Monthly Archives: June 2010

A gallery and a drawing

A recent gallery review in the New York Times asked the following question: are killer viruses, rendered in glass, also things of beauty? The exhibit, by Britain’s Luke Jerram, is showing in Manhattan from June 4th to July 31st, 2010. In it, Jerram has produced several infectious microbes out of glass, a step that the reviewer, the science journalist Donald G. McNeil Jr., questions and feels troubled by. As someone who reports on the global impact of infectious diseases, McNeil Jr. and his review both find troublesome depicting death as art and attempt to reconcile this bias. From the view of the artist, Jerram’s work attempts to reconcile the arts and the sciences, to illuminate cultural biases in biology and medicine’s depiction of pathogens, and to showcase his own agenda and position. I found the exhibit a success. But to get there, I need to stop, reflect, and return to the work of Ernst Haeckel and others if I wish to problematize McNeil Jr.’s critique.

Can art and science meet? Robert Hooke’s Micrographia serves as one example of this merger, and I can think of no better progression of the kind of polymath Robert Hooke embodied than in Ernst Haeckel. If Hooke had begun bridging the arts (drawings and sketches) with scientific rigor (microscopy), then it was Haeckel who took this task to another level. His Kunstformen der Natur, images of which were shown in an earlier post, not only was popular, but also embodied what Haeckel saw as scientific truths. If anything else, the prints of various organisms embody Haeckel’s scientific beliefs, his view of the world, which was often contested by the wider scientific community. In line with other mergers of art and science in 16th to 19th century Europe, Haeckel’s prints are about symmetry, about perfection, about order. Much like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, in Kunstformen der Natur, something Platonic, some higher ideal, perhaps unobtainable by humans, existed in the natural world.
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Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel

From the German biologist, philosopher, and artist who coined the terms ecology, phylogeny, and protozoa. Art Forms in Nature is a book of roughly 100 prints Haeckel made. These are compilations of 19th century natural history and biological science, of symmetry and arrangement, of protozoa and mammals, fossils and sea anemones, jellyfish and antelopes. Some Haeckel did in color, others were black and white.

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Why microbes?

A friend recently asked me the same question.

And I’ve been asked it before, too. Why would somebody be more interested in organisms that are invisible? I usually hear the same retort, that one would rather imagine life forms we can see as more interesting, as tangible. After all, our senses can readily detect them: fields of corn have a distinctive smell, I can hear a river dolphin breach the water’s surface, beetles are visible, a dog’s fur is coaxing to the touch, and the tang of blue cheese derives from its added Penicillin culture.

But Robert Hooke argued the opposite. His Micrographia is, by our historical record, the first account of using a microscope to examine the world beyond the limitations posed by our sense of sight. Maybe Hooke was foreshadowing the Darwinian struggle against anthropocentrism when, in the first pages of his book, he claimed that the human senses are by no means superior to that of other beasts. What we can see, Hooke argued, is fallible due to the limitations of the senses, particularly here, of sight and visual perception. He wrote,

As for the actions of our Senses, we cannot but observe them to be in many particulars much outdone by those of other Creatures, and when at best, to be far short of the perfection they seem capable of: And these infirmities of the Senses arise from a double case, either from the disproportion of the Objects to the Organ, whereby an infinite number of things can never enter into them, or else for error in the Perception, that many things, which come within their reach, are not received in a right manner.

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Bacterial noise

The first English use of the term “parasite” was recorded sometime in the 1530s. Stemming from the Greek parasitos, “a person who eats at the table of another,” the early English term referred to “a hanger-on, a person who lives on others.” It was not until a century later that the term took on its biological meaning, “an organism that benefits at the expense of its host.”

From this definition, Trichuris muris, a nematode, has become a model organism for parasitism. A intracellular parasite of mice, T. muris is biologically similar to its cousin organism, Trichuris trichiura. The latter, also known as whipworm, parasites humans and causes trichuriasis once it has settled within the large intestine. Therefore, T. muris serves as a suitable substitute from which modern biology can explore, by experimentation, the dynamics through which T. trichiura produces the infection, itself a serious concern affecting over one billion persons in rural, low-income, and tropical regions. Continue reading