Biomedical Astronomy

October 2018

Danny Birchall works in London for Wellcome Collection, where he commissions and edits digital projects.

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At the northern end of London’s Tottenham Court Road, a state of the art proton beam therapy centre is being built by University College London Hospitals. The hoardings around the site feature familiar images of patients and medical staff; but this most intimate and molecular life-saving technology itself is represented by a graphic of a glowing orb shot through with the kind of blue plasma that wouldn’t look out of place in Star Wars.

The hoardings around the site of the new therapy unit at the University College London Hospitals.

During the past few years another biomedical concern, the charity Parkinson’s UK, has run an annual ‘Picturing Parkinson’s’ competition for scientists’ images of the brain. These are typically laid out in galactic shapes and luminous colors, against an inky background. 2015’s winner was Philipp Berg’s ‘Supernova’.

Meanwhile, in Cornwall, the Eden Centre has recently opened a major new exhibition, ‘Invisible Worlds’ which promises to "reveal the world beyond our senses: too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too far away in space and time" and features a series of interactives and installations which bring together the very tiny and the very large.

Why do we keep encountering this conflation of the microscopic and macroscopic, and in particular the use of astronomical metaphors to show and describe the biomedical components of the human body? Has the sublime returned from technology to nature, through technology’s ability to show us what cannot otherwise be seen inside ourselves?

Perhaps we can lay some of the blame at the door of those archetypal technocratic evangelists Charles and Ray Eames. Their 1977 short film Powers of Ten is a masterpiece of pre-digital imaginative visualisation.

Pulling away from an image of a picnicking couple we see the earth, solar system and universe before rapidly zooming in again to skin cells, DNA and the atomic level. The film offers not only a vision of the world as an interconnected whole, both linked and separated by scale, but also makes explicit visual connections between starfields and electron fields, between the spirals of DNA and the spirals of the milky way.

It’s more common these days, however, to encounter a cell as a galaxy, or night-sky neurons in contemporary works of scientific imaging that function as a kind of visual propaganda for science. Images like the Parkinson’s ‘Supernova’ exist both as a by-product of scientific practice and as a means of promoting public awareness of current scientific research.

Take this image of lung cancer cells, made by research scientist Anne Weston at Cancer Research UK:

The cells hang again against the blackness like twin galaxies, in unnatural shades of orange and purple. They are separated from any other human tissue, from any of their damaging function as cancer to stand alone and represent cancer.

The image is a scanning electron micrograph. Scanning electron microscopy is a technology of image-making rather than of seeing: In order to be visualised the cancer cells must first be separated from any surrounding tissue, dehydrated and chemically fixed, before being coated in a microscopic layer of gold or platinum. The plated surface is then scanned with a beam of electrons which in turn produce photons that can be registered and rasterised as a black and white image. The dramatic colours are added afterwards using image manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop.

Astronomy also has its own semi-professional practice of image-making. Amateur astronomers use digital tools for stacking separate ‘deep sky’ photographic images together. The Royal Observatory runs an Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. Art historian Elizabeth Kessler has noted that colorised images produced from data gathered by the Hubble space telescope bear significant formal similarity to nineteenth century American frontier landscape painting. Even the language of space ‘colonisation’ follows the imperial urge.

Micro- and macro- alike, these images are produced by researchers with educational intent: to show the public the work of science. In circulation, and particularly online, they begin to work as rhetoric rather than information, generating awe rather than understanding.

On new age websites like disinfo.com and Spirit Science the full impact of the micro-macro conflation really kicks in. Using images of brain cells created from Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans (MRI is another data-gathering technology from which images can be derived), these sites run breathless headlines like "Our Brain’s Neurons Look Exactly Like The Structure Of The Universe" and "Studies Discover How Our Universe Grows Just Like A Brain". Isomorphic similarity is taken for cosmic significance in pursuit of 'a single fundamental law of nature’.

The internet’s subconscious has taken note and developed an antibody in the form of the infamous ‘Galaxy Brain’ meme. Exploding galactic neurons indicate that what appears to be magnificently clever, is in fact incredibly stupid. But beyond sarcasm, how can we resolve this apparently facile but constantly tempting urge to conflate little and large?

Australian artist Lynette Wallworth’s ‘Hold/Vessel’ installation (2001, 2007) seen at the BFI’s short-lived South Bank Gallery in 2007 invites the visitor to walk through columns of projected light holding a small, shallow glass bowl. Raising or lowering the bowl brings the projection into focus, revealing images of both microscopic life and distant stars, collected and arranged by the artist using different kinds of image-generating technology. Where the Eames showed us a rigid scientific continuum, Wallworth aims for something subtler, a sense of empathy regardless of scale.

But perhaps the last laugh belongs to S. Mark Gubb. The three lightboxes in his 2012 ‘Third from the Sun’ exhibition show glowing amorphous blobs that might easily be constellations of cells, or in the artist’s words "hypnotic cosmic universes". Biological they are, however -- the images are photographs of piss stains bleached into the floor below the urinals in an arts centre. Maybe when our bodies are in the gutter it’s only natural that we should see the stars.