Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Art on the job: biology under the microscope

Ah, work. We love to hate it, and we hate to admit that sometimes, just sometimes, we love it. Sure, you have that looming deadline, the inconsiderate jerk in the next cubicle over never learned to chew with his mouth closed, and you forgot to put the cover sheet on your last TPS report. But I'm betting that there's also that one little moment in the day where you stop and take note of something beautiful in your surroundings.

For me, the unexpectedly bizarre beauty of the microscopic world greatly contributed to my enjoyment of the hours I spent in front of a microscope during graduate school -- and believe me, there are a lot of hours in six years. I'd retreat to the lab's windowless microscope room, shut the door, crank up KEXP, and spend half the day watching beautifully odd little creatures live their beautifully odd little lives. 

I'm convinced that artistic inspiration can be found in most jobs, and this post is the first of an "art on the job" series in which I want to reveal the creative muses lurking in nominally non-artistic workplaces. I'm starting with biology because I write what I know. 

All of these images are either in the public domain or under Creative Commons licenses that allow me to repost them here. 

Cross-section of the root of an orchid. Image by Antoine Hnain and found here on Flickr. 

Cross sections of fluorescently-labeled mouse blood vessels at 40X magnification. The one on the right has been treated with a drug that helps it retain its smooth muscle cells (in green). Image by Michelle Olive/NHGRI.

If this looks like a monster, that's because it is. This is a schistosome, or parasitic flatworm, that lives in the blood of its host. A scanning electron microscope took this image at 256X magnification. Public domain image by Wetzel and Schaefer/National Cancer Institute.

Fluorescently labeled cardiac muscle cells. Image credit: Dr. Andrew McCulloch, UCSD/National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. 

This image of pollen from the oriental lily, Lilium aratum, was taken with an electron microscope. 

The natural fluorescence of live mouse skin cells, imaged non-invasively with a laser scanning microscope by JonathanPalero on Flickr.

Fluorescence of polytene chromosomes from the salivary gland of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Polytene chromosomes form when DNA is copied but the cell doesn't divide. Image credit: Elissa Lei/NIH, found here on Flickr. 

Who would have thought that mosquitos were so pretty up close? Image by Adelaide Microscopy and found here on Flickr.

A beautiful image of mouse cells in telophase, the part of cell division where the DNA (in blue) has already divided and the two resultant cells are beginning to separate. Image by Lothar Schermelleh and found here on Wikimedia Commons.

If you're looking for more inspiration from the very, very tiny, check out the Nikon Small World galleries

So what are your favorite beautiful science photos? Or how are you artistically inspired in your non-artistic job? I'd love to hear about it in the comments. 


  1. Beauty can be seen in expected and unexpected ways. luvjean

  2. i just randomly stumbled upon this site. I've been looking for a way to incorporate my zoology degree and strong art interests. I'm determined to find a way. This post is great.

  3. Wow thats pretty cool, thanks for the awesome post.


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