Light Box: Physics, Photography and Poetry

saunders photo
Credit: Gerry Priest

 Flying Biosensor

We are working on detection of explosives – land mines. We use plastic polymers in the form of light emitting films to detect nitroaromatic vapours. When exposed to very dilute vapours of TNT-like compounds, the explosive molecules adhere to the film and turn off the light emission… One of the TIRAMISU collaborators from Croatia works on training bees to detect explosives (there is a plan to combine our work with them at a later stage). The bees collect and transport explosives on their hair to the beehive. Later air withdrawn from the beehive is transported and tested with light-emitting polymer sensors made in St Andrews.  – P. Morawska, Project TIRAMISU

He’s a natural. It’s in his fur.
Dynamic, magnetic, a real
team player, finally
enjoying his close-up.

Confident, casual, relaxed.
The bee swerves and fifty four eyes
widen. Twenty seven white coats
lean in towards the screen.

The project holds its breath.
They’ve trained this kid
for weeks. His agent
is overwhelmed with pride:

This bee is dynamite.

Cut to a cold, metallic
sky. Scotland, Fife,
where a film you’ll never see
catches the light

lingering over a still
-life: flowers, a hint
of nitro-aromatic breath. Below
the rusting fields, death.

Above them, an insect.
Drawn to an odour, to a charge,
the buried sense of something
tarnishing the earth, our bee

smells a rhythm, feels a bright
pulse, hears a bitter taste,
and swerves.

Poem: Tristram Fane Saunders

Physicist’s response:
“I really like this poem as it is nicely written, easy to read and even though it’s short it shows some of the explosive detection problems in it. It also emphasises the location of our research group, which is nice. I enjoy that the writer uses some of the professional wording from the research world and puts it into a context of everyday things (‘…nitroaromatic breath’). I think that the reader can easily get the point of using bees for TNT detection. Well done!” Paulina Morawska

merritt photo
Credit: Kim Bennett


Summer has been pinched at the wick.
Ribbons of cumulonimbus curl
all the way down the coast.
The sun steps into the hills
like a skipped stone
where colours leach
into the water table.
On the crest of the ridge,
a gull cries at the wind
about her stolen eggs;
you kneel quiet in your garden,
woven sweater and slacks grey
as the world that you tend
except for your hands, lit beneath the skin,
harvesting white roses.

Poem: Amanda Merritt

nicholson photo
Credit: David Ogden

Light Fantastic

(For Francisco and the University of St Andrews Laboratory for Biophysics and Biomolecular Dynamics and Organic Semiconductor Optoelectronics Group)

High above the Forth I am birling on girders
round and around my red iron horizon.

The twin Queensferries blur as I whirl.
I choose my own beat, risky as I please.

In your meticulous, dustless lab, your optics trick
and track a marker for your polymers’ perpetual

wriggle in the dark. You watch shadows twist and fade
as they pass their sparks along the chain for capture.

So that we may casually flick the light switch,
you must guide your electrons’ optimal excitement.

Allow me to be their dancing master. My band
is four-square reliable. You can rerun the results.

I can teach them rumba, conga, zopetto, fandango,
bolero, El Jarabe Tapatío. This joint will jump!

Or take your partners for an Orcadian Strip the Willow.
Born of the Northern Lights, the merry dancers pull together.

Dazzled polymers birl in a chain perpetual, their tiny
hands clap as they gain their second wind.

Poem: Helen Nicholson

Physicist’s response: “I believe the poem you wrote greatly depicts the work I do with polymers, particularly the way in which you compare the need of reproducibility and control – which I seek continuously and methodically as an experimentalist- with a band. In the same fashion, I think the way in which you relate their different kinds of response to excitation to different dancing rhythms is a phenomenal idea. I really enjoyed it. Furthermore, I loved the way in which those rhythms are related to different behaviours: the polymer chains may flicker or twist individually or in couples, or even in groups, and behave differently; such is the object of my study. I really think that is simply perfect.

I was pleased that you were able to include in the final version of the poem a suggestion I made that emphasizes the concept of, and the importance of, energy transfer, which is crucial for the work I am doing to develop more efficient solar cells. As a final comment, I think this is a great poem for the International Year of Light! The manipulation and use of light are firmly expressed in it as it simultaneously gives a taste of fantasy, beauty and joy about the study of light.” Francisco Tenopala Carmona


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.