Monday, August 20, 2012

Pushing back the boundaries

The Red Planet?

The adventure of NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover took an exciting step forward today as the pioneering little machine vaporised its first rock with its cheerfully named 'ChemCam' laser. The Curiosity mission has tapped into a huge vein of public enthusiasm for investigation and the exploration of the unknown, exemplified by the fact that over a thousand people gathered in New York's Times Square to watch the live landing. Space exploration has often occupied a romantic place in the heart of public opinion, in part because of the wonderful images that can be beamed back, which can offer a more personal connection to the work being done and give people a greater sense of ownership over scientific endeavour. The Curiosity mission is no exception - NASA is dutifully publishing the images being sent back from Mars to the delight of those of us on Earth.

The potential for images to capture the public imagination has not gone unnoticed by other branches of science. Last year I published a post about the Cell Picture Show, a project by the biology journal Cell to highlight the most striking images emerging from the ever expanding field of biological microscopy. In this post I wanted to highlight a recent edition to the project: the super-resolution gallery.

Super-resoltion is a fairly recent step forward in microscopy that allows biologists to observe life's molecular events on an unprecedentedly small scale using a range of cunning technical tricks. Researchers can now follow individual molecules as they move across the surface of a cell, or observe the machinery of processes like DNA replication in fine detail. Just like Curiosity, the missions of super-resolution are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and exploring the unknown; not going further, but looking smaller. I would definitely recommend giving this new gallery a look: here.  

Image is property of Cell and National Institute of Health - microtubules imaged by conventional (right) and super-resolution (left) microscopy within a Drosophila cell.


  1. Speaking of pushing back the boundaries of making striking images, the latest word on the gravitational wave front is that we're now less than five years away from a guaranteed detection! (at Advanced Ligo) (source)

    The images themselves won't be incredible visually (to start with)... and in fact will need to be made with imagination as gravitational waves (GW) aren't light, so an "image" will involve making a transformation from amplitude and frequency of GW to brightness and colour in image. But, this is likely to produce the first ever "image" of a real black hole!

  2. Replies
    1. Hmm, I was pondering exactly that question after having written what I wrote. I'm not 100% sure that any images would actually make sense - I might have just gotten excited about the recent news and tried too hard to find a way to relate it to this post.

      A much better analogy is that detections of GW's would be like listening to space. Ligo will hopefully be detecting ripples in space-time in the same way that our ears detect ripples in the atmosphere. Therefore, making an image from a GW would be like making an image of a train from the sounds it makes.

    2. nice analogy - it makes sense, actually!