Tag Archives: painting

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

Beetles, form, art

In Emerging Infectious Diseases, each issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains a short essay that connects and contextualizes the artwork of the cover to the content of the issue (for a brief but interesting discussion of cover art on scientific journals, take a look at a post by biocreativity, another blog exploring the nexus of art, biology, creativity, science, design, and nature). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the producing body of the journal, writes that the cover art is selected on the basis of “artistic quality, technical reproducibility, stylistic continuity, communication effectiveness, and audience appeal.” The cover story, on the other hand,

has evolved by popular demand, literally out of the journal readers’ wish to know the art and how it relates to them and to what they do. A sketch of the artist, period, and work, provides contextual knowledge, and a brief interpretation offers a link between the art and the human elements and goals of public health. The reader becomes familiar with the work, and in the end is surprised and, we hope, enlightened.

A rather dry description of these clips, but the author, Cyprus-born Polyxeni Potter, is rather anything but. Potter’s contextualization of the art and artists of which she writes is lyrical and informative. For a 2005 issue of EID, containing research on Staphylococcus aureus infection in football teams, bed bug infestations, Lyssavirus prevalence in Scottish bats, and other outbreaks,  Potter chose a watercolor painting of a stag beetle, most likely the Europe-dominated member of the Lucanidae family, Lucanus cervus. Of her selection of this organism, this “tribute to the minutest in nature,” Potter writes:

Other critters, not so benign or visible, are also easy to ignore, their pestiferous history relegated to the past and quickly forgotten. Blood-thirsty ticks, bed bugs, and other insects, as if caught in some Gothic time machine, continue to torment humans, still claiming their lives, if not their souls. Renewed infestations of ticks causing meningoencephalitis in Germany and of bed bugs compromising health in Canada and elsewhere warn against ignorance and neglect regarding visible or invisible tiny creatures of nature.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Stag Beetle (1505).

L. cervus, most simply known as the stag beetle, was named as such—lucanus—by Publius Nigidius Figulus, a scholar of the Late Roman Republic and friend to Cicero, due to its ornamental use in the Lucania region of Italy. The latter end of the creature’s binomial nomenclature, cervus, the direct Latin for deer, the stag. The naming is gender-biased, typical of sexual dimorphism, as the reference to the stag—which itself refers to a male red deer—is more applicable to the males of the beetle, themselves characterized by the mammal’s antlers.

Stag beetle, Pavel Krasensky (2007).

It was in Italy, home of Nigidius, the lucanus label, and the Latin for stag, writes Potter, that Albrecht Dürer, the painter responsible for the above work, was drawn. But it was in Venice to the northeast, rather than the linguistic homeland of L. cervus, that the artist found inspiration and welcome. Of Venice, Dürer reflected, “In Venice, I am treated as a nobleman…. I really am somebody, whereas at home I am just a hack.” This home was Nürnberg, Germany, where Dürer had been trained in Gothic traditions, metallurgy, and mathematics. His move to Italy brought him to the Northern Renaissance, to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, to printmaking. Like other polymaths of his day, Dürer asserted that “art must be based upon science,” and, in agreement with da Vinci, on mathematics, on geometric form, on the golden ratio.

Ratios and antlers held a special place to mathematicians and artists of the day. Named by the Greeks—Dürer held a special reverence for Aristotle—the golden ratio has been considered the proportion of length to width of a rectangle most objectively pleasing to the eye.  The golden ratio draws from the Fibonacci sequence, introduced to the West by Leonardo Fibonacci in the 1100s and utilized to solve an issue of the growth of a population of rabbits . In the Fibonacci sequence, one produces a sequence of numbers by starting with 1 and 1 and adding the two together—the product is, of course, 2. Obtaining the subsequent number involves adding the latter two integers—the result is 3. Follow the natural pattern and the integers appear as 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. The role of the golden ratio is in taking from Fibonacci’s order of numbers and dividing each pair (2 by 1, 3 by 2, 5 by 3, 8 by 5, etc.). The resulting quotients are, respectively, 2.0, 1.5, 1.67, and 1.6. Continue making these divisions, and one number will begin to hold as a constant quotient—1.618. Continue reading

Crow poems

A poem found within the pages of the beautiful and compact prose pieces of Creaturely and Other Essays, by Devin Johnston. The poem “Crows in Afternoon Sunlight,” however, comes from the Australian poet Robert Adamson. Of Adamson, the following has been said.

Robert Adamson is one of the truly great poets of place and deep meditation. […] From Bob Dylan to Wallace Stevens, from Arthur Rimbaud to Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Shelley to Zukovsky, Adamson winds a path through the abyssal forest of symbols to the natural world, driving Symbolism over the edge into the darkness of a nihilism still able to experience, praise, savour and celebrate the world in all its impossibility and presence.

“Crows in Afternoon sunlight” does indeed wind.

How close can a human get to a crow,
how much do we know about them?
It’s good to know we’ll never read their brains,
never know what it means to be a crow.

All those crow poems are about poets —
none of them get inside the crow’s head,
preen or rustle, let alone fly on crow wings.

No one knows what it is to sing crow song.

Five crows hop and stand around
the fish I have left for them on the wharf.
If I move their eyes follow me, I stand still
and they pick up a fish, test its weight.

They ruffle their feather manes and shine.

These black bird shapes outlined by the light.
Behind them, the river flowing out,
the light changing, soon it will be night

and they will be gone. Before that
I praise crows.

 

“Immanuel Kant”

Immanuel Kant

The philosophy of white blood cells:
this is self,
this is nonself.
The starry sky of nonself,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.
Immanuel Kant,
perfectly mirrored
deep inside.

And he knows nothing about it,
he is only afraid of drafts.
And he knows nothing about it,
though this is the critique
of pure reason.

Deep inside.

Miroslav Holub

Are we sponges or technicians?

Somewhere in his journals Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pray and dig away long enough, and lo! soon he will hit upon the marvelous.

This note, by Saul Bellows, a several National Book Award–winning Canadian-born Jewish American, brings to mind and contrasts a parable I read several years back by Italo Calvino. The brief tale comes at the end of his essay “Quickness,” one of the five lectures that compose the Italian author’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Although the preceding essay in the compilation, “Lightness,” is more well-known, especially for its connection with the Roman poet–natural philosopher Lucretius and both early and modern atomism, Calvino’s paraphrase of a Chinese fable, both in content and method, eloquently reduces the heart of the piece to a moment:

Among Chuan-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

The essay gravitates around Calvino’s concept of this economy of movement, this exact and instantaneous making of a world, and in doing so skips directly from and back into the writer’s notes on lightness and reducing weight from words, sentences, ideas. Along these lines, Calvino details the process of stripping a paragraph of its density in his Italian Folktales:

Continue reading

1 of 8

Kurt Vonnegut had eight base rules for writing fiction. His number eight comes close to being my favorite, but seven steals out instead: “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

I don’t/haven’t read Vonnegut often, and was initially drawn to his fiction simply by virtue of the author’s (rejected) pursuit of an MA in anthropology after completing a BS in biochemistry, and thus felt some form of affinity. Vonnugut magnetized towards anthropology, which he called “a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all.” And it must have been some contribution of anthropological thinking that allowed Vonnegut to state his modus operandi on the workings of being a writer:

“Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”

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Holub’s poetry

In the Microscope

Here too are the dreaming landscapes,
lunar, derelict.
Here too are the masses,
tillers of the soil.
And cells, fighters
who lay down their lives for a song.

Here too are cemeteries,
fame and snow.
And I hear the murmuring,
the revolt of immense estates.

– Miroslav Holub (1923-1998)