What is Science Art?

What is Science Art?

  • Why are we engaging in science art?
  • How is science art made?
  • Science art example
  • What are zebrafish?
  • What microscopes do you use?

Science and art are often considered independent and separate disciplines. However, if you consider the beautiful anatomical sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci or the optical illusions by M. C. Escher, it is evidently clear that science and art both inspire and complement each other.

Now, more than ever, scientists and artists are further establishing new genres of science art by carefully considering composition, tonality, and style. Social media has also made this art easily accessible and breath-taking images can be seen using the hashtag #SciArt or #FluorescenceFriday on Twitter.


Why are we engaging in science art?

Science art acts as a gateway into the world of microscopic imagery and visualisation. This allows the viewer to experience and engage with science without the need of a technical background. Science art also acts as a vehicle to inspire, not only the non-scientific community to connect with science, but the next generation of scientists to try new things and move beyond the typical approaches of data visualization.

“In addition to conveying information, science communication is also pivotal to inspiring curiosity. Science is not the boring cliché of pipettes and test tubes, but colorful, exciting and stimulating; this is best exemplified when looking at fluorescent microscopy to image data of cells smaller than a single spider silk strand and following their development over days.” – Elisabeth Kugler in doi: 10.1242/dev.199942


How is science art made?

Data are first acquired with a complex and powerful microscope in 3D (using a series of 2D photos, anywhere between 10 to 500 – similar to the processes of an MRI scan). The microscopes we use for these data are worth about half a million British pounds and all data were used in some form for active research. A comprehensive knowledge of biology and an understanding of image processing is required to then extract the features of interest.

In our recent works, images from the eyes of a developing zebrafish embryo have been used. Individual and groups of cells within the eyes can be stained to allow for the identification of these cells under the microscope. Once the 2D photos of the 3D tissue are taken, image processing is applied to create art.


Science art example:

To put all this into context, let us look at the 6 images below. These images show retinal support cells of the eye of a developing zebrafish embryo at different stages of processing. The data were acquired with the Zeiss LSM 900 AiryScan microscope, using a 40x water-immersion LD C-Apochromat (NA 1.1) objective. Processing was conducted using Zeiss ZenBlack and Fiji.

In the first green image, the original 3D data are shown in 2D, so we can establish a feeling for the data (i.e. their orientation and quality). For the second image, the 3D data were rotated and cropped using specific code. We then applied a filter (similar to filters found on smartphones) to show the intensity of the image (i.e. orange is bright, purple is dark). In the third image, we altered the image again so that the retinal support cells and background are easily identified. Here, the retina cells black, and the background is white. In the fourth image, we only keep the surface of the 3D extracted cells. In images five and six, we use so-called “depth-coding” where different colours indicate distance from the viewer (i.e. depth into the tissue, white is closer to the viewer and blue is further away) and experiment with different colour palettes. Experimenting with different colour palettes and compositions is crucial to emphasize the focus points of the image and lead the viewer through the data.

The cells that we studied are often less than 10 micrometre thick. This is less than a spider silk strand. The resulting images are often in the range of about 100 micrometre high or wide, which is 1/10 of a millimetre or 1/7 of credit card thickness.

screenshot showing the artistic process of converting a microscopy image to science art


What are zebrafish?

Zebrafish are freshwater fish originally from South Asia. They are readily available to buy in pet stores and can be kept in a home aquarium. Scientists, however, use zebrafish to understand the processes of development, health, and disease in humans. Additionally, zebrafish are used for large scale drug screens to identify new therapeutics. While the adult fish are about the size of a matchsticks, the larvae are smaller than the tip of a matchstick. Find out more here.


What microscopes do we use?

You might have seen or used a microscope like this before:

Image: Pawel Czerwinski from Unsplash

These microscopes are excellent and are used extensively throughout the world to answer many scientific and medical questions. However, for our work in studying and imaging zebrafish, we require microscopes that are more technical and versatile. All the images that you see on our website were acquired with microscopes like these:

 Photo of AiryScan microscope with laser unit and computer screen,      Photo of a light sheet fluorescence microscope with laser unit and computer screen,

Images: AiryScan and Light Sheet Fluorescence Microscope c/o by © ZEISS Microscopy

These are highly specialized microscopes, called AiryScan or light sheet fluorescence microscope, respectively.

As you can see, these microscopes are much bigger. They are equipped with lasers, filters, incubation, and state-of-the-art computers are needed to operate them. They are often seen in scientific research laboratories and require in-depth training to be competently used.