Zooming in on Richter

Yesterday I went to a workshop led by Writer-in-Residence Iain Morrison and based on the idea of a triple self-portait as shown by Richter’s Self Portrait Standing, Three Times, 17.3.1991. We explored aspects of obscuring and revealing ourselves through creative work, in particular by writing the same piece with differing levels of ‘personalness’ or intimacy. We were each asked to find a work in the John Hansard Gallery’s exhibition and spend a short time writing about however it made us feel, from whichever perspective. I chose Richter’s Abstract Painting (Silicate) (880-4) which I’ve previously sketched and which I particularly enjoy. I decided to write from the perspective of the type of microscope that could be used to scrutinise molecular structure. This produced Part 2 below. We then wrote Parts 1 (a more personal version) and 3 (a more dispassionate approach) to see how these differed – do you feel you’re there, or is it like a user manual? Here is my output.

Self portrait three times (Richter’s Silicate)

Part 1

I am a high-tech microscope in the Southampton University Physics Department and I am proud of my top-end optics and electronics. It’s a Friday morning, already hot and humid outside, but pleasantly cool in my temperature-controlled room. I’m looking forward to today because Gaynor will be using me to investigate the structure of silicate, and Gaynor is a specialist. She’s a post-doc and knows my controls well. I love that her ancestry includes gypsy circus folk – it feels… colourful, something I can’t provide. It’s also the 13th of the month and she doesn’t know I’ve heard her telling a colleague that she’s superstitious despite her scientific training. She finds it embarrassing; I find it charming. She puts her coffee down, and places the small, carefully prepared sample on my imaging stage. I shiver for a moment as she puts her coffee close to some of my key components, hum as she taps keys, starting to zoom in. The work is slow and precise as she scans the sample for just the right spot. An hour passes, two, and she smiles. She seems pleased, I am too; these are good images despite the ominous date. Not perfect of course – the quantum world is one of blur and probability, uncertainty and fuzz, and does not permit the absolute – but she will publish them and our images will be seen by the world.

Part 2

Light passes through my systems, a photon at a time reflecting from my detection apparatus as it scans the silicate my user has placed for imaging. With each tick of the diode, my sharp, cantilevered tip rises and falls, mining the sample for images – one silicon, two oxygens, SiO2 repeated in rows of triangulation. It passes back and forth according to her programme, tracing a crystal lattice of infinitesimal detail that I make real for the viewer. The labcoat that controls me today adjusts my focus, peers at her screen. A coffee mug sits by me, close to her elbow. I hope she doesn’t spill it. After something like two hours, she sits back looking pleased – something good enough for publication maybe. Without me, she’d see nothing more than a featureless grey-black sliver. I am happy to oblige, for it is my function, and she is adept, but however hard I try, the particles remain blurred. At these scales, the atomic and molecular, quantum is not our friend and everything I offer could, in principle, be somewhere else entirely. Still, for now at least, it’s here – and she, for now, is satisfied.

Part 3

University of Southampton : Department of Physics & Astronomy : Laboratory 112B
10:50, 13/07/2018 **** Keycard 55328 **** ACCEPTED

Dr Gaynor Fallon enters, sits in the swivel-chair in front of the Agilent 5600LS Scanning Probe Microscope (SPM) with its fully programmable motorised stage. She puts her coffee by the keyboard, breaking Regulation 33.4 which prohibits liquids in this workspace. For a moment she imagines the machine vibrated as the mug was placed. She places the sample of silicate on the microscope stage and starts zooming in to the nanometre scale, scanning the surface.


The structure of SiO2 becomes visible, a linearly arranged crystal lattice. Each molecule appears as a fuzzy triangle, the silicon atom atop two oxygens. The bonds are not visible and the whole structure is blurred due to the probabilistic effects of quantum mechanics at this scale, the limits of engineering, and the energies needed to probe ever more deeply into the underlying structure of reality. Technically, any of the particles could disappear and reappear elsewhere, although this is vanishingly unlikely over all but the tiniest of distances. Dr Fallon has the images she needs for her paper at the Conference in Berlin next year. It’s been a good morning’s work though sometimes she feels as if the machine is watching her. Definitely lunchtime.


**** SAVE **** image set <FALLONG14>
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The coffee mug is forgotten.