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  • The Artistry of Science
Apr 2012
Apr. 30, 2012 — You’ve never seen a goblin spider-claw in quite the same way.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is currently showcasing images obtained by its scientists using an array of advanced techniques. The exhibition, Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies, features more than 20 sets of large-format prints from the many disciplines represented in the Museum — including Invertebrate Zoology, which produced the image of the goblin spider.

Associate Curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology Lorenzo Prendini, an arachnologist, uses UV fluorescence imaging to study scorpions, in this case ten different species of Opistophthalmus. (Image: © AMNH\L. Prendini and S. Thurston)

The striking exhibition takes as its starting point the artistic impulse often on display in scientific papers. “There’s a wonderful aesthetic that goes with a scientist’s choice of images that find their way into scientific publication,” said Mark Siddall, the exhibition curator and curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “It’s not always the most informative image that is chosen, often it is the most visually compelling. It was my hope to capture the artistry of the scientific eye in this exhibition.”

Nadine Dupérré, a scientific assistant in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, uses a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to view goblin spiders in minute detail. This detailed study allowed Museum Curator Emeritus Norman Platnick and Dupérré to define two new genera, or groups, of spiders: Niarchos and Scaphios. (Image: © AMNH\N. Duperre)

Picturing Science features images from the Museum’s Divisions of Anthropology, Invertebrate Zoology, Physical Sciences, Vertebrate Zoology and Paleontology, as well as from its Richard Gilder Graduate School. A number of imaging technologies are represented: simple photography and microscopy, remote satellite sensing, and fluorescence imaging techniques including in situ DNA hybridization and confocal fluorescent microscopy. Also on display: a series of images from the Hubble telescope stitched together, in which every square millimeter has at least one star.

Tiny bacteria make their home inside leeches, providing their hosts with essential nutrients. Museum microbiologists Mark Siddall, curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, and Susan Perkins, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, use a technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization to uncover this relationship. (Image: © AMNH\S. Perkins)

Siddall sees the exhibition as part of a unique moment where the gulf between art and science isn’t nearly as great as we might once have presumed — indeed where the two freely intermingle in an ever broader cultural space. “We’re in an interesting period in which there is quite a bit of art that is science-referential — like Charles Lindsay’s work — and where there’s a lot of science and technology being brought to the creation of art,” he said. Picturing Science is something different from these, though. It’s not “art about science” or “the science of art,” but rather “the artistry of science.”

Does he have a favorite image? “I like the diversity most,” he said. “I do have a fondness, of course, for the one depicting endosymbiotic bacteria in leeches in full fluorescent regalia.”

The exhibition, housed in the Museum’s second-floor Akeley Gallery, runs until June 24th. Check it out if you’re in town.

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