3–10 July 2007

Visualizing Nature: Making Images and the Production of Biological Knowledge from Early Modern Natural History to Contemporary Life Sciences

Red blood cells, by the EM Unit of KCL (London), via Wellcome Images

Andreas Vesalius, 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica' (Basel, 1543)

'De Humani Corporis Fabrica' by Andreas Vesalius (Basel, 1543)

'Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants' by Leonhart Fuchs (Basel, 1542)

'Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants' by Leonhart Fuchs (Basel, 1542)

PET scan of human brain at four heights

PET scan of human brain at four heights

Introduction to the theme

'Neurons in the Brain',  by Benedict Campbell via Wellcome Images

'Neurons in the Brain', by Benedict Campbell via Wellcome Images

Since the sixteenth century, scientific accounts of living beings have gone through a succession of significant stages, from classificatory natural history where the taxonomic arrangement of living beings became an issue in its own right, through a stage of disciplinary diversification and historicization in the 18th and 19th centuries, followed by molecularization and the study of ‘hidden’ processes in the 20th century. In each of these stages, different levels of biological organization became accessible for investigation, from organisms in the environment to cells to macromolecules to developmental feedbacks. Accordingly, different analytical approaches, instruments, and experimental procedures have been introduced. We would like to understand the specific epistemic activities at all these levels and through all these stages by exploring the role of images in biological explanations. This summer school will explore the relationship between making and knowing in the biological sciences as mediated by visual culture from the Renaissance to the modern day.

Flea, from Robert Hooke's 'Micrographia' (1664)

Flea, from Robert Hooke's Micrographia(1664)

The investigation and interpretation of nature, whether macroscopic or microscopic, depends crucially on the means of perception and representation. As Norton Wise said in a recent issue of Isis, much of the history of science could be written in terms of making things ‘visible’. Images are now regarded as indispensable to our ability to understand the sciences we study. The Ischia Summer School ‘Visualising Nature: Making Images and the Production of Biological Knowledge from Early Modern Natural History to Contemporary Life Sciences’ will address this fundamental issue for the life sciences in three interrelated ways across the chronological span from the 16th century to the present day.

Metallic DNA - image B0003343 from Wellcome Images

'Metallic DNA,' image B0003343 from Wellcome Images

The first aspect concerns craft practices and the development of visualising technologies. The creation and interpretation of empirical results in any period relies on access to particular techniques and equipment and the emergence of consensus about what the images might mean. The development of such technologies (engraving, photography, film and digital technologies) invariably takes place outside biology and therefore gives rise to problems of application, conversion and definition, all of which impact on the methodological problems of biology. The second aspect concerns the historical relation between theory and image in the formation of scientific arguments. The iconic images of an evolutionary tree, biochemical cycles or the double helix, for example, are wedded to our understanding of current research. Visualisation, in this sense, is the statement of theory.

Schema of the HIV virus, image N0019841 from Wellcome Images

Schema of the HIV virus, image N0019841 from Wellcome Images

One of the first X-ray images of Roentgen's wife's hand

One of the first x-ray images of Röntgen's wife's hand (Dec 1895)

Third, there is the issue of different ways of representing biological information and the various cognitive claims that are made about the images, for example through graphs, diagrams, or naturalistic scenes; moving images, time lapse and changes of scale; electron-microscopy; computer simulation; spectacle, display and museum organisation; print history and the rhetoric of book illustration; cinema and TV films. Perceptual evidence has traditionally been given privileged epistemic status in science, and in the past decade historians and philosophers of science have paid increasing attention to the pictorial components of science. Yet increasing use of non-optical detection methods and increasing reliance on statistical processing to generate data renders the status of the knowledge problematic. Querying the role of reality in high-level knowledge-production and the public understanding of biological science through ‘real-life’ pictures will play an important part in this. Most of the individual themes presented here cover more than one of these aspects, and most of them are situated in the realm of the natural historical, biological and medical sciences between the 16th and the 20th century.

“View of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius Monday morning August the 9th 1779,” by William Hamilton

Preliminary programme

The aim of the Summer School was to bring together graduate and recent postdoctoral students with experts from a number of different fields, in the 10th edition to engage seriously with six key themes:

  1. Technologies of making images and presenting biological materials, including the fine arts, drawing and painting, craft practices, the impact of mechanical reproduction, anatomies and preparations (e.g., slides, models, specimens),
  2. Changes of scale, microscopy, photography, X-Rays, the consolidation of agreement about the meaning of images, eyewitness reports, realism and observation, training,
  3. Film and digital technologies; new instruments and new conceptual problems,
  4. Images as theory and tool, diagrams, maps, scans, tables, graphs and iconic representations such as evolutionary trees, biological cycles, isotopic tracing,
  5. Computer simulations, the enhancement of reality, the place of perceptual evidence in modern biology, genetic and epidemiological maps, the depiction of cells,
  6. Visual display, museums, book illustration, spectacle, mass-media outlets.

Villa dell'Acquario seen from the seaThere was a workshop session on each of these projected topics.

In addition there were film screenings, mainly a selection of Jean Painlevé’s classic natural history films from the '40s. The School visited the laboratory of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, to explore modern laboratory techniques and its famous aquarium. Some free time for excursions in and around the beautiful Bay of Naples was built into the programme, but participants stayed a few further days and brought along partners and offspring (at their own expense).

As expected in this season, the weather was extremely warm and sunny, especially around midday, so for comfort the sessions were scheduled during the morning and late afternoon. A background reading pack for the workshops was sent to each participant in advance. Each participating student also had to present a brief account of their own work.

List of Faculty

The school directors at this edition were: Giorgio Bernardi, Christiane Groeben, Janet Browne, Bernardino Fantini, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. The faculty consisted of:concert with 2007 School's youngest attendees

  • Patrice Bourdelais (EHESS, Paris, epidemiological maps)
  • Robert Bud (Science Museum London, multimedia)
  • Edna Suarez Diaz (MPIWG, Berlin, epistemology of imaging)
  • Philipp Felsch (ETH Zurich, Alpinism and physiology)
  • Peter Geimer (ETH Zurich, photography)
  • Scott Gilbert (Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, visualising embryos)
  • Bettyann Kevles (Yale University, Connecticut, imaging in science)
  • Timothy Lenoir (Duke University, North Carolina, medical technologies)
  • Anna Maerker (MPIWG, Berlin, anatomical models)
  • Gregg Mitman (University of Wisconsin, Madison, natural history cinema)
  • Laura Otis (Emory University, Georgia, neuroanatomy)
  • Marc Ratcliff (Institut d’Histoire de la Médecine et de la Santé, Geneva, microscopy in the 18th century)
  • Julia Voss (MPIWG, Berlin, Darwin's visual imagery)

The Tenth Ischia Summer School was funded by grants from the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, the Geneva Institute for the History of Medicine and Health, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Harvard's History of Science Department, the VolkswagenStiftung, and each student's €400 contribution.