The images startle, their subject appearing at once familiar and foreign. It is the human body as you've never seen it, with its intricate layers of tissue, bone and skin -- and most of the vital systems in between -- simultaneously and gorgeously rendered in images whose color, clarity and depth evoke the masterworks of Renaissance painters.
Mysterious, cavernous structures piled high with curved red disks of eerily uniform size and shape are actually tiny lung sacs, lined with red blood cells that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. Plump yellow berries that seem ripe for plucking are white blood cells attacking infectious invaders. We see the heart and cardiovascular system nestled deep in the chest, protected by the ribs, the lungs and layers of muscle and skin. And these remarkable images allow a new appreciation for a skeleton engineered not just to stand upright, but to withstand the force of a handstand.
The assembled images, by artist and writer Alexander Tsiaras, are the focus of a new book, "The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman" (Doubleday); an upcoming Discovery Health Channel documentary, and an exhibit that opens today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. What makes the bodily depictions so novel and arresting is that they are 3-D-seeming visualizations built partly from images once limited to radiology departments and research labs. To create them, Tsiaras merged and layered X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) body scans, magnetic resonance images (MRI) and electron microscope and molecular surveillance views, using software he developed with his colleagues at Anatomical Travelogue, a privately held company in New York.
"Portraiture hasn't changed in 100 years," said Tsiaras of his rendering of the human body. "This is where art meets science."
The book's images are accompanied by a lyrical text, written by biographer and National Book Critics Circlefinalist Barry Werth. Here is Werth writing about the body's facade and largest organ -- what Victor Hugo called "the surface of the unknown."
"Like the natural hides of other living forms -- shells, husks, rinds, etc. -- the skin and its extensions function primarily as an outer garment, an exterior structure engineered for a lifetime of rough duty. That they also largely determine our ideas of what it means to be a man or woman, or beautiful, and also our awareness of race, is ironic, since the cells we see -- hair, nails, those on the skin's surface -- are all dead, their own skins already lost."
Building the Body
To assemble the 500 color images in the book and exhibit, Tsiaras and his team acquired thousands of digital "slices" of the body and used most of a 10,000-volume library of high-resolution anatomical images from academic, federal and private research centers. Collaborators in the two-year, $2.5 million project include the National Institutes of Health, the National Library of Medicine, the National Museum of Health and Medicine, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania as well as Siemens, General Electric and Phillips, makers of some of the scanning equipment. The project was funded in part by the National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Air Force Institute of Pathology. The National Institutes of Health supplied data, but no funds.
The depth and detail of the images derive in part from the use of voxels -- tiny cubes of digital information -- that are part of every CT scan. Most CT scans are read only at the 2-D pixel level -- the smallest, discrete two-dimensional element found in a digital picture. Reading images at the 3-D voxel level is expensive and time-consuming and requiressoftware programs such as those developed by Tsiaras and his colleagues. While a standard CT image slice is 512 by 512 voxels and generally measures from about 1 millimeter to 10 millimeters deep, Tsiaras is able to acquire images that are about 1 by 1 voxel and 1 millimeter deep. The result is an image that is hundreds of times higher in resolution than typical medical images.
"We're always careful not to call these photographs or pictures, because in reality they are reconstructions of scans," Tsiaras said. "It's imaging, but a different kind of imaging. A photo takes a picture of the surface. When you scan, it's like owning the real estate."
Once the voxel view is assembled, data may be added from MRI, electron microscope or other sources and merged into a single 3-D image. Areas are also tweaked by hand, much the way the Photoshop program is used to enhance standard digital images. Creating a single image, Tsiaras said, can take as little as 30 minutes -- or as long as several days, depending on the degree of detail needed.
To produce an image that demonstrates the body's range of motion, for example, Tsiaras and company began with a spiral, whole-body CT image from a 360-degree scan of the body. They focused on the skeleton, digitally removing muscles, fat and other body tissues as extraneous detail. Then they filmed a performance of a fast-motion dance move and merged the two. The effort took about a day.
The computer program "allows us to take a human skeleton and move it into any position we want, kind of a like a crash test dummy," Tsiaras said.
Not all of the renderings include the full body. Through repeated use of side-by-side images, Tsiaras highlights patterns of nature mirrored in the human body. There is the inner ear, as gracefully curved as a prized seashell found on a sandy beach. Twisted vines that snake along a forest's strange and spongy floor are actually capillaries running through the thyroid gland. What appear to be irregular stacks of wooden planks are the building blocks of collagen and bone.
It's "like looking at God's puzzle," said Tsiaras. Contemplating the body's design, he said, "is indeed a spiritual experience."
Science as Art
Born in Macedonia, Tsiaras immigrated to the United States with his parents and three brothers as boy. Trained as a painter and a sculptor -- he studied with George Segal -- Tsiarsas published his first book (about death rituals in ancient Greece) at age 19. He became intrigued by science while observing eye surgery during a visit with his brother, then an ophthalmologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "It was like an early Salvador Dali film, real bizarre and a mixture of drama and science," he said.
Inspired, Tsiaras began studying X-rays at a hospital archive and taught himself physics and math. He wrote "The Body Voyage" (Warner) and began producing visual pieces for national publications. His work has been featured on more than 85 magazine covers, including editions of Geo, Discover, Smithsonian and Life, the last of which devoted an entire issue to his anatomical computer renderings.
Together with researchers at Albert Einstein Medical School in New York, Tsiaras said, he is now exploring possibilities for the use of his images in medical practice. One study uses his imaging techniques to document the spread of breast cancer cells, with hopes of developing new diagnostic tools and treatment.
Of course, others before him have labored famously to merge art and science -- including no less a master than Leonardo daVinci. "Separation of science and art is a 19th-century thing," said Tsiaras. "Before that, scientists and artists worked together. . . . If you talk to great scientists and great artists, they think similarly."
The exhibit opens today and runs through June at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (www.nmhm.washingtondc.museum), located at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Avenue NW in the District. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except for Dec. 25. The television documentary premieres on Dec. 13 at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Health Channel.
The arteries emerge, right, from an electron microscope as vines nourished by darker, thinner veins and ensarled by tiny capillaries. A view of the body's filtration system shows the chemical and engineering feat performed by the kidneys in separating microscopic wastes from 15 gallons of recirculating fluid daily while preserving blood pressure, volume and balance of sodium, potassium, calcium and more. Those aren't wood planks, above, or stacks of manuscript pages. They're the sheets of compressed collagen fibers that constitute bone. Bones provide skeletal structure while synovial joints and fluid give the body the range of motion needed to rise from a chair, throw 30-yard pass, turn a cartwheel or simply dance for joy (right). Like door hinges and car transmissions, synovial joints ease mechanical forces, cut friction and help resist wear and tear. These images originated from a 360-degree computerized tomography (CT) whole body scan available in most hospitals. Computer software was used to digitally eliminate all but the bones. A film of a dancer was superimposed on the digital image of the bones and then manipulated on a computer. Paired images, below, from Tsiaras's book highlight patterns we share with the world around us. In the first pair, taste buds on the tongue's surface, left, uncannily follow the form of caterpillar spines, right. In the second pair, the spiral shape of the cochlea, the hearing chamber of the inner ear, left, resembles a snail's shell, right. In the third pair, a cellular blueprint in the eye, left, mirrors a view of mushroom gills, right. Leaving nothing to chance, the body's defense mechanism (left) has multiple layers, starting with the skin and nails and proceeding down to the cellular level. At the heart of immunity is the lymph system, a network of nodes -- some as big as a fist, most as tiny as grapes -- connected by lymphatic fluid that flows between cells. Special multi-valve vessels draw the lymph from the blood and toward the nodes. There, white blood cells wait to digest bacteria and other debris. We commonly refer to lymph nodes in the neck as glands; swelling is a common symptom of infection. Tongue SurfaceCaterpillar SpinesCochilea: Inner Ear Hearing MechanismSnail ShellCiliary Body of EyeMushroom Gills