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The image that draws the writer

Can science images help fiction writers?

Amy Charles 9 February 2008

The cryptic muse: science illustrations can dazzle or deflect

A cliché in writing workshops is that fiction is the lie that tells a truth; I imagine the same can be true of scientific art

One of the first strikingly beautiful images I ever saw was a black and white slide of fungus growing on an orange peel. The pores of the orange skin were silver-gray, waxy and lunar; the hyphae were fine and stark, like hair. I might have been seven years old; my father, a microbiologist at the time, was putting on a slide show in the living room. Other images from his work have stayed with me: the C of the Chemical & Engineering News banner, ads for lab equipment, the foul, tobacco-colored broths that were part of his fermentation work, the narrow back of the dark-haired graduate student working four benches away while I played in a lab sink with rubber stoppers and tubing. But the image of the fungus on the orange peel had a weight and tension that arrested me.

Parallel play

Twenty-five years later, after leaving school and living a novelist’s life for a while, I returned to college as a chemistry major. Once again I was caught by scientific images, and wondered why they weren’t used better in literary fiction. It seemed to me that the usual practice, in literary fiction and poetry, was to find some striking image, lift it, and use it to invent metaphors – metaphors that ignored the thought, conversation, and work that gave rise to the picture. Metaphors that ignored the picture’s meaning, in other words. I think ignoring meaning seldom improves fiction, and I started wondering how fiction writers could use these images more thoughtfully without becoming scientists ourselves.

Most of the literary types I’ve known have been familiar with the conventions of various periods in Western art (the development of perspective, the use of small and large figures in religious paintings, the impenetrable plane of abstract expressionism, and so on). We also tend to be sensitive to conventions in advertising art. A chemical structure in ballpoint on a napkin says “real scientist”; a Rasmol image says “modern industrial science”. Crosshatching says “old-fashioned” or “craftsman”, whether it’s used to draw Shaker chairs or DNA, and it carries within it the image of the artist working; an ink wash has a delicate, expensive, and often somber mood. I thought maybe, tuned as we are to art history, we might “hear” the art more loudly than we hear the science, and this might affect how the science feels to us. And this, in turn, might affect what we do with the science in our fiction. I figured it was worth finding out. If we want to use scientific images more thoughtfully, we might start by hearing the artist’s voice apart from the scientist’s.

Dead on the page

So I went through the ‘Science Times’ section of the New York Times from 1979 to 1998, to see what science your average American novelist might have seen over those twenty years. For a rotating three-month span of each year, I collected all images to do with atoms, molecules, and cells – no reason to choose this particular subset except that they appealed to me. It came to about 175 images. Then I sat down to examine the conventions used there, and see if they had any analogue in contemporary fiction I’d read. I got a surprise: cut from the newspaper, from the context of their times, the illustrations had no story, no juice. They were dead on the page. This was utterly bewildering; many of those drawings did some fairly sophisticated teaching, and I couldn’t think why they seemed so mute to me.

What’s more, the changes in their subjects and style, across twenty years, should’ve been exciting. I’d watched journalism dramas play out in the Science Times as I’d collected the pictures: I watched the explosion of Apple advertising in 1983 and the feverish affair with personal computing, and then watched computer-aided illustration appear in the science stories. I saw the rise of lavishly illustrated cell biology under the pressure of AIDS research, the irrational hopes pinned to genetics and their disappointment, and a sudden drop in cell-level stories after 1990, as environment and astronomy took over the front page of the section. Chemistry and cell biology were pushed farther and farther back, first to “medical science”, then beyond, to page C9, knocked back against fashion and entertainment. I wondered why Nicholas Wade, the Science Times editor from 1990-1997, had diverted cell stories off the front page in favor of wildlife story after wildlife story – was he following the Audubon demographic as younger people stopped reading newspapers? The spirit of the times, so palpable in the rest of the paper, animated the science section, too; the excitement in cell biology happened in the context of the gawky, then torridly wealthy 1980s; sniping about big-science money went on as the country hung in a few years of murder, poverty, and disintegration. We recovered; a privileged class of post-Cold-War journalists came up, and their diffident tone arrived. The cataclysmic immunology story went away, along with its textbook-quality illustrations. Instead there was a quieter cell biology and DNA story, back in the medical pages, with muted expectations and fewer promises (“New AIDS Therapies Arise, But Who Can Afford the Bill?”).

Needle in a haystack

At a loss, I fiddled with the pictures. I took a tip from the rhetorician Greg Myers, who had described the images in E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology by level of “gratuitous detail”, on a continuum from photographs to highly abstracted graphical forms. In similar fashion I sorted the Times images by subject and quality of information. I separated the DNA drawings from the rest of the molecule illustrations, and categorized them as “helix icon” (uninformative drawings that just meant “DNA here”), and “lab images” like karyotypes and gels, which, like amulets, had authority, but left laymen no wiser about what DNA is. At the top of the heap was “DNA teaching”, or images which teach the reader something about DNA. For instance, from September 20, 1994, “Needle in a Haystack: Search for Breast Cancer Gene” shows a bit of helix squiggle to remind the bewildered reader that this is about DNA, then banded Chromosome 17, with regions and genes noted, and a series of segment and gene callouts winnowing the number of base pairs. BRCA1, the breast cancer gene itself, is at the end.

Similarly, I categorized the cell, non-DNA-molecule, and atom pictures by level of information.

Science illustration trends

When I looked at the patterns of images in the Science Times from 1979 to 1998, I found I’d misread the journalistic drama. The excitement did die down in cell and molecular biology; the quality and complexity of those images did drop. The editor did cut off the heady spike in illustration and cell-level stories. But compared with the early 1980s, the Times kept up impressive and ambitious illustration, the bulk of which genuinely sought to teach. In particular, the quality and number of illustration dealing with DNA stayed high, rising through the 90s:

What turned me on

Hats off to the New York Times, then. Still, I hadn’t retrieved the drama of the drawings. So I began pulling pictures from the stack: anything I’d thought was arresting the first time I saw it.

Glick’s AIDS virus

Below are two of those pictures, both cell illustrations. The first is an image of HIV drawn by Judith Glick. Those of us over 35 or so recall the shape of the retrovirus endlessly, diagonally scrolling down MTV backdrops and magazine covers – that spiky, lethal toy. But here, like a New Year’s Eve time ball, “The Virus”, as it’s captioned, is shown in cutaway, as if it has a mouth gaping to show its innards. RNA, reverse transcriptase, and the virus envelope are all labeled; below it is a gallery of human cells vulnerable to AIDS. None of the human cells merit HIV’s complexity. The Virus exists by itself. The text is similarly grandiose: “The virus has far more genes than expected and therefore a greater subversive repertoire than had been imagined. It is capable of attacking more different human cells than had been thought, and it has more complex means of destroying its victim’s immune defenses than had been appreciated in the past. The virus can kill cells, but it is also capable of hiding out, inactive, within the human body to emerge later in a flare of deadly infection.”

Ludtke’s cancer cells

The second image is by an illustrator named Jim Ludtke, published on July 9, 1985. Although its point is, I think, difficult to read – it illustrates variation in nucleus size as cells develop with various disorders – it was a herald of what we see today when we look at popular scientific illustration.

At the time he made this image, Ludtke, a young artist, had just begun working on the Mac that caused so much excitement in the Science Times advertising pages. Within ten years or so he’d be an Apple Master and MoMA exhibitor, working with the San Francisco band The Residents and turning out influential early video role-playing games on CD-ROM. His later work was less constrained than the Times required him to be, as the 'mouth' images below.

Ludtke’s ‘mouth’ art

The marble-cells in Ludtke’s New York Times illustration so captivated me that it was weeks before I noticed they weren’t terribly informative. All the “cells” look alike; there’s little to distinguish them as cells. The nuclei are not immediately obvious as nuclei. And yet within those glassy coats, I imagined a world sliding around, living. The marbles suggested to me a freeze-frame, and perhaps that’s because Ludtke was already experimenting with computer animation. Here is Ludtke’s description of his own work and methods on Apple’s 1997 Apple Master pages, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:

I've been using Macintosh since I bought a little black and white 512K at Macy's New York way back around 1985 or so. I bought it mainly as a toy, using a program that was then called VideoWorks to make short animations in my spare time. With the advent of the Mac II, color graphics and animation became a possibility, and I began incorporating some images from the Mac into my magazine illustration work.

Building 3-D environments to tell stories was one of Ludtke's early passions. He collected Vu-Master stereogram slides in the '50s, which he still keeps by his computer as inspiration. "It dawned on me that I had spent years recreating their lurid clarity in '20,000 Leagues' and 'Jack the Giant Killer' and other fantasy slide shows that still had the surreal depth that originally drew me in," says Ludtke. "It has been that same unsettling effect that I have strived to recreate in my work."

“I like to create very lush, detailed imagery; my work is not realistic. I like to use dramatic ‘chirascuro’ lighting effects on exaggerated, cartoonish models, preferring to create a heightened, more bizarre reality rather than the photorealism that many 3D designers seek.”

So it isn’t surprising that these cells are cinematic, heightened, fantastic, luridly clear. The exaggerated smoothness and gleam of his images are still evident in popular scientific illustration; you can see it in XVIVO’s smash cell-bio hit of 2006, “The Inner Life of a Cell.” You can also see it in the glossy, queasy, noir look of the science fiction film Minority Report.

In all I pulled about ten arresting images from the pile, and found that none of them needed context. That was their magic. In other words, they’re art, or close enough. When I look at them together, I see their roots in art, mainly 20th-century art. I see Yves Tanguy, Hans Arp, Roy Lichtenstein, the schematic work of academic artists of the 90s, and, in Ludtke’s case, Ludtke. What’s more, none of them need scientists. These cells, molecules, schemas – they exist authoritatively as things on their own.

Glick’s model eye

In this Judith Glick drawing of the human eye, for instance, you can see the similarity to Tanguy, or to Hans Arp.

Art’s fidelity

I was surprised by the brutality of the connection between art and the images I’d noticed. If other literary writers react similarly – a large if – then perhaps there’s something new for editors and scientists to consider when they hire out illustration. If they use artists who have the time, talent, and leeway to make art, rather than illustration, maybe they’ll have a greater chance of catching literary writers’ attention. And that might improve the odds that we’d ferry a scientific image into popular imagination, or use it to return useful metaphors to science.

I recognize that this may present a serious problem for scientists and scientific illustrators. A powerful artist may bring extra information and meaning, or even opinion, to the facts being described. The science photographer Felice Frankel is careful about this when she makes the case for the striking image in her beautiful handbook, Envisioning Science. She writes, in her introduction,

The science pictures you see here have an additional purpose to those in your notebooks. Although often used for presentations and submissions to the professional, they also communicate science to the general public and thus capture the attention of those unfamiliar with the subject. They have a component that is sometimes called “artful”, a word I, like you, should be wary of using. They might appear as personal interpretations but they are not. They are honest documents of scientific investigation. However, they have one additional quality not usually present in science images – they somehow include the marvel of whatever phenomena I intend to capture.

Although I understand Frankel’s reasons for stopping short of personal interpretation, I think scientific illustration that is art in its own right has real use. And I would like to see what might happen in fiction if mass media allowed its scientific illustrators to go as far as art. I’m not sure, either, that art, or personal interpretation, must mean inaccuracy. A cliché in writing workshops is that fiction is the lie that tells a truth; I imagine the same can be true of scientific art.

A walk and a talk

Changing the impact of scientific illustrations wouldn’t solve the problem of fiction writers’ running away with bad metaphors and wrong ideas, but perhaps now the problem is clearer. Suppose fiction writers see a strong image, one that shows something articulate, complex, and intelligent about both art and science. We know what to do with the art, so we head that way. I suspect we writers might do better if we had more friends who were scientists – ordinary friends – and had ordinary conversations about our work, and about why we do it. To pick up a beautiful scientific image, and ask about the science when you are an outsider, you need some language, some phrases, however fumbling, perhaps picked up from a friend’s rambling. You need a patient friend who will forgive your clumsiness, and maybe draw some things for you on a napkin, or direct you to some primer. Novelists have these conversations routinely when we research paintings and historical images, so I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do it with scientific images.

I think it would help if this imaginary scientist friend did not restrict his answers to textbook captions, saying something like, “Well, this is a glial cell, and this process works like so.” If instead we are able to hear the story – the reason why this image is important, the things that drove the work that produced the image, the arguments that failed, the holes in the model and the points of contention that remain, the larger view the model projects or supports, the scientist’s sense of the science – it would give us some feel for the wealth underlying the image. You can see some of this kind of conversation in the sociologists’ work; in Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life, for instance. The lab conversations in those books are not news to scientists, but to artists, they are.

The staring camera

The other difficulty I see has to do with having a point of entry, a thing sticking out to ask questions about. Both Glick’s and Ludtke’s images are isolated things – Glick’s image representing a triumph of model-making, and Ludtke’s a living, glistening thing from his own fantastic world. Though life may glisten, it is not, it seems to me, so symmetrical, isolated, or authorial as it is in these pictures. But in general I think it is these schematized or Ludtke-lurid images which persist at the cell and molecular level – the tumbling retrovirus, the faintly glowing capsules called bacteria, the hairpins called lipoproteins, the striated ribbons and twists. As much excitement as they may generate about the project of science, I wonder if they rather mislead writers. Scientists already have a sense of the complexity and uncertainty, the motion and life and indistinct boundaries that the images represent. But perhaps the static thingness that so delights me in those images also prevents fiction writers from finding entrée to the life and motion of these entities. Perhaps we need gratuitous information in order to see that these things are indeed part of the world, the one we write about.

Which brings us all the way back to photos again. There was no mistaking the life in my father’s carefully lit fungus. Perhaps, for story writers, the unmediated, staring image is as important as art. The photo may not explain itself, but the palpable sense of motion and urge may be important in drawing fiction writers close to scientists’ conversations about what is, and how it goes.

A final arresting image