Like Alice, Dee Breger journeyed through a looking glass and unexpectedly found herself in a wonderland.
For nearly 30 years, Breger has operated scanning electron microscopes at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia's earth sciences research center in Palisades, N.Y. The instrument can magnify objects up to 300,000 times their actual size, revealing a hidden domain filled with strange curiosities and unexpected beauty.
In this infinitesimal realm, arterial blood clots look like UFO's caught in an extraterrestrial traffic jam. Microminerals give the appearance of vast landscapes dotted with buttes and canyons. Synthetic kidney stone crystals seem like falling snowflakes and the shells of microscopic plants stand out like spiked, medieval maces or Christmas tree ornaments.
Breger, 52, has applied Lamont's scanning electron microscope, or SEM, to a wide range of scientific studies, but trained as an artist, she recognized a good picture when she saw one.
As a result, 50 of the SEM images will be on public view from Oct. 17 to Nov. 10 in an exhibition in Low Memorial Library on Morningside campus. The exhibition, Journeys in Microspace: The Art of the Scanning Electron Microscope, will offer viewers an opportunity to explore a complex, elegant and sometimes startling universe on the scale of a grain of sand. (Hours are Mon. to Fri., from 9:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Admission is free.)
In a book of the same title being published this fall by Columbia Press, nearly 200 SEM images taken by Breger will be reproduced.
Breger will also show the SEM images at Lamont-Doherty's open house, Sat., Oct. 14, from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. at its Palisades, N.Y., campus. (Call 914/359-2900 for information.)
Armed with a fine arts degree, Breger took a summer job in 1964 drawing pictures of microscopic animal life for a scientist at Lamont. But the electron microscope's ability to produce magnified images of microplankton with great depth and clarity soon put her out of business. Instead, she took over operation of the instrument, occasionally bending it to her artistic sensibilities.
Conventional microscopes use particles of light, or photons, to look directly at small objects, employing glass lenses to magnify things several thousand times. The SEM opens the door to an even tinier level by using electrons, which are much smaller.
"Trying to see very small things with photons would be like trying to play marbles with cannon balls," Breger said.
In the SEM, a beam of electrons hits a sample, knocking off electrons from the sample's surface. These "secondary" electrons, carrying information about the sample's three-dimensional topography, are collected by a detector, electronically processed and reassembled in their original configuration to produce a picture of the sample's surface.
The SEM can "see" features as small as 40 angstroms, or .000000177 of an inch across.
"At that scale, your fingernail would be as wide as Manhattan," Breger said. "Or put another way, if Manhattan were only half an inch wide, we could use the SEM to read the license plates of cars parked on Broadway."
Scientists at Lamont-Doherty have used the SEM over the years to identify microplankton in ocean sediments; the fossilized remains incorporated into chalk lining underwater canyons; and the microscopic teeth of prehistoric creatures. They have used it to investigate the structure of earthquake-induced microfractures in rocks and microminerals from the earth's upper mantle.
Other Columbia researchers have also made use of the Lamont-Doherty SEM:
Using the SEM, Breger has also provided an extraordinary perspective on some ordinary things. Magnified by the SEM, nylon looks like a plate of spaghetti. A tungsten wire filament, when burned, creates a still life of crystals and bubbles. Bugs are monstrosities. And just by looking at its structure, one can understand how Velcro works.
"At the heart of all these images is the astonishment, respect and aesthetic pleasure we get as we marvel at the variety of forms existence itself takes and its enormous range of scales," Breger said.