Rob Kesseler, president of the Arts and science section, creates beautifully detailed microscope images. But what did a scientist who spends her days looking down a microscope, make of his work? Media Fellow Petra Szilagyi describes her reaction to his talk at the British Science Festival.

Thinking back on my first microscopy sessions, I remember most vividly those pictures on the wall showing the microscopy images, or micrographs, of insects and trivial object such as a piece of hair, magnified so much that the original item could no longer be recognised. This is a wonderful and mysterious world, hidden from our eyes and only unlocked by an ultra-high vacuum chamber and a beam of fast electrons bombarding the surface of the object.

Now, as an active electron microscopy user and part-time art lover, I was very excited about being able to attend Rob Kesseler’s talk, Transformations of Nature, at the British Science Festival.

Few can argue that there is a finer creator of beauty than nature. For me, an exciting part of science is exploring and understanding this beauty. Kesseler, a professor at the University of the Arts London, brings together the best of both worlds: attention to detail and accuracy; with beauty and a desire for creation.

He says “When I started to work with scientists, almost twenty years ago, the words art and science wouldn’t often occur in the same sentence”. Much has changed since, as both scientists and artists are re-discovering a common interest and a common language. In Kesseler’s case, this is inspired and captured by Dürer’s “forensic observation” and meticulous painting in the ‘Great Piece of Turf’ – a detailed painting of an apparently unordered clump of plants. And he is in good company, Rembrandt and Escher (just to name two of my favourites) understood that people need both science and art, and in this sense they are inalienable parts of our lives.

So, what does this bring to science? As scientist, I want my microscopic images to be focussed on a small part of an object in great detail, so to select the part I also look at the object as a whole in less detail – you can either get a lot of the object, or a lot of detail. Kesseler on the other hand, wants images of the whole of the objects and in high resolution. This takes a lot of time! Some of the images Kesseler showed took over 100 hours to image and clear up, I seriously doubt that any scientist would spend this much time.

Ref: Fig wasp. Image from Fruit, edible, inedible & incredible. Stuppy & Kesseler. Publ. PapadakisBut sometimes this kind of devotion comes with a huge reward. He showed an image of a small fig cut in half, with the pollen grains visible inside it. For a fig plant to reproduce, it needs a pollinator - the fig wasp. The female wasp lays the eggs inside the fig and when they hatch, the flightless male wasps mate with the female ones and then the male cuts a hole for the female to escape through the skin before he dies. The female departs taking the pollen with her. Kesseler’s images reveal the pollen stuck on the hairs of the female wasp in high resolution, delighting our eyes and enhancing our understanding on the lives of these creatures.

If there is a clear benefit to science, what about art? Kesseler got involved in using electron microscopy through writing to scores of scientists, asking whether they would collaborate. He had one reply from Madeline Harley, the head of research of palynology or pollen science, at Kew gardens. She had also worked as an interior designer, so she recognised the visual quality of microscope images. Although she thought there would be no public interest in these works, Kesseler thought otherwiseIn the past 14 years his books co-written with Madeline Harley and Wolfgang Stuppy have sold over 165,000 copies world-wide in 8 languages. I think this is proof enough that the public loves these works, he jokes “This is my dispersal, the books are my dispersal”.

So, as an audience, what does this work bring to us? Kesseler’s works capture our imagination (in my case they rather hijack it) by imaging and transforming the miniature.

Dr Petra Szilagyi is an Axa Media Fellow, placed at Nature News. She is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Pharmaceutical, Chemical & Environmental Sciences at the University of Greenwich.


Images from top:

  • Banner: Scabiosa cretica. Credit Rob Kesseler
  • Right image: Great Piece of Turf. Albrecht Dürer.
  • Left image: Fig wasp. Image from Fruit, edible, inedible & incredible. Stuppy & Kesseler. Publ. Papadakis