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Is that beer on your tie?

A molecular biophysicist helps fund his lab with lush microphotos that decorate neckties, calendars and greeting cards

By | October 20, 2006

In Michael Davidson's photographs, a Tylenol pill looks like a tie-dyed explosion, a drop of Pina Colada appears to be an array of peacock feathers, and an Intel microprocessor resembles a futuristic urban map. To achieve these effects, he gets close to his subjects -- really close. For the past 35 years, the molecular biophysicist, who heads up the Microscopy Office at Florida State University's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, has captured the intricate universes under his microscope slides and developed them into vivid works of abstract art. The lush images have been reproduced on neckties, calendars, sportswear, and greeting cards. Though he never studied art or photography, Davidson has landed an astonishing 1,500 magazine covers. And his lab's artistic arm, Molecular Expressions, has created nearly 750,000 images, including microphotos of DNA, vitamins, pharmaceuticals and beer, to name a few. (The lab is always looking for original samples. Should you have any dinosaur bones or meteorites lying around and be willing to make a short-term loan, they'll deliver free color microprints of the objects in return.) The team is well versed in technologies ranging from confocal microscopy to live-cell imaging, but turning science into art presents a new set of technical challenges. To create his striking images, Davidson had to find ways to bridge the gap between what he saw through his microscope and what the camera lens saw. Because the eye detects more fluctuations along the color spectrum, the challenge has been creating specimens that work as well for the camera as they do for the human eye. For starters, the molecules have to be in crystalline form, so that they will generate the contour-revealing colors of polarized light. In a touch of poetic justice, it's the defects that reveal the most striking designs and patterns. "A flawless diamond would just look like a mirror under the microscope," Davidson said. Preparing the specimens can take weeks or months. Davidson's expansive collection of microimages of beer, for example, was particularly grueling to put together. "A lot of beers are pretty close to one another, chemically speaking," he explained. "Only a few motifs are different, yet we had to assign a distinct pattern to each brand." Once the specimen is ready, an understanding of composition is essential to good microphotography, said Davidson, who now uses digital instruments to snap the shots. "The way a photograph is framed has a dramatic impact," he said, noting that that's what he most impresses upon his lab employees, now that he has stepped into a less hands-on role in the microphotography enterprise. "Rather than do it myself, I critique the others. I'm trying to generate baby Picasso microphotographers!" When not honing their aesthetic sense, the lab members are developing microscopic techniques. In September, Davidson and colleagues published a report in Science on photo-activation location microscopy, which enables researchers to see high-resolution single molecules in biological structures. Despite the success of his microphotography venture, Davidson said he still sees the art as primarily a way to fund his science habit. "It was a matter of survival at first; we had been working for funding from NIH for so long. And then we found we could sell these photos and make more money than I ever imagined." The neckties alone brought in $1.5 million in the 1990s, with the beer and cocktail images being the hottest sellers. Much of the profits were reinvested in lab equipment and used to launch its extensive educational websites for students of all levels of microscopy. Davidson's broader mission is to use his compelling images to generate interest in science. "Someone's not likely to read a paragraph on vitamin D, but if they see a beautiful picture of it next to the [paragraph], they are more likely to read it." Still, "some of the most beautiful things in science, you can't slap up as a photograph," Davidson said. "Take DNA replication. It's so complex. The multiple mechanisms are just incredible. Far more beautiful than any photo I have taken." Carlin Flora mail@the-scientist.com Correction (posted October 23, 2006): When originally posted, this article quoted Davidson as referring to the beauty of "line DNA replication" rather than DNA replication. The Scientist regrets the error. Links within this article: Tylenol microimage http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/pharmaceuticals/pages/tylenol.html Pina Colada microimage http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cocktails/pages/pinacolida.html Intel microprocessor microimage http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/chipshots/pentium/1polylyrsmall.html Florida State University's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory http://www.magnet.fsu.edu/ Molecular Expressions http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/index.html M. May, "New Dimensions in Confocal Microscopy," The Scientist, July 28, 2003 http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13987/ B. Daviss, "Confocal Microscopes Go LIVE," The Scientist, Feb. 14, 2005 http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15254/ Beer microimages http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/beershots/index.html Imaging Intracellular Fluorescent Proteins at Nanometer Resolution (Abstract), Science, Sept. 15, 2006 http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/313/5793/1642
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