The Intrinsic Art of Crying
Gems in STEM: The Microscopic Structure of Tears
What’s the big deal about crying anyway? You cry. I cry. Well, I guess I cry a lot. But it’s all totally warranted, like when I’m stressed about meeting deadlines or laughing at TikTok cats or watching those videos of returning soldiers reuniting with their dogs. I cry when I watch sad movies (I’m convinced Bridge to Terabithia was some director’s ploy to flood the Earth) or happy movies, documentaries where I’m outraged that not every animal lives happily ever after — every movie really. (Including The Brave Little Toaster, but in my defense, the alarm clock’s sacrifice to bring back electricity was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.) Commercials too, really anything inspirational — especially the car ones. Just, tears everywhere.
…Maybe my habit of crying is a bit obnoxious. I cry a lot, so WHAT? If anything, that makes me a dedicated artist who is willing to sacrifice a bit of dignity in the name of beauty, which is exactly what I told the last person who confronted me about crying at the movies…when the live-action Clifford the Big Red Dog trailer was playing (what? Clifford was my childhood). They then had the audacity to hyena-laugh and said that crying doesn’t make me an artist. Since I am someone who is driven solely by spite, this article is dedicated to that person that I’ll never see again (because they’ll be too ashamed to ever show their face again after being proven so wrong).
Alright, enough of this, let’s see what a tear actually looks like because, to be completely honest, they all look (and taste) the same to me.
Can you see grief?
Luckily, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher contemplated this exact question over a decade ago (meaning I don’t have to purchase a microscope for this article, which is what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving). She looked at one of her own tears under a standard light microscope, commenting, “It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane…I started wondering — would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”
These simple questions led to her extensive photography project “Topography of Tears,” in which Fisher photographed over a hundred tears of grief, laughter, irritation, joy–collected from herself, a couple other volunteers (don’t worry, she didn’t force people to cry), including a newborn baby. Each tear is like a bird’s eye view of a new world, a thoughtfully and carefully designed frozen moment in time. Fisher beautifully describes her project best, saying:
“Although the empirical nature of tears is a chemistry of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, antibodies and enzymes, the topography of tears is a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is like an ephemeral atlas.”
Every tear you shed, like your fingerprint or a snowflake, is entirely unique down to its microscopic structure. Scientifically speaking, there are three types of tears: basal, reflex, and emotional, all of which possess different compositions. Basal tears are in your eyes 24/7 to protect your cornea and keep it wet and healthy.
Reflex tears are exactly what they sound like–a tearful response to when your eye is irritated, like when you’re cutting onions or using any shampoo other than Johnson’s Baby Shampoo (no more tears).
Emotional tears, my speciality, are the tears that make us human. They come when we experience strong emotional stress, from weeping when Tony Stark took his last stand in Endgame to laugh-crying at a family impression. Part of the variance in emotional tears may be explained by the three extra ingredients it has: the stress hormones prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone, and the natural painkiller leucine enkephalin.
Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, tears of the same type or even tears that are caused by the same reason don’t have any obvious similarity; they can look worlds apart after crystallizing. This is due to the large amount of variables, like the chemistry, the viscosity (“thickness”), and evaporation rate of the tears, and even the microscope’s settings!
So, the beauty in the structures isn’t due only to the actual tears, but also to the randomness of external variables and the distribution of your tears’ various components.
“Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage. It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”
- Rose-Lynn Fisher
Wow, she should consider being a poet too–that just about brought me to tears.
To see more of her photographs, you can visit her website: https://www.rose-lynnfisher.com/tears.html.
Imaginarium of Tears
Speaking of poets, want to have a job to make people cry? Instead of becoming a dentist or acting in a Halloween Haunted House, you can do what Dutch photographer Maurice Mikkers does: invite strangers to your house, make them cry, and collect their tears. (It’s less gruesome than it sounds, promise!)
In January 2015, Mikkers went through the indescribable and tremendous pain of stubbing his toe against a table. At this point, he was working on studying the crystallization of Diclofenac (a drug that treats pain and symptoms of arthritis), and he had the sudden inspiration to capture his tear with a micropipette and observe it under his microscope. He tried several light techniques to capture its structure, from the standard bright-field technique that’s typically used in high-school to the polarization technique, which he had used for his other crystallization photographs. Though both produced wonderful results, he felt something was missing. So, he installed the dark-field condenser in his microscope and voila! Beauty unlocked.
Much like Rose-Lynn Fisher’s work (which he found after seeing if anyone else had discovered the same thing he had), he wanted to see if a tear born from the pain of stubbing your toe was different from, say, a tearful response to a movie where the dog dies. So, he started his project, “Imaginarium of Tears”–inviting anyone and everyone to share their tears (and their stories). To collect a tear sample, they bring something that makes them cry, like a poem or movie, to his house, or they can go the more painful route of cutting an onion or pulling out a nose hair.
Someone captures the tear with a micropipette, puts it in a mini reaction tube, then dispenses it onto a microscopic slide with several small drops. The tear then takes five to thirty minutes to crystallize. (This variation in time comes from the variety of variables, like temperature, humidity, the tear’s composition, and you!)
After crystallization, they’re finally ready to be imaged. The tears’ microscopic structures are largely created by crystallized minerals binding with mucins, but given every tear’s differing composition and viscosity, Mikkers actually has yet to find two tears that look alike!
“The fact that we don’t really know what causes this variation — it might be the humidity of the atmosphere, the composition of the tear, or even the source of the pain that drew the tear from the eye in the first place — imbues the project with a sense of mystery and exploration.”
- Maurice Mikkers
Indeed, there hasn’t been much research on how our tears crystallize, so Mikkers made it his new mission to explore the variables behind each tear’s unique crystallized form.
A good starting point in this exploration would be the tear’s creator. As Dr. Naomi Chayen, Head of the Crystallization Group in Computational and Systems Medicine at the Imperial College in London, said, “The first thing is that [the crystallization] would depend on who the tear comes from.” According to Dr. Chayen, we should leverage spectroscopy, a procedure in which we can measure a crystal’s composition by passing X-rays through it, to investigate whether the tears’ composition or the way it dries is behind the vast spectrum of microscopic structures.
And if we can understand this, we can potentially manipulate a tear’s crystallization to our liking — basically creating a new art form! So, YEAH, I’ll cry at Clifford the Red Dog and whatever else. I’m an artist and tears are my art. What are you gonna do, cry about it?
You can read more about Maurice Mikkers’ photography journey right here on Medium: https://medium.com/@mauricemikkers!
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As a reminder: this column, Gems in STEM, is a place to learn about various STEM topics that I find exciting, and that I hope will excite you too! This column will always be written to be fairly accessible, so you don’t have to worry about not having background knowledge. However, it does occasionally get more advanced towards the end. Thanks for reading!