Science: Silver Seaweed

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The new electron microscope leads scientists a long way downward into the realm of the infinitesimally small. Using magnetically focused electron beams instead of light beams, it discloses details (of germs, chemicals, etc.) 20 or more times finer than can be seen with optical microscopes (TIME, Oct. 28). Fortnight ago its beams cleared up another dark corner. In Rochester, tart, smart, British-born Charles Edward Kenneth Mees, head of research at Eastman Kodak Co., announced it had upset old notions of how silver is distributed in photographic films.

When a film is developed, silver atoms clump together in tiny islands. It used to be assumed that these clumps were a grainy, cokelike mass. It was just an assumption, because no ordinary microscope could penetrate the clumps. In the Eastman laboratories, Researcher C. E. Hall made electron pictures magnifying the silver islands 25,000 times. Then it was seen that they were composed of tangled, thin strands of silver, some of them only a few atoms thick. "The developed grains," said Dr. Mees. "resemble masses of seaweed rather than coke."

When a newsman asked him for the significance of the discovery, Dr. Mees cracked back: "What is the significance of a newborn baby?" This riposte was not original with him.* Plausible assumption: that better knowledge of the grainy structure of films will sooner or later lead to better pictures, clearer enlargements.

* To people who asked what was the use of newly discovered facts, Benjamin Franklin used to say, "What is the use of an infant?" The great Michael Faraday of England repeated the crack (with due credit) while lecturing on chlorine in 1817.