Monday, May 26, 2008

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Images are an essential part of the scientific process. More so than words, and even when heavily doctored or taken selectively from dishes of otherwise abnormal samples (I mean, come on, WE know what they should look like), pictures form the foundation of monographs in natural history. Nowhere has this been more true than in marine biology and microbiology, where samples are often delicate and hard to ship to museums inland or, in the case of tiny things, can only be viewed by professional scientists with expensive microscopes and a lot of training in how to use them.

In the olde days, the obtainment of such images relied on the skills of technicians and researchers able to draw what they saw and transform those drawings into formats that could be printed for distribution in journals. Though cases of manipulation are known, for example Haeckel's drawings of early embryos, these hand-drawn images were remarkably good, and it's taken us decades (or centuries in some cases) to perfect cameras capable of recording what these early researchers saw in their scopes. Curating my image database recently, I came across a few of my old favorites that are worth showing here, both because they are beautiful and because they are an excellent reminder that some skills in science just aren't as common as they used to be.

Leeuwenhoek's first images of cells in slivers of cork bark were among the most transformative images in all of science, and remain among my favorites due both to the impact they had on how we think about biological organization (imagine biology class without cells) and because no matter how many times I've tried to recreate this image in lab, I can't get anything close to this good. My microscope costs $250,000. He made his microscope by hand.


Other favorites of mine, for reasons that will become apparent shortly, come from Mortensen's monographs on sea urchin larvae. Whenever I find a larvae I can't identify, or a feature that seems odd, I can almost without fail find out what I need to from his papers from the early 1900s. This one is his drawing of a several-week-old larvae from the sea urchin Tripneustes esculentus. I wish I could remember the website I finked this from. My apologies to you, webmeister, where ever you are.

And perhaps my favorite of all of the images from scientific days of yore are Haeckel's beautiful drawings of jellyfish, beautiful creatures and the inspiration for one of the best art-meets-science exhibits I have ever seen at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This particular copy of Haeckle's image comes from Florian Raible at EMBL.

If you've been a reader of this blog for a while, you will no doubt have been impressed by the volume of lawyerly knowledge contributed by the other authors. I have no such knowledge. But I do have pretty pictures and proof, I hope, that there are indeed beautiful things in the intersticies of life.


A gaggle of larvae from the urchin Lytechinus variegatus viewed under polarized light to make the skeletons glow. No other manipulation of the image was performed.


A three day old pluteus larvae from Sphaerechinus granularis.


And a freaky-weird (but pretty) hybrid larvae resulting from crossing Sphaerechinus granularis and Paracentrotus lividus. Hopefully that's still legal to do by the time this goes live.

Whenever I find things tedious, frustrating, or just dump in my work, I look at these images and remember that tiny living things are really cool.

1 comment:

Food and Field said...

I agree. As a scientist (well, in the making as I'm only a PhD candidate), I really appreciate this post.