See-through science

Luke Jerram's 'Virology' at the Smithfield Gallery, London

Richard P. Grant 10 October 2009

Close-up: detail from one of Jerram's creations

Too small to absorb or diffract light, they are invisible

Editor's note: LabLit was invited to the preview of Luke Jerram's most recent exhibition at the Smithfield Gallery in London. We sent Richard Grant along to take photographs and chat with the artist.

Since the development of methods to study molecular structures, scientists have struggled with the best way to display them. All we have are models: the early wood and metal constructions; the stereo pictures; the beautifully rendered ray-traced three-dimensional shapes that rotate on your computer screen; these are simply representations of things too small to see for real.

This problem is not greatly reduced when we move up the size scale to viruses. We can see them with electrons, shadowy and artefactual, but even the largest virus is barely visible under the light microscope.


And because they are so small, they have no inherent colour. Too small to absorb or diffract light, they are invisible to our eyes. The models that terrify and captivate us from newspapers and the covers of journals are coloured for effect, not to reflect reality. Luke Jerram, the artist who created these beautiful yet sinister models, is colour-blind. He neatly side-steps the question and problems of nanometer resolution through the use of uncoloured glass.

Taking out the colour, and the emotional baggage associated with it, we can begin to appreciate the form and structure: how the association of nucleic acid and (generally globular) proteins gives us these regular shapes and fascinating patterns. Perhaps we can view them as things of beauty, rather than simply as agents of disease and death, to be dissected and studied and destroyed?

Man and microbe: the artist with his work
E. coli
Escherichia coli

For Jerram, science – perhaps ironically, seeing as he trained as an artist – has been a fruitful venture. When the Wellcome Trust approached him to acquire his first piece for their famous Collection, they asked what he wanted for it. Never having sold his art before, Jerram thought fifty pounds would be reasonable.

"Come back," they said, "with a serious offer."

The highlight for me (and my pocketbook, unfortunately, won't stretch to the Wellcome's prices. I was seriously tempted, however) was not a virus, but something that can be seen with the microscope:
a louche Escherichia coli, with flagella crossed and reclining on black velvet.


For more information, visit Luke Jerram's website. See the rest of LabLit's photos on Flickr!

Other articles by Richard P. Grant