7 mesmerising images that capture underlying properties of the world

In his striking photo series, photographer Greg White has captured the essence of base quantities, irreducible measurements that underlie science

Physics 7 April 2021

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Greg White

PhotographerGreg White

MODERN, minimal and oddly mesmerising, these images offer a fresh interpretation of fundamental standards of measurement in physics. The shots are part of photographer Greg White’s collection Base Quantities.

According to the International System of Quantities (ISQ), a base quantity is a physical quantity that can’t be defined or expressed in terms of other quantities. The ISQ has defined seven base quantities as follows, with their SI base units and symbols in brackets: time (second, s); mass (kilogram, kg); length (metre, m); temperature (kelvin, K); amount of substance (mole, mol); electric current (ampere, A); and luminous intensity (candela, cd).

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Each base quantity was captured using simple props and smart camera techniques, including multiple exposures. White says he wanted to visually interpret an aspect of science, but found they were all too specific except for the ISQ’s base quantities, which he thought would make an interesting series.

He was inspired by the work of Berenice Abbott, a US photographer known for her shots of New York architecture and urban design of the 1930s and for documenting physics through her black and white photos. She also shot images for school textbooks from the 1940s to the 1960s.

The shimmering image above shows a coil of wire in motion, representing electric current. The movement throughout the metal coil gives the impression of electricity’s flow, says White.

The images below represent the base quantities of length, luminous intensity and mass.

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Length is shown as laser light bouncing off a mirror, while luminous intensity is depicted as a blackboard tilted increasingly further away from the camera, with light intensity increasing as more light is revealed to the lens. White used multiple exposures to create this image.

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Greg White

For mass, he span a wire hoop and used a long exposure time so that it looked like a sphere. This, he says, underlines how mass also determines an object’s gravitational attraction and isn’t always what it seems. He adds that the sphere’s presence was amplified by the acceleration of the hoop’s revolutions, and “incorporating other hoops nearby gave a nod to the fact the sphere was, in fact, the same object”, as well as alluding to the mass gravitational pull of other objects.

The images below represent amount of substance, temperature and time.

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Greg White

To depict amount of substance, White made a single glass cube look like nine cubes by moving the camera lens over multiple exposures.

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Greg White

For temperature, he set up a swinging tube with a light source on each side and used a long exposure time to capture its blurred motion, representing the increased movement of particles as they heat up. He flashed one light on and off continuously to freeze the motion of the swinging tube on one side, while the other light remained on to create the blurred effect.

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Greg White

Finally, time is captured by two burning candles, spaced apart to give a different sense of perceived time. White added glass in front of them “to obscure the view and create multiple abstractions of the candles”.

Base Quantities is available on White’s website: gregwhite.tv.

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