12:07
TEDxMaui

Gary Greenberg: The beautiful nano details of our world

Filmed:

When photographed under a 3D microscope, grains of sand appear like colorful pieces of candy and the stamens in a flower become like fantastical spires at an amusement park. Gary Greenberg reveals the thrilling details of the micro world.

- Micro photographer
Gary Greenberg is a photographer, biomedical researcher and inventor intent on giving us all a view of the microscopic wonders all around us. Full bio

So I want to talk a little bit about seeing the world
00:17
from a totally unique point of view,
00:20
and this world I'm going to talk about is the micro world.
00:22
I've found, after doing this for many, many years,
00:25
that there's a magical world behind reality.
00:28
And that can be seen directly through a microscope,
00:31
and I'm going to show you some of this today.
00:34
So let's start off looking at something rather not-so-small,
00:36
something that we can see with our naked eye,
00:40
and that's a bee. So when you look at this bee,
00:42
it's about this size here, it's about a centimeter.
00:44
But to really see the details of the bee, and really
00:47
appreciate what it is, you have to look a little bit closer.
00:50
So that's just the eye of the bee with a microscope,
00:53
and now all of a sudden you can see that the bee has
00:56
thousands of individual eyes called ommatidia,
00:59
and they actually have sensory hairs in their eyes
01:02
so they know when they're right up close to something,
01:04
because they can't see in stereo.
01:06
As we go smaller, here is a human hair.
01:10
A human hair is about the smallest thing that the eye can see.
01:14
It's about a tenth of a millimeter.
01:17
And as we go smaller again,
01:19
about ten times smaller than that, is a cell.
01:20
So you could fit 10 human cells
01:24
across the diameter of a human hair.
01:26
So when we would look at cells, this is how I really got
01:30
involved in biology and science is by looking
01:32
at living cells in the microscope.
01:35
When I first saw living cells in a microscope, I was
01:37
absolutely enthralled and amazed at what they looked like.
01:40
So if you look at the cell like that from the immune system,
01:43
they're actually moving all over the place.
01:47
This cell is looking for foreign objects,
01:49
bacteria, things that it can find.
01:52
And it's looking around, and when it finds something,
01:55
and recognizes it being foreign,
01:57
it will actually engulf it and eat it.
02:00
So if you look right there, it finds that little bacterium,
02:01
and it engulfs it and eats it.
02:05
If you take some heart cells from an animal,
02:11
and put it in a dish, they'll just sit there and beat.
02:14
That's their job. Every cell has a mission in life,
02:17
and these cells, the mission is
02:20
to move blood around our body.
02:22
These next cells are nerve cells, and right now,
02:26
as we see and understand what we're looking at,
02:29
our brains and our nerve cells are actually doing this
02:32
right now. They're not just static. They're moving around
02:34
making new connections, and that's what happens when we learn.
02:36
As you go farther down this scale here,
02:40
that's a micron, or a micrometer, and we go
02:42
all the way down to here to a nanometer
02:45
and an angstrom. Now, an angstrom is the size
02:48
of the diameter of a hydrogen atom.
02:51
That's how small that is.
02:54
And microscopes that we have today can actually see
02:56
individual atoms. So these are some pictures
02:58
of individual atoms. Each bump here is an individual atom.
03:01
This is a ring of cobalt atoms.
03:04
So this whole world, the nano world, this area in here
03:07
is called the nano world, and the nano world,
03:09
the whole micro world that we see,
03:12
there's a nano world that is wrapped up within that, and
03:16
the whole -- and that is the world of molecules and atoms.
03:19
But I want to talk about this larger world,
03:23
the world of the micro world.
03:25
So if you were a little tiny bug living in a flower,
03:28
what would that flower look like, if the flower was this big?
03:32
It wouldn't look or feel like anything that we see
03:35
when we look at a flower. So if you look at this flower here,
03:38
and you're a little bug, if you're on that surface
03:41
of that flower, that's what the terrain would look like.
03:43
The petal of that flower looks like that, so the ant
03:47
is kind of crawling over these objects, and if you look
03:49
a little bit closer at this stigma and the stamen here,
03:52
this is the style of that flower, and you notice
03:55
that it's got these little -- these are like little jelly-like things
03:58
that are what are called spurs. These are nectar spurs.
04:02
So this little ant that's crawling here, it's like
04:07
it's in a little Willy Wonka land.
04:09
It's like a little Disneyland for them. It's not like what we see.
04:11
These are little bits of individual grain of pollen
04:15
there and there, and here is a --
04:19
what you see as one little yellow dot of pollen,
04:23
when you look in a microscope, it's actually made
04:25
of thousands of little grains of pollen.
04:27
So this, for example, when you see bees flying around
04:31
these little plants, and they're collecting pollen,
04:33
those pollen grains that they're collecting, they pack
04:36
into their legs and they take it back to the hive,
04:39
and that's what makes the beehive,
04:41
the wax in the beehive. And they're also collecting nectar,
04:44
and that's what makes the honey that we eat.
04:47
Here's a close-up picture, or this is actually a regular picture
04:51
of a water hyacinth, and if you had really, really good vision,
04:55
with your naked eye, you'd see it about that well.
04:57
There's the stamen and the pistil. But look what the stamen
05:00
and the pistil look like in a microscope. That's the stamen.
05:02
So that's thousands of little grains of pollen there,
05:06
and there's the pistil there, and these are the little things
05:09
called trichomes. And that's what makes the flower give
05:12
a fragrance, and plants actually communicate
05:16
with one another through their fragrances.
05:20
I want to talk about something really ordinary,
05:25
just ordinary sand.
05:27
I became interested in sand about 10 years ago,
05:29
when I first saw sand from Maui,
05:31
and in fact, this is a little bit of sand from Maui.
05:34
So sand is about a tenth of a millimeter in size.
05:37
Each sand grain is about a tenth of a millimeter in size.
05:40
But when you look closer at this, look at what's there.
05:43
It's really quite amazing. You have microshells there.
05:45
You have things like coral.
05:49
You have fragments of other shells. You have olivine.
05:51
You have bits of a volcano. There's a little bit
05:55
of a volcano there. You have tube worms.
05:57
An amazing array of incredible things exist in sand.
05:59
And the reason that is, is because in a place like this island,
06:04
a lot of the sand is made of biological material
06:07
because the reefs provide a place where all these
06:09
microscopic animals or macroscopic animals grow,
06:12
and when they die, their shells and their teeth
06:16
and their bones break up and they make grains of sand,
06:18
things like coral and so forth.
06:21
So here's, for example, a picture of sand from Maui.
06:24
This is from Lahaina,
06:28
and when we're walking along a beach, we're actually
06:30
walking along millions of years of biological and geological history.
06:32
We don't realize it, but it's actually a record
06:35
of that entire ecology.
06:38
So here we see, for example, a sponge spicule,
06:40
two bits of coral here,
06:43
that's a sea urchin spine. Really some amazing stuff.
06:46
So when I first looked at this, I was -- I thought,
06:50
gee, this is like a little treasure trove here.
06:52
I couldn't believe it, and I'd go around dissecting
06:54
the little bits out and making photographs of them.
06:56
Here's what most of the sand in our world looks like.
07:00
These are quartz crystals and feldspar,
07:02
so most sand in the world on the mainland
07:05
is made of quartz crystal and feldspar. It's the erosion of granite rock.
07:08
So mountains are built up, and they erode away by water
07:12
and rain and ice and so forth,
07:16
and they become grains of sand.
07:18
There's some sand that's really much more colorful.
07:19
These are sand from near the Great Lakes,
07:22
and you can see that it's filled with minerals
07:24
like pink garnet and green epidote, all kinds of amazing stuff,
07:26
and if you look at different sands from different places,
07:29
every single beach, every single place you look at sand,
07:32
it's different. Here's from Big Sur, like they're little jewels.
07:35
There are places in Africa where they do the mining
07:40
of jewels, and you go to the sand where the rivers have
07:42
the sand go down to the ocean, and it's like literally looking
07:47
at tiny jewels through the microscope.
07:49
So every grain of sand is unique. Every beach is different.
07:52
Every single grain is different. There are no two grains
07:55
of sand alike in the world.
07:58
Every grain of sand is coming somewhere and going somewhere.
08:00
They're like a snapshot in time.
08:03
Now sand is not only on Earth, but sand is
08:07
ubiquitous throughout the universe. In fact, outer space
08:10
is filled with sand, and that sand comes together
08:13
to make our planets and the Moon.
08:17
And you can see those in micrometeorites.
08:20
This is some micrometeorites that the Army gave me,
08:22
and they get these out of the drinking wells in the South Pole.
08:24
And they're quite amazing-looking, and these are the
08:27
tiny constituents that make up the world that we live in --
08:30
the planets and the Moon.
08:34
So NASA wanted me to take some pictures of Moon sand,
08:36
so they sent me sand from all the different landings
08:39
of the Apollo missions that happened 40 years ago.
08:42
And I started taking pictures with my three-dimensional microscopes.
08:46
This was the first picture I took. It was kind of amazing.
08:50
I thought it looked kind of a little bit like the Moon, which is sort of interesting.
08:53
Now, the way my microscopes work is, normally
08:57
in a microscope you can see very little at one time,
08:59
so what you have to do is you have to refocus the microscope,
09:02
keep taking pictures, and then I have a computer program
09:05
that puts all those pictures together
09:08
into one picture so you can see actually what it looks like,
09:11
and I do that in 3D. So there, you can see,
09:14
is a left-eye view. There's a right-eye view.
09:17
So sort of left-eye view, right-eye view.
09:20
Now something's interesting here. This looks very different
09:23
than any sand on Earth that I've ever seen, and I've
09:25
seen a lot of sand on Earth, believe me. (Laughter)
09:27
Look at this hole in the middle. That hole was caused
09:31
by a micrometeorite hitting the Moon.
09:34
Now, the Moon has no atmosphere, so micrometeorites
09:36
come in continuously, and the whole surface of the Moon
09:39
is covered with powder now, because for four billion years
09:42
it's been bombarded by micrometeorites,
09:45
and when micrometeorites come in at about
09:47
20 to 60,000 miles an hour, they vaporize on contact.
09:50
And you can see here that that is --
09:54
that's sort of vaporized, and that material is holding this
09:56
little clump of little sand grains together.
09:58
This is a very small grain of sand, this whole thing.
10:01
And that's called a ring agglutinate.
10:03
And many of the grains of sand on the Moon look like that,
10:05
and you'd never find that on Earth.
10:09
Most of the sand on the Moon,
10:13
especially -- and you know when you look at the Moon,
10:16
there's the dark areas and the light areas. The dark areas
10:18
are lava flows. They're basaltic lava flows,
10:20
and that's what this sand looks like, very similar
10:24
to the sand that you would see in Haleakala.
10:27
Other sands, when these micrometeorites come in,
10:30
they vaporize and they make these fountains,
10:34
these microscopic fountains that go up into the --
10:37
I was going to say "up into the air," but there is no air --
10:40
goes sort of up, and these microscopic glass beads
10:42
are formed instantly, and they harden, and by the time
10:46
they fall down back to the surface of the Moon,
10:49
they have these beautiful colored glass spherules.
10:52
And these are actually microscopic;
10:55
you need a microscope to see these.
10:57
Now here's a grain of sand that is from the Moon,
10:59
and you can see that the entire
11:03
crystal structure is still there.
11:05
This grain of sand is probably about
11:08
three and a half or four billion years old,
11:10
and it's never eroded away like the way we have sand
11:12
on Earth erodes away because of water and tumbling,
11:14
air, and so forth. All you can see is a little bit of erosion
11:18
down here by the Sun, has these solar storms,
11:21
and that's erosion by solar radiation.
11:26
So what I've been trying to tell you today is
11:31
things even as ordinary as a grain of sand
11:33
can be truly extraordinary if you look closely
11:37
and if you look from a different and a new point of view.
11:40
I think that this was best put by William Blake when he said,
11:43
"To see a world in a grain of sand
11:48
and a heaven in a wild flower,
11:50
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
11:53
and eternity in an hour."
11:55
Thank you. (Applause)
11:58
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Gary Greenberg - Micro photographer
Gary Greenberg is a photographer, biomedical researcher and inventor intent on giving us all a view of the microscopic wonders all around us.

Why you should listen

A photographer and filmmaker with a Ph.D. in biomedical research, Gary Greenberg creates new ways to capture the spectacular landscapes that are hidden from everyday perception inside grains of sand, human cells and flower petals. Using high-definition, three-dimensional light microscopes -- for which he holds 18 patents -- Greenberg makes the miracles of nature tangible, exposing their hidden details. Most recently, Greenberg turned his attention to sand grains, photographing samples from around the world for the book, A Grain of Sand: Nature's Secret Wonder. For it, Greenberg even photographed moon sand returned from NASA’s Apollo 11 Mission.

Greenberg has also taught at the University of Southern California and has been a featured artist at the Science Museum of Minnesota. 

More profile about the speaker
Gary Greenberg | Speaker | TED.com