Creating small wonders

Cell biologist and inventor Gary Greenberg’s career took a turn about 10 years ago when his brother sent him a canister of beach sand. Greenberg placed a pinch under a light microscope. Magnified hundreds of times, the colorful, intricate sand grains resembled beads from a necklace.

“I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe that was what sand looked like,” he says. “I got hooked on the idea that there was this entire world people didn’t know existed.”

He started photographing the magnified sand, as well as flowers, fruit, wine, clothes, paper — whatever he could stick under a microscope. His photos have been displayed in museums and have formed the basis of four books.

Greenberg (left) has always thought art and science should be intertwined. Before earning a Ph.D. in biology at University College London in 1981, he worked for several years as a photographer and filmmaker. He first combined his two passions to create special effects for the 1978 film Superman, turning magnified human pancreatic cancer cells into a distant view of the planet Krypton. (The cells’ nuclei made great craters, he says.)

Greenberg’s own inventions have made his current style of photography possible. A traditional light microscope has a shallow depth of field; only a sliver of an object can be in focus at one time. Over the last 20 years, with his company Edge-3D, Greenberg has designed new high-definition, three-dimensional light microscopes with an improved focal range.

This expertise led Greenberg to one of his latest projects. Researchers from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., wanted to study the surface of sand grains from the moon in microscopic detail — and in color. Greenberg’s photos, taken with one of his special microscopes, helped reveal differences between sand on Earth and on the moon.

“Each grain of sand has a story to tell about the geology from whence it came,” Greenberg says. On Earth, wind and water erode sand. On the moon, sand is altered by micrometeorite bombardments. The heat of these impacts vaporizes the surface, leaving behind tiny glass droplets.

The moon sand photos illustrate how Greenberg’s work can be both exciting and educational, especially for children, he says. “It’s a great way to get them interested in art and science.” Erin Wayman

Even familiar objects can look foreign under a microscope. Below is a sampling of photos by biologist Gary Greenberg.

Crossed polarizing filters create the rainbow colors seen in these crystals from Beaujolais wine.

A magnified view of the beach sand on Maui reveals tiny bits of coral, shells and volcanic material. Repeated tumbling by the ocean’s surf leaves the sand grains smooth and shiny.

Perhaps the most unusual subject of Greenberg’s photography is moon sand. This grain was collected during the Apollo 11 mission from the Sea of Tranquillity, the site of an ancient volcanic eruption.

A high-definition, three-dimensional light microscope captured this unusual view of sugar crystallizing out of a solution.

All images courtesy of G. Greenberg.

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.