‘I see …’ a research visit to the ESRF (Part 2)


Unitled (sans titre)

A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things be false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.

Isaac Newton

It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.

Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to El otro, el mismo

What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time.

John Berger

‘I see’ is a phrase used often at the revelatory point of understanding. As a visual artist this connection between the ‘ocular world’ and the internal landscape of the mind, between vision and concepts, intrigues me deeply. In spite of the apparent sophistication of our aural/oral/written language, we still seem unable to shake off the primal connection between sight and thought. To use (another) word with biblical overtones, the ‘I see’ moment has something of the nature of an epiphany.

This simple phrase suggests a powerful event in the mind’s eye … a vista opening out … a veil being drawn away … light being shone onto, and making visible, a new perspective. This was a phrase I often used during my visit to the ESRF in Grenoble.

One of the questions that I kept asking – both of myself and of the scientists that I met – was ‘how much is it possible for me to understand physics?’ Although I was very interested in sciences at school, it was ‘the maths’ that always stumped me. I had a somewhat disrupted childhood, and I think that I might have missed the lesson where my teacher explained what algebra was – and what it was for – because when it came to equations I spent years in the belief that they must have been written in a lost, cryptic, alien language … so far did they exceed my understanding …

Sometimes the phrase ‘I see’, when used in conversation with the ESRF scientists, was coming out of a sense of uncertainty – sometimes I couldn’t see at all, sometimes I was expressing a hunch or a kind of feeling – less of a bright light shining on my ignorance, more an impression of dimly discernible shapes taking form in a crepuscular fog. But to use the phrase ‘I see’, however conditional the sense, felt comforting.

So, what is possible for a non-physicist to understand of physics? On asking this question of Andrew Dennison and Adam Washington during a lunch break, a debate ensued. Andrew and Adam agreed that there are actually only two things that it is possible to fully understand in physics:

  1. Simple harmonic motion
  2. Inverse square law

There was also a discussion about Ideal gas – another contender for a fully understood topic –  if you feel that the fullness of human understanding about the universe being limited to just two things might sound a little un-nerving … There isn’t enough space to fully explore these theoretical avenues within this blog post but for non-physicists I would encourage you to come back to these links and see how far this journey into understanding will take you.


Derived from Old English, the word understand has an obscure and archaic etymological origin; it appears to have originally meant ‘to stand among’ rather than to ‘stand beneath’.

This is from the online dictionary of etymology:

Old English understandan “comprehend, grasp the idea of,” probably literally “stand in the midst of,” from under + standan “to stand” (see stand (v.)). If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning “beneath,” but from Old English under, from PIE [Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical reconstructed ancestral language of the Indo-European family] *nter-“between, among” (source also of Sanskrit antar “among, between,” Latin inter “between, among,” Greek entera “intestines;” see inter-). Related: Understood; understanding.

That is the suggestion in Barnhart [Robert K Barnhart, lexicographer and author of Barhart Dictonary of Etymology], but other sources regard the “among, between, before, in the presence of” sense of the Old English prefix and preposition under as other meanings of the same word. “Among” seems to be the sense in many Old English compounds that resemble understand, such as underniman “to receive,” undersecan “examine, investigate, scrutinize” (literally “underseek”), underðencan “consider, change one’s mind,” underginnan “to begin.” It also seems to be the sense still in expressions such as under such circumstances.

Perhaps the ultimate sense is “be close to;” compare Greek epistamai “I know how, I know,” literally “I stand upon.” Similar formations are found in Old Frisian (understonda), Middle Danish (understande), while other Germanic languages use compounds meaning “stand before” (German verstehen, represented in Old English by forstanden “understand,” also “oppose, withstand”). For this concept, most Indo-European languages use figurative extensions of compounds that literally mean “put together,” or “separate,” or “take, grasp” (see comprehend). Old English oferstandan, Middle English overstonden, literally “over-stand” seem to have been used only in literal senses. For “to stand under” in a physical sense, Old English had undergestandan.

So there you have it, by standing among the physicists I am, in a very ancient sense of the word understanding them – even if I cannot always grasp the full meaning of what they have to say through their equations.


What I also ‘stand among’, in the physical sense from which the word understand derives, is a set of machines designed to make objects and interactions at the smallest of scales visible – to bring them closer to our human scale of vision. These machines operate at the edge of understanding – they stare into the sublime – the abyss of unknowing …

Based on my conversations I build up ideas in my mind, constructed from words, of these physical phenomena and interactions, about particles and wavelengths of light, about particles in specimens arranged in grids, loosely stacked or tightly packed, or forming strata or lamellae, connected by glowing bonds of energy. These visual ideas seem recognisable from physical structures in the macro world, from diagrams and animations, graphic representations and textbooks – perhaps something of an understanding is growing through proximity, through familiarisation, recognition, and by listening to statements phrased and rephrased – and by looking at hasty explanatory sketches made by my patient guides …

To know comes from Old English cnāwan (earlier gecnāwan ) ‘recognize, identify’, the word is of Germanic origin; from the same ancient Indo-European root as understanding – this root is also shared by the Latin (g)noscere, the Greek gignōskein, and also by the words can and ken.

I am struck by the way that images are created by the passage of sub atomic particles around or through matter. One of the Institute Laue Langevin machines (located on the same site as the ESRF) focusses neutrons from the high flux rector onto tiny specimens of soft matter. Before they collide with the specimen, these neutrons are given a predictable spin by electro magnets. The neutrons are deflected at the point of contact, to be picked up by sensors surrounding the specimen. Data from the change of trajectory or the rotation of the spin helps the scientists to understand the nature of the material under examination, primarily how that material is organised …

When first presented with an unfamiliar object or idea, we might see it in the form of a barrier; but this barrier is, to a degree, permeable or at least has a boundary or recognisable shape around it. When approaching understanding our exploratory ‘particles’ are affected in their trajectory, changed in their nature, collected by experience to eventually form an identifiable image … at which point we say ‘I see’

I would never claim to be a photographer. As an artist I use my camera as a device for image capture – as a means to isolate and frame fragments of the world that interest me. I have also learned a lot about composition from photography.

By composition I mean the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art, as distinct from the subject. The term composition means ‘putting together’ and it can also be thought of as the organisation of the component elements. The word is applicable to any work of art, from writing (a blog) to music to drawing, anything that is arranged using conscious thought. Within the context of my visit, however, it felt appropriate to use (digital) photography.

There is something particularly poignant about the (peculiarly oxymoronic) materiality of the process of digital photography that resonates with the physics of the imaging that I explored at the ESRF.  A shutter opens in the ‘eye’ of the camera, allowing photons to engage with an electronic sensor. What results is an image composed of colours and shapes – these colours and shapes can be recognised, identified, preserved in a form that allows for detailed examination that hopefully, given time, will lead to a sympathetic understanding of the subject.

Untitled (San titre)


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