Descent into a microscope: Rodent tongues and lightwaves

Artist Patricia Olynyk's installation, Dark Skies

Artist Patricia Olynyk's installation, Dark Skies

When was the last time you used a microscope? They’re fun to use (as fun as any scientific instrument can be) but they have limitations beyond high school Biology labs. One limitation involves the wavelength of light. At scales typical of electron microscopy, objects are smaller than the wavelengths in the visible spectrum. It might sound confusing, but what it boils down to is this: if you think of an electron microscope as a camera, it can only take black and white pictures. The difference is that the lack of color isn’t because of the film (like in a camera) but because of the object being photographed. It surprised me to learn that objects can be too small to have any color. How can something be too small to be blue? Because blue is a wavelength; it takes… length to blue. It’s fun to imagine living inside of a cell or climbing the double helix of DNA like a staircase, but trying to inhabit scales this small is more challenging when presented with facts. The rules aren’t the same in this tiny, otherworldly place.

Artist Patricia Olynyk is making things a little easier for us. She created an immersive environment Dark Skies that manipulates scale, enlarging a microscopic world to the scale of a room on the fifth floor of the California NanoSystems Institute. The foam wall panels in this room are routed to resemble the microscopic surface of a mouse tongue. Shifting colors are projected onto the undulating surface and there’s some kind of sounds happening to make sure the otherworldly installation is as otherworldly as it can be. I agree with Casey Rentz who says that “it’s not readily apparent” that  “Dark Skies was inspired by the phenomenon of light pollution and how its ever-present yellow haze has changed life on Earth.” It turns out that trying to inhabit the logic of an artist can be as challenging as trying to inhabit the logic of microscopic scales.

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