Most people have never actually seen the mosquito's tongue that produces an itchy sensation on their skin, but they have certainly felt its effects. That's because the minuscule insect part is difficult to view without the help of technology, a fact that drew Beth Norden to the scanning electron micrograph, or SEM, 20 years ago.
After the Greenbelt entomologist used the machine, she was enthralled by being able to see things she had never seen. The tool, which aims beams of electrons at an object to produce a super-magnified image, aided her scientific research and produced clear black-and-white close-ups of such insect features as bee mandibles, wasp antennae and ant claws.
"Until you really look at something with the SEM, you haven't looked at it," Norden said. "I felt, 'Wow, what a powerful tool to do this science,' and the images were beautiful."
Her 20-year-old son, John, an artist who teaches at a Greenbelt Community Center summer camp, was one of many who saw the loveliness in the scientific images, and he proposed an art show at the center using some of his mother's work.
The result is "Artful Science: The Unseen World Revealed by Scanning Electron Micrographs," which runs through Aug. 21. Beth Norden is also hosting children's workshops that focus on the intersection between the scientific and creative processes tomorrow and Aug. 18.
"I never imagined putting these things in an art gallery," Norden said of the 41 seemingly abstract images that make up the show. Many of them were originally prepared as scientific illustrations by Norden and Suzanne Batra, another entomologist who lives in Greenbelt, with the assistance of Susann Braden, a microscope technical expert at the Smithsonian Institution.
Norden became curious about using the SEM to view common household objects when one of her colleagues in the lab ripped her pantyhose. Norden wanted to take a closer look, so she used the machine -- which can magnify the external surface of an object up to about 100,000 times -- to photograph the coiled threads in the hose. She then began making pictures of other objects, including bluejeans, fingernails and salt particles.
Norden's exhibit mixes everyday images with scientific ones, and the viewer is encouraged to guess what some of the pictures portray.
"Part of what the show hopes to do is give the sense that anything is possible. There is no right or wrong. Just look and think," Norden said. "SEM was a tool to look at these things well, and now you can see them creatively."
The marriage of science and fine art is what Nichole DeWald, co-curator and arts coordinator for the city of Greenbelt, had in mind. "Artful Science" is the first project in a year of collaborations that DeWald is planning between artists and scientists.
"We want to have the science inform the art and create an interesting dialogue from these different perspectives," DeWald said.
After working to put up the current show, Norden likes that idea.
"We have Goddard nearby, and the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], and universities around here. A lot of people have a scientific mind-set. And then we've got incredibly artistic people," she said. "I'm biased because I live in Greenbelt, but it seems like such a great place to plant this seed."
"Artful Science: The Unseen World Revealed by Scanning Electron Micrographs" runs through Aug. 21 at the Greenbelt Community Center, 15 Crescent Rd., Greenbelt. The art gallery is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and admission is free. There are also free workshops for children ages 6-12 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. tomorrow and from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Aug. 18. Registration is required. 301-397-2208.