Culture desk

Curios About: A Curious Encounter with Nature by Karl Gaff

A Curious Encounter with Nature By Karl Gaff Light microscope and scanning electron microscope (SEM) fitted cameras, prints are A5 to A1

1. This work is about … delving down at least six orders of magnitude, where you will see treacherous canyons, steep valleys, ridges, rolling hills and vast mountain ranges all on a single grain of pollen. The rugged landscape on the surface of a flower petal and dense forests and high-rise spikes emerging from the surface of a leaf that towers into the sky. We see the same patterns repeat themselves at different scales in nature, where their architectures are governed by the Van der Waals forces.

2. I made this work because … it takes the observer on a visual odyssey between imaginary and real to places far beyond the limits of human vision. It gives the observer a new perspective on the many worlds that exist within our own everyday life that we can’t see without the necessary tools. These images explore the richness, complexity and the sheer beauty in these places that for the most part are overlooked in everyday life – places that on closer inspection are marvels of bio-engineering, simplicity, and complexity.

3. I hope when people see this work they will … develop a greater appreciation of the beauty of science in action in nature. I hope it offers some encouragement to develop their understanding of the ecological system and the symbiotic relationships that underpin our existence and equilibrium on this planet. I hope it will enlighten the next and successive generations in the importance of protecting how the planet functions, and help them to have an informed view on how to keep it in equilibrium.

4. In terms of art history, this work … represents the writing of new history. The tools to make these images have only existed in the past quarter of a century.

5. You can see my work … on Instagram here and on Flickr here. If you would like to have samples photographed on the microscopes and printed/framed, you can contact me at or 085 199 4214.

6. Acknowledgements: These images would not have been possible without the support of Professor Dimitri Scholz at UCD. I would like to thank him for providing me with the fantastic opportunity to use the microscopes at his imaging facility.

7. The six images above are (clockwise, from top left):

a. Anagallis arvensis (scarlet pimpernel): flowering between the months of May and October, the scarlet pimpernel is commonly found growing on waste ground. The pale green bell-shaped structure from which rises the style encapsulates the ovarian complex of the flower. At the top of the style is the stigma peppered in pollen grains. Fortunately, the flower is resistant to self-fertilisation. Protruding from the filaments are glandular hairs that are thought to be responsible for secreting sugary nectar to attract insects so as to disperse its pollen to other flowers of its kind.

b. Chironomid midge larva: the aquatic larval stage of the chironomid midge is transparent, as are many larvae. These creatures offer the opportunity to study their internal anatomy without having to dissect them. By observing and photographing them under polarised light, we can introduce contrast between different anatomical structures. For example, the muscle fibres, comprising of the optically active myosin molecular bundles, appear to glow yellow-orange as a result of electromagnetic interference between light fields that pass through them. The brownish opaque band that arcs through the organism is its digestive tract. The thin black strip above it is part of the neural network.

c and f. Lepidoptera wing scales: lepidoptera are the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. Their wings are often covered in a colourful and elaborate decoration of scales. The scales or lamella can be pigmented or they can be transparent giving rise to structural coloration from photonic crystals and or diffraction gratings. In any case, they are intricately woven at the nano scale and can interact with light in remarkable ways, producing exquisite light displays that help the organism attract a partner, deter potential predators and mimic its environments for camouflage.

d. Geranium robertianum pollen: pollen grains come in many shapes and forms. The bulk of the weight of a pollen grain contains a food source for the gamete. Some pollen grains have highly ornamented morphologies with hooks enabling them to adhere to hairy bugs like Velcro. The field of study of pollen grains is called “palynology” and is useful in palaeontology, archaeology and forensics.

e. Brownian tree of vitamin C: responsible for a host of branched structural patterns in nature, the process of diffusion-limited aggregation is at work here – tiny particles chaotically jittering around in solution, doing a random walk due to Brownian motion, cluster together, resulting in branch-shaped aggregates as the fluid in which they are immersed in evaporates. The pattern is known as a “Brownian tree”. Its silver appearance is due to that fact that the thickness of the dendrites is thinner than the wavelength of light.

“Curios About …” is a series featuring works by Dublin artists. Each artist is asked to submit an image of one work and answer a set of questions about it. We’d love it if you’d submit something you’ve made, here.

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.



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