The fine art of marine biology …

I am, as regular readers will know, curious about how art and science can work symbiotically.   I have written both about how science can inspire art (see “Anselm Kiefer and the art of algae…”) but have also tried to show how the tools of the artist can help ecologists gain insights into the communities that they study (see “More about Very Hungry Chironomids”).   A chance conversation has led me to another scientist who used his artistic background to great effect in his work.

A retired clergyman who I know well was talking about his own encounters with Sir Alister Hardy when he was running the Religious Experience Research Centre in Oxford.   The name rang some bells with me, though in very different contexts to those that we were discussing.   When I got home, I checked on my computer and confirmed that this was the same Alister Hardy who I knew as a marine biologist and who, in fact, wrote one of the very first ecology books that I read.   This was the New Naturalist volume The Open Sea 2: Fish and Fisheries, written in 1959.   Of more interest to me now is the first volume of The Open Sea: The World of Plankton (1956).   The science in this book is now rather dated but this can be forgiven for the enthusiasm with which he communicates his interest.   He also illustrated his own books, drawing on a background that included a period designing camouflage schemes during the First World War.


Two plates from Alister Hardy’s The Open Sea: the World of Plankton.   Left: “Plants of the Plankton”; right: “More Hydrozoan Jelly-fish”.

The illustration shows two of the colour plates from the World of Plankton to illustrate his skills. On the left hand side are illustrations of common organisms of the marine phytoplankton, mostly diatoms, but including a couple of dinoflagellates at the bottom right too.   At the top left you can see a chain of cells of a diatom he refers to as Asterionella japonica, but which we encountered last year as Asterionellopsis glacialis (see “Sampling the surf at Alnmouth”).   The right-hand plate is one of several exquisite paintings of jellyfish that he included in The World of Plankton.   The three illustrations at the top of the plate are based on specimens that he collected from Cullercoats, just a few miles up the coast from where I live but, early in his career, he made two expeditions on board RRS Discovery. He describes how he was lowered on a Boson’s chair until he was just above sea level as the ship sailed along, ready to dip his bucket into the sea whenever an interesting-looking specimen came into his reach.   His paintings of these jellyfish are wondrous to behold – more so if you consider that they were made on the deck of a sailing ship under way.   The act of drawing or painting is more than just a means of recording specimens; it is also a meditation on form and function that, perhaps, we lose when we can get fine images simply by clicking a shutter.

In later life, he turned his attention to the study of religion, which is where my friend Theo encountered him.   Hardy’s interest was in the biological and psychological basis for religious instincts, a subject that he wrote about extensively in his later years, and for which he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1985.   His Religious Experience Research Centre is still going, now at the University of Wales in Lampeter.

Go and find a copy of The Open Sea.   I did mention that some of the science was dated but Hardy’s writing is clear and, what is more, he does not patronise his audience.   He writes with an assumption that the ideas he discusses are well within the grasp of the informed non-specialist, and laces his prose with just enough enthusiasm to draw the non-specialist into the excitement of his discoveries.   There is much here that modern scientists could learn from.