that “when someone is with his girlfriend, the time passes more rapid than if you were sitting on a hot plate, or when a dear friend is nearby he seems to be distant from us, while a distant enemy feels too close (p.11) “. It is to say that “space and time depend on the experience of being and are tied inextricably to a geometric structure of four dimensions (height, width, depth and time) that shape the reality in which we live (op. cit.) “.


BAJAC, Quentin,Tableaux Vivants. Fantaisies photographiques victoriennes (1840-1880), París, Réunion des musées nationaux, 1999.

BELANDRIA, José I, Arte y Ciencia. Aproximaciones, Mérida, Publicaciones del Vicerrectorado Académico. Universidad de los Andes, 2007.

BAUDELAIRE, Charles, Salones y otros escritos sobre arte, Madrid, Antonio Machado, 2000.

CHÉROUX, Clément, Les récréations photographiques. Un répertoire de formes pour les avant-gardes, en Études photographiques, nº 5, noviembre 1998.

FOURMENTRAUX, Jean-Paul, La science n´est pas l´art, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, entretien avec Jean-Paul Fourmentraux, en Art et Science, Paris, Les Essentiels d´Hermes, CNRS éditions , 2011.

GONZÁLEZ, Édgar, PUNTES, Victor, Arquitectura del nanocosmos. Diseño y construcción del tamaño, la composición y la forma, Bogotá, Centro de Ciencia y Tecnología Nanoescalar, 2013.

JUNG, Carl G., El hombre y sus símbolos, Barcelona, Paidos Ibérica, 1995

LÉVY-LEBLOND, Jean-Marc, De la matière : Relativiste, quantique, interactive, Paris, Seuil, 2006.

LÉVY-LEBLOND, Jean Marc, Aux Contraires, l’exercice de la pensée et la pratique de la science, Paris, Gallimard, 1996.

PEIRCE, C. S. (1931-1966) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. En Hartshorne, C., Weiss, P. and Burks, A. (eds), 8 volumes. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press

SICARD, Monique, La photographie. Pont jeté entre science et art, Paris, Laboratoire Communication et Politique, en Hermès n° 22 – Mimesis: Imiter, représenter, circuler, CNRS editions, 1998.

STROESBERG, Eliane, Art and Science, París, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1999.


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