Meet the photographer who translates science into stunning images

"It's crazy wonderful." Felice Frankel helps MIT students look at their work in a whole new way.

By Catherine Zuckerman
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:37 BST

For the mathematically minded, the clean lines and pleasing logic of equations can be lovely things to behold. But for the uninitiated, even the most elegant math might as well be gibberish. The same holds true for fundamental laws of physics, breakthroughs in biology, and any number of scientific concepts that are highly complex but also applicable to everyday life.

So, how do researchers make their work make sense to the public? Welcome to the domain of photographer Felice Frankel.

A science devotee with a gift for lively conversation, Frankel is embedded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she helps students find ways to visually depict their ideas. Her new book, Picturing Science and Engineering, is full of examples of complicated research and data sets rendered in compelling photographs. The point, Frankel says, is to help scientists “understand that beautiful images can engage the public.”

Doing so does not require fancy equipment. Frankel proves this in her first chapter, called “Flatbed Scanner.” As long as a scanner's resolution can be controlled, she says, this relatively low-tech tool can capture a surprising amount of information from something like a piece of agate or abalone. (Also see how a student took a picture of a single atom.)

How do you show the progression of time? In this series of images—each photographed separately and then assembled into one grid—a material called block copolymer changes color as the solvent it's suspended in evaporates.

Photograph by Felice Frankel

“It’s crazy wonderful. You can see detail you couldn’t see with your eye,” Frankel says. Flatbed scanners can also capture images of more complex objects, like petri dishes or analytical devices, and showcase them in new ways. This often surprises people, she says, because “most folks use [them] for documents.”

The book’s other chapters walk readers through the basics of camera use and lighting, as well as how to use microscopes and even cell phones to visually represent a concept or to illuminate a difficult-to-grasp calculation. And in situations where the idea isn’t photographable, Frankel suggests employing metaphors. For instance, “how in the world do we talk about quantum mechanics?” she asks. “Even quantum mechanics physicists have trouble, because it’s highly mathematical.”

To illustrate the theory’s more counterintuitive principles—such as the notion that light can behave as both a wave and a particle—she made a digital picture of a glass apple casting a square shadow. (Physicists do something similar when they explain quantum mechanics through thought experiments, like Schrödinger's famous cat.)

Frankel studied biology and chemistry in college and says science has always been in her soul, although she refers to herself first as a photographer.

“As I child, I looked carefully at things, like all children do,” she says. Now, when she sits down with a student to talk about visualizing a concept, she begins by asking them to tell her the most critical thing they want to communicate. If the student can’t explain it, she sends him or her back to sort it out.

“It’s about reducing the ideas down to their essence, and in order to do that, you have to understand it yourself,” she says.

At the end of the book, a visual index lists dozens of examples of Frankel’s work, along with the studies the images were published with. The process is highly collaborative, she says, and “a great deal of fun.” Though most graduate programs don’t include classes on visual communication of science and engineering, Frankel hopes that will change in the future.

“I think this younger generation of scientists understands that the visual is extraordinarily powerful.”

Science photographer Felice Frankel is a research scientist in the department of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Guggenheim Fellow, and she was a Senior Research Fellow in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology.

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