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The Science Image

Felice Frankel’s pictures illuminate scientific research and sometimes suggest new directions of exploration.
September 1, 2003

In her first encounter with renowned Harvard University chemist George Whitesides in 1992, Felice Frankel did something that might seem unthinkable to many: she told him his work needed improvement. At 47, Frankel was at Harvard on a design fellowship. After listening to one of Whitesides’ lectures, she accompanied him back to his lab. Whitesides was soon to publish a paper in Science that described an innovative process for organizing water on surfaces. But Frankel wasn’t critiquing Whitesides’ research. She was talking about his photographs-simply composed images showing monochromatic blisters of liquid indented with lines.

“I looked at the stuff, and it was lousy,” recalls Frankel, now an MIT research scientist. “So I said, Let me take a shot at it-literally.’” Whitesides agreed. By working closely with Whitesides in the lab, Frankel created a more colorful and adroitly composed photograph that made the cover of Science and even advanced the research: the dye she suggested gave the water properties that Whitesides hadn’t yet discovered.

Photographic Tricks

Questions surrounding digital alterations are a concern for Frankel. Sometimes such changes bring increased attention to research by making photos more compelling. But Frankel believes photographers must be careful about making adjustments. She seeks to open a broad discussion among photographers, journalists, and scientists about what kinds of alterations are acceptable or desirable. So far, she has done this through her books and articles, including a recent report for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Even slight changes can sometimes misrepresent the science behind the image, researchers say, or eliminate information inherent in the original. This happened once when Frankel worked with Whitehead Institute professor Gerald Fink to photograph the unique floral pattern of a yeast colony growing in a petri dish. For the cover of Science, Frankel digitally erased the outline of the petri dish to bring increased attention to the colony’s structure (see image, next page). Fink says he and Frankel “had a dialogue” over the deletion. “Although her picture was quite beautiful, the difficulty with it was that when you looked at it, you had no sense of dimension,” Fink says. “If the petri dish had been in there, any scientist could tell you exactly how big that was.” Overall, though, Fink says the deletion did not end up being a problem because the original-with the petri dish in place-was used within the journal’s pages, and the altered cover image was explained in a caption.

Frankel says such textual explanations are key to achieving the ultimate goal of her photographs: communicating the science. So in publications and exhibitions, she includes detailed captions that explain what is pictured and how her images were made. “All journals should have a place [for explaining] how a picture was made, how it was eventually published,” Frankel says. “The reader has to know where the picture came from.” Her new column and accompanying images in the bimonthly magazine American Scientist mark the first attempt by any publication to provide such explanations. Frankel hopes to use the column to teach the public some basic facts about scientific imaging-for example, that astronomical images are often colored with filters to make cosmic phenomena clear, or that scanning-electron-microscope images of subatomic-level phenomena are always black and white.

Along with informing the public, Frankel hopes to persuade scientists to concentrate on creating good images-as they seem increasingly willing to do. “Something’s happening,” Frankel says, explaining that over the last five years, she has noticed more researchers paying attention to how they visually present their research results. Bawendi has also noticed this trend. Many scientists have discovered that artfully composed images draw attention both from the public and from journal and magazine editors. “A good image can sometimes make the difference between a story being the lead in a department and being a secondary story,” says Madeleine Jacobs, editor in chief of Chemical and Engineering News. “Researchers are increasingly becoming aware of this need.”

Art in Science

But how artful should a science image become? And are Frankel’s photographs art or science? “They look like art, but they are definitely science,” says Marcia Rudy, director of public programs for the New York Hall of Science in New York City. The museum exhibited Frankel’s collection last spring, before the images returned to MIT to be displayed permanently in campus buildings. Frankel is currently negotiating with architect Frank Gehry to have around 15 photographs, enlarged to at least six meters each, hang in the new Stata Center.

Frankel says she does not intend for her pictures to be art but that people often see them that way. This happens frequently with one image in particular. It’s a photo of a ferrofluid-a liquid containing magnetic particles. The photo shows a drop of oil, infused with magnetite particles, on a glass slide. Under the glass, yellow paper creates a vivid background, while magnets pull the particles into a distinctive pattern of smooth surfaces, curving fissures, and clustered cones. The image looks like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting-a close-up of an exotic flower, perhaps. It was used on a National Science Foundation poster and published in Frankel’s books. “People seem to feel that it’s alive or biological, so they connect with it,” she says.

Frankel believes that a work’s status as “art” may depend on its creator’s intentions; since her intent is to focus on scientific significance, then, her images can’t be considered art. “It’s very important for me that people go to the next layer to understand what they see,” Frankel says. That’s not to say the images can’t be attractive or well composed. In fact, compelling research images can be as appealing to other scientists as to editors and laymen. For instance, despite the questions over the petri dish in the floral yeast photo, Fink says the image helped him connect with a mathematician who was interested in trying to describe the mathematics of floral structures. He says Frankel’s affinity for connecting scientists with each other, and for connecting with the scientists themselves, makes her successful.

Linking scientists is part of Frankel’s purpose, but another part is informing the public. “I feel very deeply that the public no longer accept science illiteracy,” she says. “It is the obligation of an educated person to understand science.” She contends that MIT should be a leader in fostering that kind of understanding through accessible images. If the Institute taught students how best to represent their work visually, Frankel says, they would be prepared to communicate their results to the public in effective ways later in their careers. Such an initiative would augment her continued efforts to help faculty produce better images and use them in lectures, presentations, and publications.

She has proposed a plan to encourage students to discover their own visual languages. The initiative-which is still pending funding-would incorporate visual thinking into lecture courses and recitation sessions; introduce a freshman seminar on visual representation and an outreach program for high-school teachers; offer undergraduate research opportunities in imaging and graphical representation; and sponsor a laboratory where students and staff could access equipment and share ideas. “People are hungry for a vocabulary of science and image,” Frankel says, adding that visual conversations bring people together. The result could be an increased sense of curiosity about science for all who view the initiative’s results.

In the final analysis, eliciting curiosity is one of the things Frankel does best, says Whitesides. In his opinion, this talent flies in the face of the “purist” belief in the “rectilinear/gray Protestant ideal” of imagery. “She has suggested,” says Whitesides, “that science can-and in some circumstances, should-be beautiful as well as interesting,” and that “with a little effort and substantial skill, it is still possible to make even modern, high-technology science as beautiful to everyone as birds were to Audubon.”

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