Category Archives: Arts

Laveran’s eye

The military hospital of Constantine, Algeria was a fitting place to view what must have seemed the Devil in microscopic form.

Stages of the malaria parasite drawn by Alphonse Laveran

Interesting and gorgeous art that reverses the idea of species and habitat. #beautiful

I can see all sorts of cool ways to use these images to talk about various biodiversity issues. Habitat nuances come to mind, but also the general idea that our industrial system is pretty much propped by things that are alive.


“The Take Over”


“Pigression”


“Sheep Country”

By the awesome Brandy Masch. Lots more to see at her website (Note, she also did some amazing work for phylomon which I’ll try and highlight later.

View original post

Observing for beauty

The Scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.

– Jules Henri Poincare (fieldnotes from “Field Notes on Science and Nature”

Victor Weisskopf

What is beautiful in science is the same thing that is beautiful in Beethoven. There’s a fog of events and suddenly you see a connection. It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply to you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before.

(fieldnotes from Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”

More biologist–poets

It always warms my heart to find other literary–science types out there.  I recently came across Slava Zaitsev, a Russian structural molecular biologist / protein crystallographer and poet. At his blog, you can find Zaitsev’s original poems in Russian, their English translations, and links to his published work (such as one collection, Primordial Mystery, centered on the concept of crystallinity). I look forward to reading and looking at the connections he makes between, to take from Francis Crick, “molecules and men.” I encourage readers to have a look themselves and check back here later for some thoughts.

Where immunology and a poet meet

The other day I posted a poem written by the Czech immunologist/poet Miroslav Holub, who was said to be one of that country’s greatest poets of the century, as well as a well-published research scientist. In the preface to one of Holub’s collections of poems, Sagittal Section, Lewis Thomas, another biologist–poet, noted that Holub was composing what both scientists and poets filter everyday live for, those “points of connection between things in the world which seem to most people unconnected.”

October 21st, 1993, David Morley, an environmental scientist–turned lyric writer, interviewed Holub for roughly an hour about the immunologist’s thoughts on performing his poetry, the greater relationship between science and the arts, and the impact of the 20th century’s events in the Czech Republic on Holub’s writing. As a whole, the interview is a meditation on living between two worlds that inform each other in a reciprocal fashion. Holub’s words function as a subtle counter to those artist narratives of a solitarily focused creator, one whose life is the making of their craft and whose art is in turn their life.

The immunologist–poet allows instead a process, a space where exchange of idea and inspiration occur, where scientific discovery and lyric writing are neither mutually exclusive categories nor entirely dependent acts in the dance.  And yet as much as these two elements of Holub’s life inform his view of the world, they are not an all—there is more to life than work and production, Holub asserts. To take one’s self so seriously, to see their art or science as an absolutism, is to be a “workaholic,” a word the interviewee abhors in the English language. Instead, life should be about play, about a childhood sense of exploration and humility—Holub sees a different path. As he notes during the exchange, “I am serious about science, and I am serious about my poetry, but I do not take myself seriously.” Humbling words from a humbling man.

Find the full audio recording here.

The painted lives of ciliates and schistosomes

Art has always been one way to mediate tensions, tensions such as those between the logic-driven mind of scientific inquiry and the subjective experience of the non-human, what Jakob  von Uexküll called an organism’s umwelt. Thomas Nagel famously argued that we can never know what it is like to be a bat, or any non-human organism, but whether through experimental-minded writings on what the world might be through a tortoise’s point of view  or through watercolor paintings, the artistic hopes to bridge various umwelten more so than a declaration of scientific understanding—the difference lies within the distinction of this is how a starling sees the spectrum of light and thus the world (science) and this is how a starling might see the world (art). Might opens possibilities, a window into creative endeavor.

The paintings of Emilie Clark might be one answer to Nagel. Clark, a painter based on Brooklyn, NY, has worked on a series of projects involved in life on a microscopic scale. In a 2004 gallery showingPondering the Marvelous, Clark responds to the writings of Mary Ward, a 19th-century Irish natural historian and painter, specifically Ward’s A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. In imagining Ward’s writings as personal letters to the artist, Clark produced two series of her own watercolors—the first based on Ward’s description of Ireland’s microscopic landscape, and the second on Clark’s own collection.

Untitled MW-#50. Painting by and courtesy of Emilie Clark.

Untitled MW-#12. Painting by and courtesy of Emilie Clark.

The paintings are not meant in their entirety to be illustrations of these organisms’ umwelten, and nor do they achieve this ideal. But these paintings play with the possibility of “what if?” And it is this play that creates an opening in our imagining of the umwelt of other species. Perhaps best said by the poet–immunologist Miroslav Holub, the act of play allows us, simply, to “avoid the aridities of rationalism.” Yet this is not Clark’s first foray into toying with the lifeworld of other microorganisms.

In a previous post, I briefly touched on the topic of cover art for scientific journals—in this case, a watercolor of a stag beetle by Albrecht Dürer for a 2005 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases. One of Emilie Clark’s projects, which one can find on her webpage, is likewise producing watercolor medical illustrations, many of which have found their way onto the covers of The Journal of Experimental Medicine. The JEM, since its beginnings in 1896, publishes original research on the physiological, pathological, and molecular mechanisms that are encountered by or reactions of the host in response to disease. In the case of a November 2005 issue of the journal, the target pathogenic organism of Clark’s illustration was Schistosoma mansoni, one of three causative agents of human schistosomiasis.

From the cover caption of JEM 2005; 202 (10). Emilie Clark's watercolor of S. mansoni eggs. The eggs secrete a chemokine binding protein, thereby suppressing the inflammatory response.

Schistosomes are blood flukes (trematodes) that belong to the genus Schistosoma. In addition to S. mansoni, the other two members of this genus that cause disease in humans are S. hematobium and S. japonicum. The disease itself, caused by human contact with water home to schistosome cercaria, is a definitive chronic condition whereby the mature schistosomes, after reaching the final stage of their life cycle, migrate to the mesenteric or rectal veins and begin to mate, thereby producing up to 300 eggs per day for the rest of their reproductive lives—which can be as long as 4–20 years. A proportion of these eggs will become lodged in the target veins, where they mature and secrete antigens that elicit an intense immune response in the host. It is this immunological reaction, which can continue as long as the mating worms and the eggs continue to exist in the body, that characterizes schistosomiasis. It was the point of the primary research communication by Philip Smith et al., the inspiration for the choice of Clark’s watercolor, to demonstrate one way in which S. mansoni modifies the human host to tolerate decades-long chronic infection without causing death. In particular, the researchers demonstrated that S. mansoni eggs secrete a protein into host tissues that binds certain chemokines—proteins that induce directed chemotaxis, how certain cells direct their movements according to particular chemicals in their environment, in nearby responsive cells—and inhibits their interaction with host chemokine receptors and their biological activity.

Now, compare Clark’s interpretation of the organisms and this phenomenon with a direct realistic representation through a microscope. Continue reading