Jack Challoner, Gills of a fish-like invertebrate (all images courtesy Jack Challoner, from ‘The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life‘)

In 1665, when British polymathic scientist Robert Hooke first discovered cells using a microscope, he also became the first to illustrate these minuscule building blocks of life. Hooke’s book, Micrographia, featured blown-up engravings depicting a world previously invisible to the human eye — incredibly detailed images of things like lice, gnats, and the cellular structure of cork. It became the world’s first scientific best seller.

Technology enabling us to visualize cells has, of course, vastly improved since Hooke’s time. Today’s micrographs depict the minute cellular structures that comprise living things, from cotton plants to algae blooms, in dazzling detail and vibrant color. A new book by Jack Challoner, The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life, published by Ivy Pressis a 21st-century update of Hooke’s Micrographia. 

Light micrograph showing a corn root tip (click to enlarge)

In many more visible cases, nature’s patterns serve evolutionary purposes: a tiger’s stripes let it camouflage into its surroundings, a bird-of-paradise’s bright spots attract mates. But what do the dazzling patterns inside hidden cells do? Why are there microscopic artworks clustered inside every living thing? It’s a bit of a mystery, Challoner says. “Why is anything beautiful? I guess part of what makes these images inspiring and thought-provoking is that they reveal an unseen but very real and relevant world.”

Hooke wouldn’t have seen neon pinks and fluorescent yellows through his microscope in 1665, though. Much of the color we see in these micrographs is augmented by scientists, who use techniques like enhancing contrast or dark field, staining, fluorescence, or artificially adding color to help interpret the images. That’s because “nearly all structures inside cells have no color (electrons can’t see color!), and the flooding of light through the sample tends to wash out any color that is present,” Challoner says.

The polka dots, stripes, mandala-like arrangements, and other trippy patterns are, however, all natural — even if we don’t yet understand the logic behind them. “It might have something to do with complexity based on simple repeating elements,” Challoner says. “You know fractals? They have that same kind of inherent and mind-blowing beauty, but are produced by repeating very simple rules. In the same way, cells are incredibly complex, but it’s all chemical compounds doing their thing, very simple molecule-to-molecule interactions, repeated countless times, doing remarkable things.”

B Collagen stains in a light micrograph of osteocytes in bone

Micrograph of striated skeletal muscle fibers

Phase contrast light micrograph of prostate cancer cells

Light micrograph of an osteon unit of bone

Volvox, a genus of algae

Floral bud of a cotton plant

Section of a cotton stem

Epidermis and dermis of the skin of a finger

Underground stem of a calamus

Enhanced light micrograph of pollen grains

Jack Challoner’s The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life is published by Ivy Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

h/t Wired 

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