What lies beneath: a beautiful balance of science and art
Dan Sykes, Micro-CT scanning specialist at the Natural History Museum in London, creates breathtakingly beautiful works of art through his incredible 3D images of scientific specimens. Working at the cutting edge of technology, the machines Dan uses are changing how we see the world and our understanding of it.
Read more articles of this issue
Among the great treasures held by the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London’s South Kensington are 185 glass sculptures – exquisite models of invertebrate sea creatures created by father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in the late 19th century. They range from microscopic animals recreated as small, fragile spheres, seemingly of exquisitely spun sugar, to jellyfish – delicate, graceful, as if frozen in motion as they drift on an unseen sea. Their craftsmanship has never been equalled, nor their technique fully understood.
To investigate their structure – critical to their conservation – and also to discover more of the Blaschkas’ techniques, the models are being Micro-CT scanned in the Museum’s Imaging and Analysis Centre. Last year, Dan Sykes’s 3D scanned image of a Blaschka jellyfish became a highlight of the Royal Photographic Society’s International Images of Science Exhibition, and received wide acclaim. And no wonder. What Dan created was a magical three-dimensional transparent image, which revealed previously unimagined details of its innermost structure. CT at present cannot record colour, but using the different densities of the glass, Dan added false colour, based on the materials of the model. On the click of a mouse, Dan emphasised key parts in shades of turquoise, green, lemon, purple, blue. There was scientific purpose in what he did, but the colours were based on his artistic decisions.
What Dan creates balances beautifully between science and art. He is a specialist in Micro-Computed Tomography (CT) scanning, which uses X-rays to reveal not only every detail of the surface of an object, but what lies beneath. It is a technique that is non-invasive, non-destructive and of huge importance in a vast range of subjects – palaeontology, geology, zoology, medicine, botany, biology, archaeology, art, forensics – not simply in understanding the specimen itself, but in the potential applications of the knowledge acquired. And that can be anything from lifesaving techniques in medicine, to groundbreaking advances in engineering.
3D transparent images are created by adding false colour to emphasise key parts of the structures. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
Dan's work shows the intricacies of life forms in startling and beautiful images. The result is art but the purpose is science.
Dan’s enthusiasm for this Aladdin’s cave of subject matter is almost tangible. He is tall, slim – and at the age of just 23, slightly to his surprise, finds himself running the NHM’s Micro-CT Lab over this year as maternity-leave cover. It was a career direction he never expected. “When I was five,” he says, “I knew that I wanted to be a marine biologist – I don’t know how I even knew what they were at that age." He persuaded his parents to take him to aquariums and every summer holiday he would go rockpooling with his father. He learned to snorkel and saw his future as a modern day Jacques Cousteau. He studied marine biology at Southampton University, and for part of his Master’s degree, spent time at the Natural History Museum, Micro-CT scanning the marine animals he was studying. After university, he returned to the imaging department as a volunteer, and after just two months, was offered a post there.
There are few imaging centres that work on such a broad range of materials and subjects as the NHM’s does – most specialise in a particular field – and Dan loves the variety of the work. “There are not many people who get to look at art, deep-sea fish and meteorites within their job!” says Dan. It is not just the intrinsic interest of the extraordinary specimens he deals with that fascinates him, it is, he says, “the ability to cut across disciplines and join them together and see what the common themes are”.
He has recently been involved in a medical project for the British Heart Foundation, scanning the circulatory system of a rabbit, while that meteorite he scanned is from Mars. The power of Micro-CT scanning is that it can show a virtual dissection of a specimen, slicing it through to reveal what is inside – something that could not previously be achieved without destruction of at least part of a valuable specimen. “Many meteorites contain minerals present as glass,” he says. “Within this glass we find bubbles, which may contain Martian atmosphere. We can use CT to locate bubbles that aren't connected to the outside of the meteorite by cracks, which implies that the Martian atmosphere – potentially from millions of years ago – is preserved inside.” And that, says Dan, “means that instead of breaking the meteorite to discover what it contains, researchers have characterised it virtually, so preserving the museum’s collections.”
Dan Sykes is a Micro-CT scanning specialist at London's Natural History Museum.
The beauty of nature is so complicated, that complex technologies are employed to grasp it. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
Working in such an inter-disciplinary area, what, I asked him, had happened to his ambition to be a new Jacques Cousteau? “I actually find that I prefer this”, he says thoughtfully, “because it would be very hard not to love this job”. On the wall above his desk is one of his 3D scans. It is the head of a lizard, but the 3D imagery has given it a mesmeric quality that raises unexpected questions. “I don’t think I’m the most philosophical of people”, Dan says with a laugh, “but it does make you start to think about how these things are”. He pauses for a moment. “There’s a huge complexity in how that lizard has evolved, and how its anatomy functions as a whole, but in that image you can see quite a simple structure behind it. I think it portrays a lot of the beauty of nature, but it is so incredibly complicated that we have to employ complex technologies to get a grasp of it.”
Dan’s work shows the intricacies of life forms in startling and beautiful images. The result is art but the purpose is science. And that lies behind the glorious glass Blaschka models. Leopold Blaschka came from a family of Bohemian glassmakers. In the 1850s, his wife and father died within two years of each other and heartbroken, he sailed for America. On the way, the ship moored in the Azores and it was observing the grace and delicacy of sea creatures as they moved in their natural habitat that inspired Leopold. Invertebrate sea animals were notoriously difficult to study – once they are preserved in spirit, they lose their shape and colour. Students and scientists had largely to work from drawings or, if they were fortunate, from aquariums. Blaschka’s models changed that. On his return to Europe, Leopold re married and had a son, Rudolf, who later worked with him. Leopold began to make glass models of plants and flowers, and then anatomically accurate models of marine life, and sold them to universities and museums, including the British Museum, of which the NHM was originally a part. When Rudolf died in the 1930s, the secrets of their craft died with him – they had trained no one else.
X-rays are used to reveal not only every detail of the surface of an object, but what lies beneath. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
Dan is full of admiration for their work. We look at a 3D image of an exquisite glass sphere that is currently on display in the NHM’s Treasures Gallery. It is actually of a microscopic creature, a radiolarian. The scan has revealed the complex inner structure of the model, and emphasised the fragile spines that radiate around it. “These models display an almost unbelievable level of fine detail,” says Dan, “especially for the time they were made.” It is the Blaschkas’ ability to maintain the scientific integrity of the models, while creating something beautiful that Dan finds so inspirational, and he sees parallels between his work, and theirs. “They were taking something that people couldn’t see and didn’t have access to and creating a beautiful, anatomically accurate depiction of it. It was a simple, clear but crucial step between taking the science and creating an artistic impression that is then used for education and training. I work with researchers to scan their specimens and produce an artistic image, and that is often also used for public outreach, to show people how these things work – something that they would not be able to see in any other way.”
He makes the process sound simple, but the main part of this work is after the scan. “Scanning itself”, he says, “is only going to be an hour or so, but then there is the actual processing and rendering of images and analysing data. That’s the tough part. Some people can spend months working on just one scan, because they want to highlight something very specific that’s hard to model” – much as the Blaschkas would have done when they began their precise, intricate work.
This is the field in which Dan Sykes wants to be and where his ambitions lie – in the future development of Micro-CT scanning. On the horizon are colour and 4D scanning, the fourth dimension being movement and time, the ability to scan something in motion and then produce moving models of how it works in three dimensions. This, he says, “is just fascinating”, and the potential extraordinary.
Science underlies everything he does, but art does too. The Blaschka models were described by a contemporary as ‘an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art’. The 3D imagery of Dan Sykes is not a million miles away from that.