“Imagined but not imaginary”

One of my tasks during the UAMRICH meeting was to participate in an art-science event at the Museum of Science and Technology (MUSE) in Trento.   I had been wondering what to say at this event and, to be honest, had been so busy with preparing for other meetings and talks, that I arrived in Italy assuming that I would have to make it up as I went along. However, by a fortunate coincidence, I was in Milan at the same time as an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work was showing at the Palazzo Reale. If one is talking about the art-science interface, what better role model can there be?

What I did not manage to do whilst in Milan, was visit the Last Supper.   Admissions are strictly limited in order to protect this delicate fresco and I left it too late to try to book.   It is, however, sufficiently well known that we barely need an illustration. I did manage to see another of his frescos: the less-well known Salla della Asse in the Castello Sforza, which he covered with depictions of intertwined vegetation. In doing this he created the impression that you were in a pergola, rather than a room inside a castle.   There was no direct link between this room and the Palazzo Reale show but there was a drawing of a lily in the Palazzo Reale that shows how large works such as the Salla delle Asse are informed by his close observation of nature.   He uses drawing as an analytical tool, supporting his observations, and building up an understanding of the interactions between form and function.


The ceiling of the Salla della Asse in Castello Sforza, Milan, June 2015.

We can make links between his anatomical drawings, preparatory drawings where he tested poses and expressions, and his finished works. In our secular age, the symbolism within a work such as The Last Supper is hard to understand, so we look at it purely as a pictorial representation of a mythical event. To unlock the picture, we need to look at it again, from the point of view of a Catholic monk who believes in the real presence of Christ during the Eucharist, and to remember that it was painted on the wall of a refectory. Suddenly, all those hours of observation start to make sense: an anatomically-and perspectively-correct portrayal that brings this most significant of meals into the centre of life in the monastery. The ‘facts’ of his detailed drawings, in other words, build up into a ‘reality’ that is more than the sum of its parts.

If had had a microscope, I am sure that he would have taken the opportunity to examine the floral structure of the lily in yet more detail because his curiosity greatly exceeded the need to inform his painting. But over a century would pass before the first microscope was invented. It means that Leonardo’s concept of ‘reality’ was confined to what he could see with naked eye which, in turn, means that he knows how all of the parts relate to one another when the time comes to reconstruct these into his finished picture.

Many of us in the sciences deal with similar problems, insofar as we have to build the data we collect into a coherent story. Those who read our accounts of this research can then test these stories against their experiences of the natural world. But that is not a luxury that those of us who deal with the microscopic world always have. The process of collecting the sample wrenches the organism from their natural habitat. The material is further distorted as we squash it onto a microscope slide in order to see what we have caught.   We also use unnaturally high light intensities and a suite of other optical tricks. For most scientists, the view down the microscope is the only reality that is available. We try to be objective, which usually involves naming and counting what we see, which is actually a step away from reality and, especially after we have applied our statistical tools, towards abstraction.   That’s okay but, unlike our colleagues who deal with the visible world, we have no mental images of the intact community to help us decode the outcomes.


“Immaginato ma non immaginario”: my contribution to AlgArt at MUSE, Trento, June-July 2015.

I make few claims for my pictures, except to say that they are my own personal view of what these microscopic underwater worlds might have looked like before I disrupted them. I say that they are “imagined but not imaginary” because the pictures are constructed from numerous components that are real. In this way, they are no different from the reconstructions of dinosaurs that we can see elsewhere in MUSE.   They are certainly not definitive descriptions of the three-dimensional structure of the microscopic world.   I invite viewers to disagree with my interpretations, if they wish. That, at least, means that I have made you think a little more about what you see when you peer down a microscope.

Postscript: I wrote this on a coach during a post-conference excursion around some twisting mountain roads. Then, 20 minutes before the event started, I abandoned it and spoke off the cuff instead.

2 thoughts on ““Imagined but not imaginary”

  1. Pingback: John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science | microscopesandmonsters

  2. Pingback: Going with the flow … – microscopesandmonsters

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