While art and science have slowly begun to embrace the intersection of their two respective disciplines, one example being neuroesthetics, can we really go so far as to say that a substance like Caffeine: a white, bitter-tasting powder or Vitamin C: colorless in its pure form - is art? Within the traditional pandect of reductionist lore, the answer would seem to be ‘no’.
According to Sebastian Sparenga, Research Microscopist & Instructor at the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, these chemical substances, as well as many others, when examined under a polarized microscope become an oasis of a colorful array of shapes, ideas and beauty of atomic proportion.
This Broadview Heights, Ohio native first experienced microscopic images while attending a botany class as an undergraduate at Cleveland State University. While his professor shed light on the plant’s anatomy, Sparenga’s hybrid mind was impacted by the artistic grace that was captured under the lens and saw the images as a ‘work of art’.
Author Jonah Lehrer says: “Science is seen through an optic lens of art and the art is interpreted in the light of science.” This certainly holds true for Sparenga who has a Masters in Forensic Science. Most of his scientific research requires creativity and critical thinking. It consists of: examining various substances and conducting comparable analysis, determining property changes over variables such as time and condition, discovering new ways to characterize substances or identifying its mysteries.
Once he gets a broad understanding of the characteristics of the substances via a low powered microscope, he then uses a polarized light microscope which illuminates optical properties like refractive index and birefringence index which are two elements use to characterize the substance. This is where the magic begins.
Chemical substances become a cosmic symphony as a result of the optical phenomenon called: interference and its relation to the refraction index. If you have ever seen patterns of colors appear on your soap bubbles or looked at a gas leak from your car onto a wet pavement and seen a rainbow, it is along those same lines. By placing different filters into the light path on the microscope – kind of like those in polarized sunglasses – colors spring to life which wouldn’t otherwise be seen by the human eye.
Interestingly enough, Sparenga didn’t initially perceive his research as art. It spawned when he began using fusion techniques (which is heating and cooling a sample under the microscope). Suddenly, these molecular substances began to show a mosaic of macro-dynamic personality. His chemical experiments have become poetic pulchritude, recently being featured in Evanston's Custer's Last Stand Festival.
The featured image is Caffeine, the very same caffeine we find in coffee, tea, chocolate or pop.
It almost appears as though there are little coffee beans inside the colorful peaks. Perhaps those peaks represent the highs and lows that "caffeine" and "caffeine withdrawal" can give you?
Sparenga says: "While there is no certainty that these images have any relation to the function of the compound, the patterns and colors can be used for identification and characterization purposes."
This next one is very interesting because it's an image of Anthracene: a component of coal-tar which is a byproduct of coal when it is processed in various ways. It's also used in the manufacture of certain dyes as well as insectisides and wood preservatives. It is labeled as carcinogenic by OSHA and known for causing toxicity to aquatic life.
The irony is that the image depicted under the microscope illustrates a magical vegetation of life with its leaves dancing with the currents of water or being swayed by the wind.
The next two images are two variations on Vitamin C - the same kind you find in your Orange Juice.
The first of the two depicts what could be igloos or a replica of Hoover Dam. In both pictures, we see an icy, cool quality to it.
Sparenga says: "The patterns and the arrangement of patterns, shape and even the cracking seen in these images are related to the chemistry of the sample. The colors come from: the thickness of the sample, and the birefringence (specific optical property) of the sample. So if the thickness or birefringence is different, so are the colors."
A striking image of Cholesteryl Acetate with its vibrant purplish hues and sharp angles gives no indication that it is a fairly common chemical used in cosmetics, thermometers, video displays and back in the day: mood rings.
After seeing this next image, you may be a little bit more generous with the Soy Sauce on your Sushi.
Finally, in Sparenga's last image, we see the instrument that is the catalyst for this imaginative journey.
Sparenga's journey of microscopic photography has not only unraveled cloistered beauty, but illuminated the mysteries behind nature's elixir.