Wednesday, March 10, 2010

SEM photography

At first, you may have mistaken the 2nd photo above for the monkey's paw of yesterday's post. Although most monkeys have fingernails, some small ones, including marmosets, do have claws. But it is the foot of a bat, and the 1st photo - an award-winner by retired British scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner - is the face of the insectivorous veterinary specimen. The chairman of the judges of the competition said, "I had never seen a bat's face so close up before so there was a lot of new information – especially the whiskers and the teeth. The winning image made all the judges laugh. The close-up of the bat's face has a tremendous impact, and also humour, even though the beast looks so fierce!"

These close-ups are made possible with the use of the scanning electron microscope (SEM), first marketed commercially in 1965, which increased the magnification of the traditional microscope by 1,000s of times. Unlike the light microscope, the SEM builds a 3-dimensional image. Gschmeissner says, "Obtaining original material is difficult, and I’m constantly on the look out for new stuff. Getting hold of this collection from a vet I know was something of a treasure trove for me. The thing about electron microscope photography is you can have something that appears fairly mundane that produces a fabulous image, and other things you like the look of will not work. You are never sure what you are going to find. It’s about looking more closely and finding the unknown. It’s about having the eye - seeing an image and recognising how it has impact."

Scanning electron microscopes cost up to £500,000, and few have access to them to make artistic images. After his career as a full-time SEM photographher at Cancer Research UK, Schmeissner considers it a dream come true and calls the equipment "the ultimate boy's toy." His images of cancer cells and microbes continue to appear in scientific publications, but his post-retirement work has an even wider distribution. There is a slideshow of some of Gschmeissner's incredible insect photographs here. And if you're still not satiated, you can see dozens of his close-ups at a glance here. But a photo of the photographer himself? I can't find that anywhere!

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