October 6, 2016
Volume 167, Issue 2
I was initially drawn to this image because of the colors. The deep blue-violet and yellow-green is really captivating. However, to me, this visual— a microscopic image of some kind of bacteria or other organism — epitomizes the field of science. It makes me think of using a microscope and looking at biology slides in high school and exploring a whole new world — one we can’t even see with the naked eye. The photo points to an unexplored facet of life — an unknown. Science seeks to answer questions we pose about life, and that’s what this image seems to do. It forces you to wonder what this is: Is this a dangerous, disease-causing bacteria? Where can it be found? What is it doing? The colors grab your attention, but it’s the mysterious content of the image that keeps you looking or reading further to discover what exactly it is.
This image is actually an electron micrograph of a protozoan (Trichomonas musculis) found in the intestines of a mouse. This particular organism was recently discovered to inhabit the digestive tract of mammals. It acts as an antibiotic to prevent bacterial infections; however the inflammation it causes to fight the infection may increase the risk of colon cancer or colitis. It was artificially colored to show how closely the protozoan interacts with the other bacteria and the host tissue.
I printed out my image and took it to a restaurant, then asked a woman how the image made her feel, what she thought it was about, and an overall reaction to the image. Immediately she said it reminded her of the sea. She kept saying it was very pretty and reminded her of coral or amoebas in water with rocks in the background and leaves around the image. She said she felt calm when looking at the image, even commenting, “I love purple! It’s my favorite color!” When asking her to elaborate further on what she thought the image was, she talked about how it seems alive, the “coral” was feeding off the water, and the entire tone of the image was one of livelihood and contentment — “the coral looks like it’s dancing.”
The stranger was a woman, probably in her mid 60s. She was very talkative and personable, and she struck up a conversation with me so I decided to ask her to participate in our “visual communication experiment.” We talked about Disney World (one of my favorite topics) since I noticed she was wearing a Disney sweatshirt. She didn’t attend college so she didn’t have a major, but she said her career was in child care and education and business.
Comparison between Reactions
I found the differences between our reactions very interesting. While I thought more about the image in a scientific sense (since I already knew what the image was of), my reaction had a lot more to do with thinking about it strategically: analyzing the image and what I imagined its motives or reasoning was. The woman, however, had no background or information about the image at all and instead looked for familiar shapes and textures in the image in order to identify it. She also connected much more emotionally with the image, paying attention to the colors and their calming effect on her. Looking at the image in retrospect and from a much more objective perspective, I can see the rocky and plant-like textures and its oceanic qualities. It was interesting how someone else’s reaction could help me interpret the image in a totally different light.