Macro or Micro? Museum of Science exhibit invites wonder at the world beyond our vision

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/04/macro-or-micro-museum-of-science-exhibit-invites-wonder-at-the-world-beyond-our-vision/
Siberian Tundra, Russia (top) and Polished mineral sample of a garnet (bottom). (NewBostonPost photo by Catherine Hillcrest)

Siberian Tundra, Russia (top) and Polished mineral sample of a garnet (bottom). (NewBostonPost photo by Catherine Hillcrest)

The Museum of Science’s new exhibit, Macro or Micro? Challenging our Perceptions of Scale, invites us to contemplate images on a mind-blowing scale, whether extremely magnified or taken from outer space. The title refers to the exhibit’s family-friendly visitor challenge to try and distinguish whether a series of juxtaposed images was taken on a macro or micro scale.

This entertaining challenge is not an artificial one, but came from the real experiences of the exhibit’s creators, geographer Stephen Young and biologist Paul Kelly, both from Salem State University. Young recounted the genesis of their idea: “One day I noticed one of [Kelly’s] images looked like a satellite image. I took one of my images and posted it to his door. He thought it was an electron-microscopic image from his office mate. The fact that the image fooled him got us thinking about our work and how we could collaborate. Both of us are interested in scale, and so the idea of a show where it is difficult to determine scale was of interest to us as we thought that people would also find this rather interesting.”

The exhibit delves into the science behind how researchers are able to visualize everything from the crystalline structure of a garnet to the traces of an Abu Dhabi shoreline. But it doesn’t just stop with the nuts and bolts of the operation.

It immediately calls to mind the kind of natural wonder that fascinated natural philosophers long before the invention of the telescope.

The curators did a commendable job maintaining the theme of blurring distinctions throughout multiple veins in the exhibit. As one of the description panels reads, “The collaborative work represented here bridges art and science, raising questions about how we interpret information from various standpoints, from the broader universe or our place within it.”

The presentation moves beyond the confines of scientific causality and into the realm of speculation as to why images of such different scales can appear so similar, particularly in the patterns they create. The technology needed to develop the images is impressive and complex, but mercifully it is not what lies at the heart of this exhibit.

Dr. Young explained, “In our exhibition, the viewers are asked to just look at the imagery, open their minds to new possibilities and see if they can tell if the image is something as thick as a hair on their head or the size of a great river delta. We are not asking them to read extensively or to think to extensively, just consider the idea of scale and to see if they can tell what they are looking at. We want the experience to be fun and relaxing.”

Lena River Delta, Siberia, Russia (left) and Surface wing of a blue darner dragon fly (right). (NewBostonPost photo by Catherine Hillcrest)

Lena River Delta, Siberia, Russia (left) and Surface wing of a blue darner dragon fly (right). (NewBostonPost photo by Catherine Hillcrest)

“How can we explain it?” a printed wall panel innocently asks us. The curators suggest a connection between science and art, so that the thematic question lifts us beyond the confines of narrowly-defined scientific disciplines. Instead, it immediately calls to mind the kind of natural wonder that fascinated natural philosophers long before the invention of the telescope. It even harkens back to Enlightenment-era philosophers who pondered human perception and the reliability of the senses.

Their breathtaking work helps us visually contemplate the presence of order in the universe.

Viewing the images, my mind drifted to Aristotle as I contemplated their juxtaposed micro and macro scales. It occurred to me that the connection between ancient natural philosophers and modern science might not be as distant as one might think. Indeed, an etymological link between speculation on the nature of nature can be found in two modern scientific and mathematic fields, geology and geometry. After all, “geo” means “earth.” So the two scientists who created the exhibit could also consider themselves natural philosophers! Their breathtaking work helps us visually contemplate the presence of order in the universe.

The Macro or Micro exhibit has already toured extensively, travelling as far away as Iran and virtually everywhere on weather.com. For a brief time, it’s back in the Bay State at Boston’s Museum of Science.

Dermal armor of an Atlantic sturgeon. (NewBostonPost photo by Catherine Hillcrest)

Dermal armor of an Atlantic sturgeon. (NewBostonPost photo by Catherine Hillcrest)

Macro or Micro? Challenging our Perceptions of Scale is on display until March 6th at the Museum of Science, 1 Science Park, Boston  02114.

Catherine Hillcrest is a doctoral student in archaeology.

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