Visualizing the Universe: In Review

By: Jerry Flattum, Performer/Songwriter & Writer/Editor

It’s ironic that optics is not a more common subject or theme in Hollywood movies, considering that movies are in many ways the result of optics. There are a few exceptions. AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Minority Report feature virtual reality. Numerous military-based movies draw attention to laser fighting jets and rifles with sophisticated scopes.

Close up shots and sound effects bring out the drama of these high tech devices. Of course, Star Wars made the laser popular for kids. The sound of camera shutters is another dramatic device used to heighten action in a story, especially where surveillance is involved in the plot, or a serial killer uses a camera to take photos of his victims.

Cameras are featured in many films, but usually as props for characters like journalists and cops when a crime scene is being photographed. Many characters wear glasses and sunglasses, which can play a pivotal role in characterization.

The prison guard in Cool Hand Luke wore mirrored sunglasses, dramatically emphasizing his cold demeanor when it came time to shooting a prisoner. Sylvester Stallone wore them in Cobra because, well, it made him look cool. In other movies, the audience follows the camera straight into an eye of a character. With the help of special effects, we journey straight into the brain and can see what a character sees inside their mind. Still, there aren’t a lot of movies about microscopes and telescopes.

Electron microscopy is a highly specialized field with applications and techniques dazzling in their sophistication. Science is kept out of the public eye, probably because no one understands it, except a select few.

Most people barely know what an electron is yet alone such things as apoptosis, intracellular signaling, pathology, anaphase A and anaphase B during mitosis, quantification and characterization of DNA in chloroplasts and mitochondria, characterization of nuclear structure and nuclear pore complexes, cytoskeletal organization in parasites, DNA repair, materials analysis of additives in weaponized microorganisms, genomics

A ton of new fields have sprung up in the last decade or so, either as a result of electron microscopy or the need for it. For instance, specialized branches in forensic analysis, chemical and biological weapon detection, lithography, nanomaterials and nanodevices, structure and chemistry of nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanobelt and nanowires, polymers, clean environments, crystallography, hydrocarbon catalysis, production and storage of energy, climate control and surface modifications for sensors, pollution and auto exhaust emission control, photocatalysis, biocatalysis, surface engineering, advanced fuel cells, alternative energy sources, and quantitative x-ray microanalysis of terrestrial and extraterrestrial materials.

As widespread as science is in our world, from medicine to auto design, from energy to building construction, it’s a secretive world requiring a big dictionary. Science invades everyday life, in fact, it created it. But we turn the lights off in our houses, hop in our cars and turn on our MP3 players without any awareness of how such processes, techniques and devices came into being. Einstein is just some gray-haired bearded genius who knew a lot of math.

Now we live in a world of language that includes nano-electronics, nano-photonics, micromechanical devices (MEMS) and Bio-MEMs, Cryo-Preparation, Cryo-Sectioning, and Cryo-Approaches Using TEM, SEM, Cryo-examination of frozen hydrated biological samples, Focused ion beam instruments, scanning transmission electron microscopy, electron energy loss spectroscopy, x-ray mapping, Low voltage microscopy, Scanning cathodoluminescence microscopy, and other terms and concepts that require an advanced degree just to learn how to pronounce them.

It must be difficult for those who do understand advanced science, not being able to sit down and chat with others as easily as “regular folk” discuss the latest football scores or Washington political scandals, so prevalent in the news.

From chemistry to biology, geology to math, science has never really been comfortable in the cultural mainstream. It’s ironic, since much of what we call culture, like movies, TV and music, is driven by advanced science. We take pictures with digital cameras without any concern for optics. We listen to CDs without any knowledge of lithography.

Electron microscopy is complex enough, but it’s even more complex with sub-divided into High-Resolution Electron Microscopy (HREM), Analytical Electron Microscopy (AEM), Electron Energy-Loss Spectroscopy (EELS), Convergent Beam Electron Diffraction (CBED), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), Low-voltage SEM, Variable Pressure SEM (VPSEM/ESEM), Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD), X-ray Spectrometry, Quantitative X-ray Microanalysis, Spectral Imaging, X-ray Imaging, Diffraction and Spectroscopy, Crystallography, Scanned Probe Microscopy (SPM), Confocal Microscopy, Multi Photon Excitation Microscopy, Optical Fluorescence Microscopy, Infrared and Raman Microscopy and Microanalysis, Molecular Spectroscopy and Cryogenic Techniques and Methods.

In the future, ordinary silicon chips will move data using light rather than electrons, unleashing nearly limitless bandwidth and revolutionizing the world of computers. And to think, we’ve hardly tuned into the digital revolution that already took place.

Within the next decade, the circuitry found in today’s servers will be able to process billions of bits of data per second, fitting neatly on a silicon chip half the size of a postage stamp. Copper connections currently used in computers and servers will prove inadequate to handle such vast amounts of data.

At data rates approaching 10 billion bits per second, microscopic imperfections in the copper or irregularities in a printed-circuit board begin to weaken and distort the signals. One way to solve the problem is to replace copper with optical fiber and the electrons with photons. Integrated onto a silicon chip, an optical transceiver could send and receive data at 10 billion or even 100 billion bits per second. Movies will download in seconds rather than hours. Multiple simultaneous streams of video will open up new applications in remote monitoring and surveillance, teleconferencing, and entertainment.

Organic semiconductors are strong candidates for creating flexible, full-color displays and circuits on plastic. Using organic light-emitting devices (OLEDs), organic full-color displays are set to replace liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) for use with laptop and desktop computers. Such displays can be deposited on flexible plastic foils, eliminating the fragile and heavy glass substrates used in LCDs, and can emit bright light without the pronounced directionality inherent in LCD viewing.

Organic electronics have already entered the commercial world. Multicolor automobile stereo displays are now available. Future plans include OLED backlights to be used in LCDs and organic integrated circuits, film-thin solar cells, and portable, lightweight roll-up OLED displays (projected on a wall) designed to replace conventional TVs.

Organic circuitry is expected to exceed or replace silicon electronics. Organic semiconductors attracted industrial interest when it was recognized that many of them are photoconductive under visible light. This discovery led to their use in electrophotography (or xerography) and as light valves in LCDs.

The day will most likely come when every home has a particle accelerator, an electron microscope and miniature Hubble space probe as common as TVs, refrigerators and lightbulbs. But then, they’ll just be the “new” devices. Refrigerator doors are opened without any understanding of food processing. Few people know where TV images come from, beyond knowing they are either sexy or violent. And light is simply the flick of a switch…or the clap of hands.

Maybe it’s the way things should be, so we can get on with the business of living and leave the how and why to others. But in doing so, we inadvertently create power shifts. If knowledge is power, then specialized scientific knowledge is near God-like.

However, business people are shrewd and politicians are manipulative in ways they can control society, if not the world, without knowing what E=Mc2 means. Car dealers sell millions of cars without the slightest clue about pollution analysis or surface-to-road ratios, or how combustion works. And consumers don’t care much either, as look as the car can pass an emissions test and has a CD player, that’s good enough.

We put on our glasses and hope we don’t lose them. We take pictures of our children not because of a new kind of lens or photographic technique, but because we want to treasure a memory. We watch movies looking for thrills, without much regard for how they blew up that airplane, or where that sea of robot soldiers came from, or what supercomputer graphics workstation was used to create either image. We also trust our doctors, so when they order a PET scan, as frightening as it might be, we readily comply.

But somebody is out there working for an eyeglass company. Somebody is sitting behind a microscope all day much in the same way normal folks sit in front of the “boob tube” all day. Hopefully, the microscopist is more productive. And, there is such a thing as educational, informative and enriching TV watching.

So the future of human evolution is largely dependent not so much on knowledge and technology, but on the choices we make to engage ourselves in evolution/revolution. We can watch or we can participate. We can sit back passively or become interactive. It is the choices we make that will ultimately determine the constructive or destructive forces of advanced science. And with science moving to the atomic and sub-atomic level, perhaps average folk better pay a little closer attention to what’s going on in the universe.