Before we put the Hilda Canter-Lund competition to rest for another year, I thought I would dig out the very first winning entry to see how much had changed over the ensuing years. The British Phycological Society ran the first competition in 2008 not as an open competition to which people submitted their images, but as a prize for the micrograph published in their journal, the European Journal of Phycology, that was “judged best with respect to a combination of scientific, technical and aesthetic merit”. David Mann and I scoured through the 2007 and 2008 issues of the journal and selected the image above as the winner. It comes from a paper by Conxi Rodríguez-Pieto, D. Wilson Freshwater and Noemí Sánchez on the morphology of the red alga Gloiocladia repens and is shows a fusion cell, one of the early post-fertilisation stages. The scale bar in the bottom left corner is 50 micrometres (= 1/20th of a millimetre).
Strip away the explanatory labels and you are left with a pleasing abstract monochrome composition dominated by a vaguely tree-like structure. You do not need to know anything about the reproductive biology of red algae to find some aesthetic pleasure from this image. However, images in a scientific journal are not supposed to stand in isolation. They are loaded with significance which the viewer needs to be able to decode and come alive through interplay between the image and text. The viewer, indeed, needs to bring considerable prior knowledge to the text itself: the European Journal of Phycology serves as a conduit for new knowledge, not as a means of explaining basic principles of red algal reproduction to the uninitiated. Whereas the fine artist might regard abstraction as a mental exercise unconstrained by reality, this image, however “abstract” it may appear to the uninitiated is, in fact, representational (see “Abstracting from reality …”).
We recognise images as depictions of particular objects by a mental process of matching our sensory perceptions to impressions (“schemata”) stored in our memories. Similar processes now take place automatically using computer algorithms and, as an indication of how far this image is from the mainstream, the alternative text suggested by my computer (to be used in situations where the image itself cannot be displayed) was: “A picture containing nature, pizza, rain sitting …”
After this first exercise, we rethought the competition. Offering the prize only to published images in the European Journal of Phycology was limiting because the images were only ever selected for their role in a larger story. The aesthetic qualities of the image were always secondary to this purpose and we closed off significant pathways of visual exploration in the process. So the following year, we ran it as an open competition and invited entries from the entire phycological community. That attracted over fifty entrants and the format has stayed more-or-less unchanged ever since.
Rodríguez-Pieto, C., Freshwater, D.W. & Sánchez, N. (2008).Vegetative and reproductive morphology of Gloiocladia repens (C. Agardh) Sánchez et Rodríguez-Prieto comb. nov. (Rhodymeniales, Rhodophyta), with a taxonomic re-assessment of the genera Fauchea and Gloiocladia. European Journal of Phycology 42: 145-162.
Some other highlights from this week:
Wrote this whilst listening to: Gaslighter, the new album by The Chicks and Jarvis Cocker’s Beyond the Pale
Cultural highlights: we’ve been watching Life on Mars, the TV series about a detective who travels back in time to the 1970s. Like Mad Men, it manages to trigger simultaneously a sense of nostalgia and an awareness of the casual sexism and racism that were rife at the time. We’ve come a long way, though that does not necessarily mean that we have come far enough …
Currently reading: Utopia Avenue, the new novel by David Mitchell
Culinary highlight: I have a painful mouth ulcer, so eating is a chore rather than a pleasure just at the moment, I am afraid.