'Imaging and Imagining Nanoscience and Nanoengineering' was the name of a conference in March 2004 at the University of South Carolina. It was organized by a group of researchers who study the societal and philosophical dimensions of nanotechnology. In December two related events followed: 'Images of Science' in Amsterdam featured Don Eigler as one of its keynote speakers, the Berlin workshop 'Das Bild in der Wissenschaft' forged a dialogue between natural science and Bildwissenschaft (the science of artistic, technical, and media images). Most recently, this workshop at the ZiF was devoted to 'Bildwelten der Nanoforschung-Imaging NanoSpace'. Why all this interest in the images that are produced by and that reflect nanoscale research? The answer is provided by nanotechnology itself. Though its definition may be unclear, its history and its practice are closely linked to instruments and techniques of visualization. Some argue that it all started in earnest with Binnig and Rohrer's Scanning Tunneling Microscope. Atom by atom control was first demonstrated by an image that its creators at IBM have appropriately named 'The Beginning' (Illustration 1). More so than theories or technical applications, the flood of technically ever more proficient, sometimes surprising and often striking images marks the progress of nanoscale research. But science and its public alike are ill-prepared to deal with these images.
Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer's 'The Beginning' serves as a proof of concept for nanotechnology, a kind of rallying point or common referent. As such, it helped stabilize the very enterprise of nanotechnology. At the same time it has a destabilizing effect. By suggesting that nanotechnologists can move atoms at will, it makes a promise that it cannot keep. Those who have exaggerated and fearful notions of molecular manufacturing, nanobots, and our supposed ability to build anything at all by creating molecules at will, have also taken this image as a proof of concept. In other words, the meaning of the image far exceeds its technical content and what its creators intended to communicate.
A recent article in Nature (April 2005) expresses the scientific need for critical scrutiny by proposing forensic analyses of submitted images that look suspicious to peer reviewers. Scientists have always known how to criticize hypotheses and theories, how to probe experimentally obtained data. But what are the tools for the scientific critique of images, or how can science take responsibility for images that have a public meaning which far exceeds their technical content? Nanoscale research is highly interdisciplinary. It only makes sense that so-called Bildwissenschaft and Science Studies (the study of nanoscience and nanotechnology in its historical development, social setting, and methodological orientation) provide their expertise along with that of instrument makers, software developers, and many others. The workshop in Bielefeld made the case for this.