An eye for making science attractive

In all its black and gooey glory, ferrofluid – the stuff that makes rotary seals for disk drives or dampers for high-end speakers – just doesn't turn many heads. But with seven magnets, a Post-It note, and a green sheet of paper, award-winning photographer Felice Frankel turns the black glob into a thing of beauty.

This flowery shot (at right), which depicts magnetic spikes seen nowhere else in nature, is one of more than 300 color images in the MIT scientist's new book, "Envisioning Science."

The how-to guide for photographers explains Frankel's techniques for relaying the wonders of science to colleagues and laypeople alike. Those already familiar with her photography will find Frankel's writing as compelling as her arresting images.

A Guggenheim fellow who spent years photographing landscape and architecture, Frankel strives to capture yeast colonies, hard drives, and stressed-out palladium membranes in the light in which she has always seen them – thought-provoking. But her audience is not limited to scientists.

In fact, it's those readers who shy away from science whom she hopes to attract, providing them with an "unintimidating visual vocabulary."

What makes the book itself unintimidating is Frankel's tone, one of patience, clarity, and instruction. She's created a new way to look at science, and proves through her own work that, once the basics are mastered, the key is creativity.

Frankel's gift has already caught the attention of such magazines as Science, Nature, and Physics Today, which frequently splash her images across their covers. Her success is fueled by a remarkable ability to balance aesthetic appeal with scientific integrity.

Ferrofluid, for example, is no less ferrofluid because it's been rendered attractive in this stunning photo. Frankel has simply called attention to its sharp magnetic reaction and its highly reflective surface. She wants her readers to see an image and ask themselves what it is, how it works, and why it's important.

"I'd love this book to turn enough scientists or people who love science on to the possibility that they can contribute," Frankel explains.

"It's not only that you see something differently, but when you look through a camera, your attention is different. It's a moment in time that you're completely absorbed in."

Frankel is able to provide depth without intimidation and insight without conceit. Stereomicroscopes and compound microscopes become friendly tools, almost as easy to use as that camera you haul on walks through the park. The world is her playground, and Frankel is determined to reveal its masked beauty.

Indeed, science rarely looks as appealing as in Frankel's work. And yet she's not afraid to showcase her less effective images alongside the more compelling ones. A photograph is not right or wrong, she demonstrates. It's an experiment that can always be improved upon. The more trial and error, the better the final result. If her book is an extension of this experiment, Frankel has yet to err.

• Elizabeth Armstrong works for Wired Magazine in San Francisco, Calif.

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