Today we have a special treat for you: Alan Jaras, a "light photographer extraordinaire", creator of mesmerizing refractographs, has come up with an intriguing combination of scanning electron photography with a science fiction story about MicroWorld, a mysterious planet where the normal laws of science do not apply.
(all images are by Alan Jaras, used by exclusive permission)
On this page we include a significantly abridged version just to give you a taste for this marvelous quest; read the whole adventure in full here. Each photograph has a description of "what is it?" in a caption below.
------- A Safe Landing Would be Difficult
What is it? - An electron microscope photograph of tin oxide crystals. The width across the photograph is about 30 microns that's about half the thickness of an average human hair.
They had arrived in this strange world, it was now time to explore. As far as their straining eyes could see were the massive crystal mountains, merging with the horizon like jagged teeth. Beyond that they could only guess.
------- From Above the Maze Looked Easy
Scanning electron micrograph of a salt (sodium sulphate) recrystallized from methanol.
Safely through the crystal mountains they gazed down on the gigantic maze. What was its purpose, to keep them out of the land which lay beyond or to keep others in? With some trepidation they began the long climb down.
------- The Forest That Knew No Fractals
Electron micrograph (SEM) of fracture surface of silicon carbide fibre reinforced glass ceramic.
Having negotiated the maze, more by luck than by skill, our brave explorers continued in their quest. The forest was their next barrier; trees with no branches, no leaves; as if stripped bare by some gigantic explosion. They pressed onward, drawn by the strange light that beckoned.
------- The coaster had lost its roll
SEM micrograph of multi-layer surface coating on plastic. Shrunk, cracked, crazed and curling due to over-enthusiastic etch in plasma etcher
Their journey through the forest had fortunately been uneventful and soon they looked down on a great plain. The remains, of what they could only imagine as a gigantic theme park, stretched out for miles...
------- The Silent Solid Liquid Ocean
SEM photomicrograph of re-crystallized sodium carbonate.
They approached what appeared to be a vast but strangely quiet ocean. The waves were motionless,poised ready to crash down, yet frozen in time. One of them moved closer to the edge and placed his foot on the surface - he began to sink! Quickly his friends pulled him back, they would not be going this way! This was indeed a very strange world.
------- Life-form or function?
Scanning Electron Micrograph of complex tin oxide crystals by chemical vapour deposition.
Travel across the 'solid' ocean was no longer an option. Instead they confined their exploration to the shoreline. All around them strange forms could be seen in the deep rock pools where light from one of the five suns penetrated the gloom. These were no ordinary rock pools but pools of a heavy clear gas. Within the depths long acicular tendrils (or could they be tentacles) slowly swayed, while crystalline 'limpets' clung to the submerged rocks. Was this the life they were seeking?
Tentatively one of them opened a long telescopic rod and carefully dipped the end into the swirling gas. Within a few seconds the metal began to disintegrate; quickly he withdrew the crumbling remains. What type of life, if life did indeed exist on this complex world, could survive in these hostile conditions? Giving the gas pools a wide berth they continued with their quest.
------- Darkness brings ghostly shadows
Left: Photogram through piece of fractured glass (cullet) on to film, then second contact negative on to film and finally enlarged B/W print given slight colour shading. Right: one of the Refractographs.
Slowly they became aware that it was starting to go dark. On a planet with five suns there were usually on or two visible all the time. However, what they had failed to notice was the solar alignment which was now taking place and soon all five would set together bringing unfamiliar darkness. It was time to make camp and settle down for what could be a long night.
Total darkness came swiftly but did not last for very long for soon eerie and ghostly shapes began to appear slowly moving around them. These strange apparitions which were seen by all of them made them think that they were hallucinating. They next considered the possibility of phosphorescent gases flowing from cracks in the planet's crust, released by the inner turmoil. A third option was a phenomenon similar to an aurora borealis caused by the charged particles that continually bombarded the planet's atmosphere.
Sunrise on MicroWorld
The five suns rose in quick succession changing the pre-dawn blackness to a beautiful deep iridescent olive green. They watched in awe as a verdant continuum spread across the horizon sequencing from the colour of emerald, through viridian, malachite to finally reach the steady glow of aquamarine. Now they felt more comfortable for this was the colour that had been their constant daylight companion since they landed on MicroWorld.
The suns' alignment and the tremendous resulting forces now acting on the planet were taking its toll on their equipment. High electrostatic charges and gravitational changes were causing serious problems with their tracking devices and navigational aids. These now could not be fully relied upon. Somehow they would have to find their way back to their spacecraft unaided. They climbed a peak to survey the distant view. It was not the vista that they had hoped for...
------- The Amphitheatre
This is a Scanning Electron Micrograph of the fractured surface of a multi-layer optical filter.
Even by their standards the amphitheatre was vast. The bright light from the five suns cascaded down the tiered sides, the curved terraces focusing the beams on the arena floor like a stage setting for a major event... A loud cracking sound made them look upwards to see a large piece of crystal rock break away from the top wall to come bouncing and crashing down. They quickly moved back into the tunnel entrance as thousands of razor sharp fragments flew in all directions. A few moments later a deep chasm opened near them as another movement in the planet's surface eased the tension building up beneath them. This was no time to marvel at the construction of this enormous place or discuss the possibilities for its former use, they must get out now as quickly as they could.
They stumbled and grappled their way up the crumbling path, continually looking back with the relentless rock following closely behind. It took them over two hours to reach the safety of the plateau by which time most of the track behind them was now lost. Not far below them the head of the glacier scoured its way onward where eventually it would consume the amphitheatre from where they had not long emerged. Flashes of light from the planet's five suns reflected and refracted through the translucent mass of the glacier, darting and flashing like some berserk searchlights.
------- Rivers of Gas
Scanning Electron Micrograph of re-crystallized sodium carbonate. The width of the picture is about the diameter of the average human hair.
From the deep below, a green and purple layer of the sublimed 'snow' crystals continued to rise and advance towards them, spiraling with the pink creeping ground fog, as though in a strange psychedelic dance...
For a brief moment the earth tremors ceased, and in that quiet interlude they could hear the sound of scraping... the sound of sliding... the sound of a thousand swords being drawn from their scabbards! Through the misty eddies which now covering there feet, small sharp splines began to grow.
They soon realized that these were similar, if not identical, to the razor sharp splines that had hampered their way after they had emerged from the amphitheatre. It was the mixing of the gases and the ensuing reaction that was causing the splines to form; a chemical reaction, which was now spreading out in both directions. To the higher ground and now directly above, the snow continued to fall, changing to gas as it landed on any warm surface; behind them the pink fog continued to advance. It was now imperative for them to keep moving forward to avoid the danger from the growing crystal blades.
The rumblings and groanings of the planet began to sound again much louder than before and drowning out the sound of the growing danger lurking underfoot. They headed towards the group of three pyramidal mountains that now ominously loomed before them bathed in the eerie blue glow of the filtered light from the suns.These were the mountains beyond which their craft was waiting.
The green snow continued to fall on the smooth mountain sides. There was no way they would be able to climb these walls and their eyes desperately scoured the horizon for a path that would lead them to safety. As they searched, strange dark patterns began to form on the mountain slopes. At first, they thought that avalanches of the green snow were moving but, as they approached nearer they realized that the mountains themselves were beginning to dissolve!
------- The Secret of the Three Mountains
Scanning Electron Micrograph of complex crystals collected in a fume cleaner from an industrial furnace. The magnification is 2,000 times.
They approached with caution. Behind them the crystal splines continued to grow, like draw bayonets glistening in the sunlight. There was no going back, no retreat, as this razor sharp entanglement, now waist high, urged them on like a diminutive army brandishing their every blade.
They pressed on, up towards the base of the first 'mountain', if that indeed is what it now was. An interconnecting framework or supporting structure was being revealed as the outer skin slowly disintegrated, under attack from some chemical reaction with the snow. The rays from the suns sparkled and danced as they struck the changing facets of the outer surface. Forming rainbows of colour, the beams shimmered and darted through the crystal planes like a thousand uncontrollable spotlights often blinding them for a brief moment. The group were nearly at the base when, with a deafening crash, large sheets of 'ice' shattered through the supporting framework. It was now evident that 'pyramids' rather than 'mountains' was a more appropriate term for these massive structures. The translucent crystal sheets continued to weaken and break up cascading through the maze of beams to reveal that the mountain was hollow!
Without a thought for safety, they entered through one of the gaps into a vast open space. Directly above them the triangular sides met at a distant point where faint wisps of cloud glowed in the sunlight. Before them a smooth floor, littered with crystal debris and the occasional sparkling 'tumbleweed', stretched out like a large frozen lake. It was obvious that the pyramid had been constructed for a purpose, but for what purpose? They searched for clues, was it a tomb, was it a palace, was it another vast theatre? So many possibilities, so few clues - the space was empty.
They made their way across the floor as small cracks began to open. The planet's crust was moving again! Now larger pieces of crystal sheet began to fall, it was time to move on. Eventually, without mishap, they reached the safety of the other side to step out into the familiar but still strange landscape. In the distance they could see their spaceship waiting for them, at least they now knew where they were heading.
Their journey on MicroWorld was coming to an end. They had found evidence of a past life but no inhabitants. They had survived earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, everything this planet could throw at them and now they would soon be back in the relative safety of their craft.
This is not the end of the story, though. Make sure to read it in full (all 23 installments); or you can pick up reading from this episode - and read on about exploding suns, boiling skies and new beginnings...
Alan writes to us: "I have always been fascinated in techniques which can reveal the normally invisible world. A long career in scientific research, using microscopy and scientific photography, made it possible for me to explore and discover new facts about many areas of the material world. However the story of MicroWorld - a strange and mysterious planet where the normal laws of science do not always apply – is one of pure Science Fiction.
Now I have returned from MicroWorld and retired from microscopy but, by developing novel photographic techniques, I am still able to discover new worlds. One such world is the amazing world of refraction patterns as revealed by my “Refractographs”. These light patterns, as a form of 'light art', are intended to both delight and stimulate the viewer's imagination.
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