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At sea in Berlin.

In education today, there is a stress on interdisciplinary studies, on linking fields in order to counteract the specialization and compartmentalization that has gone on for decades. This is a great idea. After all, separations between areas of knowledge are human constructs, so humans should be able to bridge them. However this is easier said than done. Interdisciplinarity is exhilarating, but also a little unsettling, as I discovered when I went to a workshop called "Cultures of Seeing 3D and Beyond" in Berlin. Held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, it started off with a talk by a philosopher of science, followed by presentations by two developmental biologists and an historian of science. Such diversity, such interdisciplinarity, was unsettling indeed. The three-day meeting had just begun and already I was at sea.

But I wasn't the only one suffering from intellectual vertigo. Everyone seemed to be overwhelmed, because we were all being pulled out of our disciplinary cocoons. The historians and philosophers were trying to understand molecular and developmental biology, while the scientists were attempting to make sense of the humanities. It was a tough morning, but an exhilarating one. The desire to communicate not only across disciplines but thought styles was apparent, and the common theme that everyone was interested in was the visual: the history of visualization, how new visualizations tools are being used in biology, and what it means to translate ideas into diagrams. Since visual aspects of biology are my passion, I was having a great time, even while suffering from a little seasickness. This wasn't aided by a big German lunch of mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and meatloaf--with gravy, but the table conversation did help to settle my anxieties because it became obvious that everyone was as overwhelmed as I was.


The afternoon brought topics that I found more familiar. The first was probably the presentation I liked most. Marianne Klemun of the University of Vienna spoke on her study of the herbarium sheets of Ludwig Reichenbach and how she paired them with illustrations he created for his botanical treatises. The congruence between the two is striking, at least in the examples she presented. The herbarium is at the Vienna Botanical Garden and the books are in the Austrian National Library. By bringing the two together through photos, Klemun has discovered how closely the illustrations match the herbarium sheets, where the plants are very artfully arranged on the page. She contends that Reichenbach probably positioned the specimens on the sheets with an eye to the later illustrations. At the same time, Reichenbach worked hard to restore dimensionality and perspective in the images he created. While the placement is similar, the flatness of the specimen sheets is much less apparent in the drawings.

Like the other historians and philosophers at the workshop, Klemun is a scholar pouring over original research. Examination of the herbarium sheets revealed that some of them still have the tracing paper Reichenbach used in transferring images to his drawings. This corroborates the impression that the sheets and the drawings are closely linked, and makes it even more amazing that he was able to have the plants in the drawings seem three-dimensional. It also suggests that Reichenbach was more interested in scientific accuracy that in aesthetics. Even though the plants might have looked more appealing if they had been differently arranged, he didn't want to do this at the risk of introducing imprecision into his illustrations.

In addition to collecting specimens and creating drawings, Reichenbach also did the engravings for the illustrations and wrote the text as well. Such multitalented individuals are strewn throughout the history of botany, but there are exceptions as Karen Reeds (2004) notes in her article, "When the Botanist Can't Draw: The Case of Linnaeus." She quotes Wilfred Blunt (1971), Linnaeus's biographer who compared his subject's drawings to those of a five-year-old. Other observers have been less harsh, commenting favorably on the drawings Linnaeus did while on his 1732 trip to Lapland. These represent the most extensive collection of his artwork and here the drawings is uneven. Some sketches of birds and plants are decent, though some of his attempts at perspective are lame at best. Reeds links Linnaeus's relative indifference to illustration to his contention that written descriptions, not images, are at the heart of botany. For him, the plants themselves are the best source of information, then comes text, with illustration running a poor third.

It remains a moot question whether this view was the reason for Linnaeus's lack of interest in improving his drawing skills or the result of his poor artistic talent. However, Reed includes a quote that suggests more than rationality involved in his viewpoint. It is from Linnaeus's catalogue of George Clifford's plants: "I do not recommend drawings ... for determining genre--in fact, I absolutely reject them, although I confess that they are of great importance to boys and those who have more brainpan than brain; I confess that they convey something to the unlearned" (Reeds, 2004, p. 257). This is one time when I don't mind being counted among the "unlearned," though my gender didn't even rate mention here. I should note that the artist who created the watercolors for the Clifford catalogue was none other than Georg Ehret, one of the greatest botanical artists of the 18th century--or of any century.

Reeds's article was one of a number that we were given links before going to Berlin. Some were written by participants, others--like Reeds's, were resources for discussion. The latter included four pieces that I think are classics and worth mentioning here. One is also on botanical illustration and deals with the problem of creating colored plates before printing methods improved to the point that consistent and accurate color could be produced mechanically. Until then, the best way to color engravings or etchings was by hand, with watercolor. This was obviously time-consuming and also produced variable results as Karin Nickelsen (2006) describes in an article on attempts to achieve consistency. One rule was to always copy the colors from the original drawings which meant that these artworks were often the worse for wear after the coloring of all the plates was completed. Even with the model available, "the colors of two copies of a work were almost never identical, and there was even more difference in comparison with the original drawing" (p.9).

Towards the end of the 18th century, a step toward color accuracy was taken by the exceptional artist/brothers, Joseph, Franz, and Ferdinand Bauer. One of their preliminary drawings survives, with various parts of the plant numbered. The numbers represent a color code they had developed so that their work would be consistent. They had color charts where each color had a specific number. This meant that they could work quickly in the field, not bothering to paint in the colors until later. This was the first known attempt to standardize colors and color recipes, but it was a private system, just used among the Bauers and some of their colleagues. In 1769, however, Jacob Schaeffer published a booklet introducing a plan for a universal system for naming and classifying colors.

I like articles that deal with issues I've never even thought about, and a universal coloring system, is one of them, nor had I considered how useful this would be in the visually dizzying world of biology. It is not just useful for painting, but also to standardize color photographs, and Web pages as well. Nickelsen's article is a good reminder of the importance of color and of its instability--after all, not all members of a species are the same color, even two plants growing right next to each other. Also, there are differences in color perception. Maybe Linnaeus was right after all, images are suspect, and only for the brain-panned among us.

Art History & Beyond

The other articles of note that we were given are more general in scope, including one by James Elkins (1995), an art historian who makes the case for members of his field to study images that wouldn't ordinarily be considered works of art. He focuses primarily on scientific images and argues that they differ from the images art historians usually analyze. For example, a drawing that serves as a preliminary sketch for a painting, usually bears a significant resemblance to the finished work. But as Elkins writes, "In scientific images the differences between sketches and completed illustrations can be much greater, and a single image might be associated with many kinds of images" (p. 562). As a case in point presented at the workshop, Costos Papanayotou of University College London showed images of molecular localization in embryos, and then diagrams of how the marked molecules interact with each other. In the first type of image, the protein appeared as a fluorescent glow, and in the second as a round ball labeled with the initials of its name. Papanayotou noted this difference and discussed how molecular biologists go about making the necessary mental movements between images.

Here, as in the case of coloring illustrations, issues were raised at the workshop that don't usually come up when members of a single discipline get together. They share the same assumptions and background knowledge and so don't have to explain visual conventions to each other. They might not even realize that they are dealing with such conventions. To a molecular biologist, it's just obvious that a sphere marked ATPase represents an enzyme. This is part of what Ludwig Fleck (1979) calls a field's "thought style," something to which students become oriented as they learn about a discipline. To me, Fleck's book, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, written early in the 20th century, is a classic--understandable and fascinating, two words I usually don't use to describe a work in the philosophy of science. What might account for this is that Fleck was not a philosopher but a biologist who studied sexually transmitted diseases. The scientific fact he explores is the relationship between syphilis and the Wassermann test which ultimately became a test for the presence of the syphilis bacterium, something that was not immediately obvious and that indeed developed over time.

Fleck's work also relates to issues presented in another great article on the workshop list, David Gooding's (2004) "Envisioning Explanations--The Art in Science." Gooding participated in last year's meeting, but couldn't come this year. Fortunately, with this essay, we at least had the benefit of his thinking on images. Among the points he makes is that "words, sketches, photographs, models, instruments and other traces and products of scientific activity work together in making and communicating new knowledge" (p. 280). In other words, all these elements contribute to how biologists think about the objects of their study as well as their results. This again points up the complexity of what researchers do everyday and usually take for granted. Gooding is in the field of science studies which combines history, philosophy and social studies of science. To understand what is going on in scientific visualizations, this is just what's needed: an interdisciplinary approach, a meeting of the sciences and the humanities.

A number of educators in the engineering field have been advocating such collaboration for years, and so it wasn't a surprise to find among the readings for the workshop Eugene Ferguson's (1977) article stressing the importance of visual thinking in engineering. He argues that thinking in pictures is essential to the development of new technologies, and that as engineering became professionalized there was greater emphasis on analytical thinking and less on the visual. Drawing was no longer valued. By the time Ferguson's book on the subject came out in 1992, computers had gained sway, and he warned about the dangers of letting computers do too much of the visual thinking. When an engineer translates ideas into lines on a page, and then redraws those lines again and again to get them right, there is development of nonverbal knowledge that cannot be duplicated by manipulating images on a computer screen. Electronic images are created too rapidly and with too little mental sweat to have the same effect on the "mind's eye." I think the same argument can be made in biology education, where drawing specimens has been devalued, even though there is no better way to get to know a subject--despite the problems of artistic ineptitude that Reeds discusses in her article.

Imaging Technologies

Even with the dangers of relying too heavily on computer imaging at the expensive of human brain power, the imaging technologies now available to biologists are nonetheless amazing. Several of the workshop participants are at the leading edge of these efforts, specifically in imaging embryos. Two spoke on the second day and the images they presented were among the most memorable. Brian Metscher of the University of Vienna discussed his work with X-ray microtomography, which works on the same principle as CT scanning. Instead of creating a 3-D image of a part of the body, it produces images of embryos that can be manipulated in three dimensions. They are amazingly detailed, and the ability to view them from a variety of angles provides even more layers of information.

We were still reeling from this presentation, when James Sharpe of the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona described technology he has developed called OPT, optical projection tomography, that again is similar to 3-D CT scanning but uses light waves instead of X-rays. Specific proteins are fluorescently labeled and then their location can be detected, creating a three-dimensional image of an embryo, focusing on a particular activity or tissue type. Again, the results are spectacular, but they are more than that: they contain a great deal of information, not available before, about the localization of particular molecules and particular activities. These can be tracked over time as development continues.

Metscher's and Sharpe's work is nothing short of aweinspiring. That may seem an exaggeration, but for someone like myself who was educated at a time when viewing embryos meant looking at thin sections of chick embryos and trying to mentally reconstruct them, this work is terrific. However, there is again the issue of what students are missing in terms of brain exercise by not having to do such mental reconstruction themselves. That's why some drawing might still be a good thing, if we can drag students away from the computers long enough to do it. Yet drawing will probably never be as significant in biological inquiry as it was in the past, though as Reeds's article suggests, its importance to past biologists also varied.

Another indication of this was the talk that Janina Wellman of Tel Aviv University gave on an illustration plate in Christian Pander's 1817 study of early chick development. It shows the very early stages of development as the primitive streak forms and the embryo begins to take shape. This plate comes in two versions, the actual depiction and a schematic representation more simply drawn. Wellman argues that any one figure in this illustration is of limited value, that an observer must go back and forth between the figures in the sequences and between the two representations in order to appreciate what is happening over time. There was a great deal of discussion at this meeting about this fourth dimension--time--and how it can be depicted visually. There were talks with videos of embryo development, representing the latest approaches, but Wellman's analysis was a reminder that there have been effective ways to represent change over time even before the age of moving images.

Wellman also pointed out that while Pander wrote the text that accompanied the plates in his book, he did not draw the images. He didn't even do the preparatory sketches, nor did he grow the embryos. All this work was done by his artist-collaborator, Eduard d'Alton. So Pander is farther away from the actual images than even Linnaeus was. At the other end of this spectrum is Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the neuroanatomist who documented his microscopic observations in meticulous drawings which he then refined for publication. Erna Fiorentini of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science compared two of Cajal's illustrations derived from the same observation, but published in 1899 and 1921. In the later image, there is a greater sense of perspective because Cajal introduced several artistic tricks to indicate that the cells were at several different levels. Cajal was an accomplished artist, who had originally planned a career in that field rather than in science, so he was able to skillfully use art to make his scientific arguments.


It's rare to find an example such as Cajal's of great art combined with great science, that is why scientific illustrators who can translate the work of scientists are so important to scientific communication. Fortunately, there were two such expert artists at the meeting. The first was Shelley Wall of the University of Toronto who showed interactive programs she's created to help parents of children with sexual development disorders understand these conditions. One program does a great job of representing normal and abnormal sexual development, while the second one--still under construction--deals with the hormonal controls involved (

The other scientific illustrator to present was Sonia Schadwinkel from Bremen, Germany. Trained as a biologist, she then studied with Cornelia Hesse-Honegger who does superb watercolors, particularly of insects ( Schadwinkel learned well and in an effort to explain how an artist goes about representing scientific information, she reviewed the steps she used in creating an image of a cell for a German textbook. She first drew the background, then each of the organelles separately, and finally combined all the drawings digitally to create a cell that was much more threedimensional than such images usually are. She said that she uses watercolor pencils to give a softer, more organic look than she would get with other media. This is the kind of artistic choice that might not be obvious to a viewer, but does affect the viewer's response to the image in subtle ways. Schadwinkel does a wide variety of projects and her Web site has wonderful examples of her work (

The second day ended with Caitlin Berrigan presenting on "artistic virology." Before she began I again felt a little seasick. What could this be? However, nothing I could have imagined would be as fascinating as what Berrigan's work turned out to be. She is an artist who has done a series called Sentimental Objects in Attempts to Befriend a Virus ( Berrigan herself has hepatitis C, and this series is her approach to dealing with this chronic infection. She is trying to "befriend" the virus, to make it feel at home, because it has become part of her. She does this by creating art with domestic and friendly connotations, such as Viral Confections, chocolate truffles molded in the shape of the virus, and knitting a lipoprotein envelope in the form of a sweater to wear--it even has a hood. There are also tents made to represent half of the viral sphere. In other words, Berrigan has created food, clothing, and shelter, of and for her virus.

In her presentation, Berrigan also cited the work of other artists who have created viral images as medical commentary. Eric Avery is a psychiatrist who created artworks and even whole environments representing HIV as a way to lure people into getting tested for the virus ( Carla Fernandez, who works in rural Mexico to better the lives of the residents, has created a business for women where they use traditional needlework to make three-dimensional soft toys in the shape of viruses, amoebae, and other local microbial health hazards ( Since I myself love to do needlework, this presentation really woke me up, even though it was at the end of a long day. I left for dinner considering what kinds of viruses I could create in my spare time.

Philosophy & A Long Night

I haven't mentioned every single presentation, but have focused on the ones that were more relevant to my interests. This means the philosophers got short shrift here, even though they presented intriguing questions such as how the meanings of scientific diagrams change over time as the science underlying them develops and how genetic data get represented. Thus the philosophers kept reminding us that there are several layers to every image, and that the underlying assumptions need attention, otherwise images can easily mislead. This was one of the key messages of the workshop, along with the importance of such interdisciplinary gatherings.

Most appropriately, the workshop ended on Saturday, June 14 which was celebrated in Berlin as the "Long Night of the Sciences" (Lange Nachte der Wissenschaften or LNDW). On the Saturday closest to the longest day of the year, science museums and university laboratories are open from 5:00pm to 1:00am and host numerous special presentations. This event began in 2001 and has grown larger each year. Dozens of institutions participate, and there are even shuttle buses to drive participants between venues. Fortunately, it turned out to be a lovely evening so I set out for the botanical gardens and its adjacent museum that had several events going on. Lectures in German were beyond me, but there were librarians on hand with a number of treasures--books filled with botanical illustrations, so I went away more than satisfied. In addition, an exhibit on cucurbits included books such as Leonhard Fuchs's Herbal from 1542, opened to a great picture of a cucumber plant. As I walked back to the hotel, I went through an area with many laboratory buildings associated with the Free University of Berlin. Parents and children were going in and out, some apparently in a hurry. It seems that visiting as many sites as possible is part of the Long Night tradition. I am now dreaming of such an event in New York. Travel really does broaden one's horizons, and this trip to Berlin, though at times making me feel queasily ignorant, was a tremendous opportunity to do so.


Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York: Viking.

Elkins, J. (1995). Art history and images that are not art. Art Bulletin, 77(4), 553-571.

Ferguson, E. S. (1977). The mind's eye: Nonverbal thought in technology. Science, 197, 827-836.

Ferguson, E. S. (1992). Engineering and the Mind's Eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fleck, L. (1979). Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gooding, D. C. (2004). Envisioning explanations--The art in science. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 29(3), 278-294.

Nickelsen, K. (2006). The challenge of colour: Eighteenth-century botanists and the hand colouring of illustrations. Annals of Science, 63, 3-23.

Reeds, K. (2004). When the botanist can't draw: The case of Linnaeus. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 29(3), 248-258.


MAURA C. FLANNERY is Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at St. John's University, Jamaica, NY 11439; e-mail: She earned a B.S. in biology from Marymount Manhattan College; an M.S., also in biology, from Boston College; and a Ph.D. in science education from New York University. Her major interests are in communicating science to the nonscientist and in the relationship between biology and art.
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Title Annotation:BIOLOGY TODAY
Author:Flannery, Maura C.
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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