Saturday, July 30, 2011

Janus Christ!

Recently I have been doing research related to a type of constructed object called a Janus particle.
During the course of this research I get to play around with very cool equipment, like lasers, confocal microscopes, magnetic fields, laser traps etc.

Janus particles are named after the Roman god of change or transition, and is usually represented by a figure with two faces.
Likewise, Janus particles are constructed with two faces, each having a different physical property.
Many interesting and useful properties can be explored in such systems.

My task was to study such systems, comprised of silica spheres approximately 2 to 3 microns in diameter. In studying such systems  I get to observe so very cool physics, and to see surprising images.

One afternoon, after a long and trying period of gazing through the objective of our polarizing microscope, I came across the following particle

"Woah! This is better than that grilled cheese Jesus I read about!"

Now wait a minute... I am studying a particle named for a Roman god, and instead I see something that looks strikingly like Jesus?

Is God trying to tell me something?
If he is, I do not have a clue what it is, or why He chose such an obscure medium. Of course, this is a personalized message if there ever was one. Only I could see such an object at that particular place or time!
Now I know how those NASA scientists must have felt when they saw the face on Mars!

Or, perhaps natural selection has simply programmed my visual cortex to recognize patterns that look like faces, and cultural bias has programmed me to find such a recognition in a surprising location to be the work of a higher power?

I sit for a while, focusing and refocusing on the particle,and as I watch, I notice the image is sort of shaking its head at me.
"A message from God!" Perhaps He must be very disappointed that I would dare assert such things as evolutionary biology and cultural biases as to why I saw Him in His glory... in a microscope image of a silica sphere imbedded in 5CB liquid crystal.

Or, perhaps the shaking and nodding of the head is due to thermal fluctuations... Brownian motion? Humm... now the image seems to be nodding its head.

I debated weather to show these images, as I was ill at ease with the idea that people may decide to make a pilgrimage to my lab in order to see the face of Jesus. (Kidding)

Like most people, I get a thrill and goosebumps when I see a face suddenly and spontaneously appear in a cloud, or a shadow pattern, or in the random alignment of light and color in a glass pane. A parasympathetic response to perceived danger, or the cognitive dissonance of seeing a face where none should exist.
As a scientist, I can step back and appreciate the physics and biology that goes into having perceived the face in the first place. I can think about the cultural programming I have undergone, and must overcome in pursuit of science, that goes into perceiving something of the numinous in a play of light.
This cultural programming leads to some falling to the comfort of religion to explain the face, while leading to others invoking aliens, or spirits.

In any case, when I see a sheep in the clouds, or a face in a cheese sandwich, I can enjoy the thrill, and the subsequent analysis of what I am seeing without resorting to religion or superstition.
Some say this is my loss, and that I am missing out on deeper understanding.
That is something I don't quite see.