The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   32

On the Surface of Things

Images of the Extraordinary in Science

by Felice Frankel and George M. Whitesides

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997

Plenty of Pictures; Bad Conversation

Just as the people of our century were the first to find beauty in a machine --- even in a well-polished piece of a machine --- so the new physics was the first science to provide images of spectra and tracks of particles which can be hung on the wall like pictures.
---Jacques Barzun, The Energies of Art, p. 356.
The first, but not the last: these days it's a poor and shabby science indeed which cannot lay claim to a body of images suitable for framing. A great deal of ink has been spilled over supposed connections between the substance of the (first!) new physics and trends in art contemporary with it; but surely the more salient connection is (as Barzun says) that the pictures which come out of the natural sciences are very strange and unnatural seeming, and that a sensibility which can appreciate them is half-way at least to one which can appreciate Kandinsky or Motherwell.

That said, a more accurate subtitle would have been Images of the Extraordinary in Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science, Especially Self-Assembled Monolayers, the Research Specialty of the Second Author, with a Little Biology Thrown In. (It would be interesting to know if marketing or euphony played a greater role in ruling this title out.) This is a restricted field, but a rich and well-harvested one. Frankel's photographs are extraordinary, uniformly striking, absorbing and delightful. (They include one of a piece of a microscopic machine, presumably well-polished.) They are, indeed, so striking, and so remote from the shapes of ordinary visual experience, that one can forgive the authors for claiming that they are ``non-representational'', though they are, every last one, representations, and in fact we're told just what they represent!

The text is less successful than the pictures, which is a shame, since the science involved is both very ingenious and of great practical utility. Trying to explain what the images are to an audience evidently assumed to have only the most rudimentary knowledge, the authors are too often led into a morass of pretentious aphorisms and self-consciously poetic metaphors, of dubious value:

Imagine a world in which there is only order: everything identical --- in composition, form, orientation, and motion, as far as the eye can see. Move any distance in any direction, and you cannot tell you have moved. Such order is deeply disorienting, if change is your guide, but deeply soothing if surprises distract.

With atomic order comes atomic serenity. In crystals, waves of light ripple over mirror-surfaced pools; electrons swim in ordered schools in oceans without tides. Crystals shelter phenomena --- superconductivity, lasing --- that require calm, coherence, order.

One doubts, somehow, that this will convey much to anyone who does not already appreciate the fact that crystal lattices are symmetric under discrete translation and rotation groups. Or again:
Pity the gryphon, the mermaid, the silkie, the chimera: creatures assembled of incompatible parts, with uncertain allegiances and troubled identities. When nature calls, which nature is it? When instinct beckons, approach or flee?

A ferrofluid is a gryphon in the world of materials: part liquid, part magnet.

This one must surely earn some sort of prize for the most precious statement of the Second Law:
Iron rusts; we decay. We, and iron, and stars, and the universe itself all move at our own pace to that inescapable final state of disorder. We obey few laws, but one we all obey is the second law of thermodynamics: Where we end is where disorder is the greatest.
(An intelligent non-scientist of my acquaintance found no way of reconciling this sort of thing with the earlier talk about self-assembly, and concluded that one or the other must be bunk.)

I'm not sure why the text is so weak. Frankel and Whitesides allot about four paragraphs to each picture, and it would be a real triumph of microfabrication to fit any genuine understanding of interference or liquid crystals or self-assembly into such a small compass. That length limit, however, owes more to rather eccentric typography and a fondness for whitespace than any more serious constraint; nor does it explain their desire to sound like Annie Dillard on a really off day (i.e., like Diane Ackerman).

Though the text will leave most readers as mystified as they were when they opened the book, the photographs will linger in the mind (and on the coffee table): and that is plenty of justification for a picture book.

160 pp., index of entries, photographic notes, technical notes and references.
Condensed Matter / Popular Science
Currently in print as an oversize paperback, US$22.95, ISBN 0-8118-1394-0, LoC QC173.4.S94 F73
16 March 1998