Mary Tobin

Science Meets Art at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Testate amoeba
Lamont cell biologist O. Roger Anderson investigates testate amoebae such as this one to study how they form their shells (tests) - whether the elements of their shells are secreted from the organic cell inside or whether the cell mineralizes its shell from constituents in its habitat. These organisms are sensitive to pollution and their presence in soils indicates a healthy environment. Sample courtesy A. McIntyre. Image © 2001, use prohibited except by written permission from Dee Breger

From Oceans to Asteroids:
Revelations from an Electron Microscope

Dee Breger
Manager, Scanning Electron Microscope and X-Ray Microanalysis Facility

Sunday May 6, 2 PM
Monell Auditorium
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades NY

Columbia University's Dee Breger is at the pinnacle of her artistic profession, and she owes it all to science. She is one of the finest scanning electron micrographers (SEM) in the country, whose magnification of microscopic subjects reveals their intrinsic beauty. The Liberty Science Center is mounting a solo show of her work, set to open in July. Discover Magazine is considering making her images a regular feature. Her second coffee table book is in the works.

When Breger delivers a lecture, she moves comfortably from geoscience to technology to human history, all the stories that make her micrographs so fascinating. Most of her material was brought in by scientists performing research projects on trees, rocks, sediment, minerals and the like. From her perch at the helm of the scanning electron microscope at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Dee Breger literally sees the stories of the world reveal themselves.

There is the story of Noah's Flood, for instance, illustrated by an image of a single microorganism called a coccolithophorid, surrounding a crystal of pyrite. Dee Breger, and the scientists who brought this sample to the SEM lab she runs, see in this image cataclysm and redemption, the land around a great lake breached by rising sea levels, catastrophically flooding a prehistoric farming valley. Years of turbulence in the flooded valley end with the formation of an entirely new body of water, the Black Sea. Ancient Greek ships, finally able to sail into the new sea, carry microplankton in their bilges. But the bottom of the sea is poisonous. The coccosphere, falling, is not eaten by other organisms, but preserved, able to chemically react with the seawater.

Sample courtesy W. Pitman, W. Ryan and C. Major.
Image © 2001, use prohibited except by written permission from Dee Breger

Black Sea pyrite
This sphere of pyrite has formed from the organic cell of a one-celled plant-like organism called a coccolithophorid, whose shell can be seen still surrounding the lower part. This mineralization happened many thousands of years ago in the sediments of the Black Sea, long after the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus as it rose in response to the melting of the last ice age and flooded an area the size of Florida.
Communities of people farming the fertile soil around a large fresh water lake in the area fled the onrushing saltwaters and spread throughout Europe and the middle east, possibly carrying with them accounts of the event that have come down to us as the biblical flood story and the legend of Gilgamesh. Lamont researchers Bill Ryan and Walter Pitman have written a book about this theory called "Noah's Flood" (Simon & Shuster, 1999). After the catastropic flood subsided, ancient Greek ships carried along with them Mediterranean species of microplankton such as this one that then began to accumulate in the Black Sea sediments.

A frost ring from a Siberian pine growing in Mongolia tells the story of a probable cosmic impact, a fiery comet that hit the earth so hard in about the year 536 that the cloud of dust it created chilled the climate for several years. The pine in the micrograph was frozen in the middle of its growing season. Its sap-filled cells have burst like popcorn. Human records from China, the Byzantine Empire, and the Mediterranean corroborate the biological evidence of the tree ring, telling tales of fireballs in the sky, unseasonable cold, famine and disease.

Mongolian Frost Ring
Dendrochronologists use overlapping tree ring sequences from trees and wood in many locations around the world to reconstruct a detailed history of the Earth's climate for the past several thousand years. The rings in this image are from a Siberian pine in Mongolia and cover the years 534 - 539 CE. In response to a sudden cooling in the northern hemisphere, sap in the wood cells froze and exploded like popcorn during the growing season of 536. The narrow ring for 537 also implies cold weather. Current theories about what caused the catastrophic cooling include massive volcanism or cosmic impact, possibly both.
Sample courtesy G. Jacoby.
Image © 2001, use prohibited except by written permission from Dee Breger related story: Columbia Researchers Discover New Evidence of Climate Warming in Mongolian Trees

Scanning electron microscopy is full of "epiphany moments," says Breger. It is the only microscopy that allows the viewer to experience depth in sharp focus. The viewer feels as if she could stroll among the hairs on the wing of a mosquito, or swing on the filaments of a diatom. Marvels of engineering are revealed, as Breger says, "that Mother Nature never intended us to know, until she put it in human heads to invent the scanning electron microscope."

Breger fondly remembers the very first time she and a scientist from the Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory looked through an early electron microscope in the late 1960s. What they saw was a microorganism with which they were quite familiar. But the microscope revealed that the tiny shell they were viewing had a surprise in its third dimension, a spike poking up toward the viewer whose complicated structure had been invisible under a light microscope. "Our eyes met, and our jaws dropped open, "Breger recalls. "It just blew away the taxonomy" of an organism that had previously been unquestioned.

Breger has recently ordered an entirely new scanning electron microscope and X-ray microanalyzer for the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. On the new equipment scientists will continue to investigate, with Ms. Breger's technical support, questions of climate history, biology, paleontology, and life in extreme environments.

The scientists at LDEO may look forward to the new equipment because it is more automatic and easier to operate than the old, and it can be used to view samples that are not, as was previously required, completely dehydrated and coated with carbon or gold to make them conductive. Ms. Breger, who started out as a scientific illustrator, is thinking of aesthetics. She is ecstatic at the thought of the smooth, sharply focused images she will be able to produce with the new equipment. The manufacturer, LEO Electron Microscopy Inc., has even offered to support Breger's artistic endeavors, the way tennis racket manufacturers support their star users.

Image © 2001, use prohibited except by written permission from Dee Breger

North Pacific Centric Diatom
This diatom is from an investigation by former Lamont researcher Connie Sancetta, who was studying the ecology of living diatoms, like this one, in the fjords of British Columbia and relating them to fossil diatoms found in the sediments of the Pacific and Bering Sea. Comparing species living in known environments with similar species in the fossil record allows scientists to reconstruct the climate history of the earth.

Ms. Breger shared her images and stories with the public in Palisades, New York at the third public lecture in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory's spring lecture series. Her next public event will be her exhibition at the Liberty Science Center, opening on July 4th.

Founded in 1949, The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is the only research center in the world examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere. This multi-disciplinary approach by more than 200 researchers cuts across every continent and ocean, revolutionizing our understanding of the planet's origin, history and, increasingly, its future.


Image © 2001, use prohibited except by written permission from Dee Breger


This tiny shard of glass is the product of a cosmic impact 35 million years ago in what is now Chesapeake Bay. Lamont marine geologist Cecilia McHugh found microtektites like this one during a study of the continental slope off New Jersey. Tektites derive from rock that melted or vaporized as it was blasted into the atmosphere during the impact and condensed into glassy droplets that crackled as they cooled while falling back to earth.

SEM & EDX web site
Scanning Electron Microscope
X-Ray Microanalysis
Micrographic Arts

more about Dee Breger

For more information, visit