Michael Berger has an interesting article on carbon nanotubes and how the act of observing them may cause damage. It’s part of the Nanowerk Spotlight series here,
A few days ago we ran a Nanowerk Spotlight (“Nanotechnology structuring of materials with atomic precision”) on a nanostructuring technique that uses an extremely narrow electron beam to knock individual carbon atoms from carbon nanotubes with atomic precision, a technique that could potentially be used to change the properties of the nanotubes. In contrast to this deliberately created defect, researchers are concerned about unintentional defects created by electron beams during examination of carbon nanomaterials with transmission electron microscopes like a high-resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM)
The concern is that that electrons in the beam will accidentally knock an atom out of place. It was believed that slowing the beam to 80 kV would address the problem but new research suggests that’s not the case.
If you go to Nanowerk to read more about this, you’ll find some images of what’s going on at the nanoscale. The images you see are not pictures per se. They are visual representations based on data that is being sensed at the nanoscale. The microscopes used to gather the data are not optical. As I understand it, these microscopes are haptic as the sensing is done by touch, not by sight. (If someone knows differently, please do correct me.) Scientists even have a term for interpreting this data, blobology.
I’ve been reading up on these things and it’s gotten me to thinking about how we understand and interpret not just the macroworld that our senses let us explore but the micro/nano/pico/xxx scale worlds which we cannot sense directly. In that light, the work that Kay O’Halloran, an associate professor in English Language and Literature and the Director of the Multimodal Analysis Lab at the National University of Singapore, is doing in the area of multimodal discourse analysis looks promising. From her article in Visual Communication, vol. 7 (4),
Mathematics and science, for example, produce a new space of interpretance through mixed-mode semiosis, i.e. the use of language, visual imagery, and mathematical symbolism to create a new world view which extends beyond the possible using language. (p. 454)