But there’s a key difference between the CDC’s computer-graphics image and a coronavirus seen by the electron microscope, which renders it as a gray blob with imperfectly spherical form and a dark shadow around the characteristic crown-shaped spiky covering. The vivid red, which makes the digitized virus look so threatening, isn’t there in real life.
As David Goodsell, a professor of computational biology at the Scripps Research Institute and research professor at Rutgers University, explains, the virus itself doesn’t have much color. The CDC’s image, he says, is scrupulously faithful to what we know now about the virus’s structure, but the red-and-gray color scheme is artistic license.
Goodsell, 58, is also an artist whose work focuses on making images of living cells at the molecular level, and he has produced his own watercolor of the coronavirus, with his own invented color scheme. In Goodsell’s painting, the virus is seen in cross section, not in the round as in the CDC image, and the colors resemble the vibrant, jazzed-up earthiness of Arts and Crafts-style wallpaper that was fashionable in Victorian homes of the late 19th century. In Goodsell’s painting, the characteristic spikes are bright pink, the core of the virus, known as the nucleocapsid, is lavender, and the whole is rendered in a floral sea of green, orange and brown mucous.
His image is strikingly beautiful, whimsical and orderly, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as a record cover for a hippie rock band of the 1960s. After releasing his image on Twitter in February, he has thought a lot about the idea of beauty, and the scientific rendering of something that much of the world now finds uniquely terrifying.
“I am completely struggling with this,” he says. “When I did this painting, I didn’t think about it. I did it in a color scheme I’ve used throughout my illustrations, to separate the different functional parts of the image.” His goal was to render, as accurately as possible, all the known details about the structure of the virus, using a visual scheme that draws on the simplifying lines and distillation of cartoon graphics for greater intellectual clarity.
“I have used this non-photo-realistic style for years and years,” he said. “It makes pictures more appealing and easier to understand. People use cartoons all the time to simplify things, stripping away extraneous details. On the CDC image, each of the spikes has a whole lot of detail. I try to use a more cartoony outline.”
The CDC image of the virus has become a placeholder of sorts, a stand-in for what we cannot see, the “invisible enemy,” as President Trump has described it. Unlike images of sick people or hospital wards or doctors in full protective gear, it is seemingly dispassionate. It contains no particular human misery, it invades no one’s privacy, it comes with none of the political baggage of a visual reference to China or our health-care system. And it does the daily work of reinforcing our collective belief in the germ theory of disease, the idea that microscopic pathogens are responsible for our illnesses, not miasmas of bad air, or bolts of divine wrath.
But no image is ever entirely neutral, and the difference between Goodsell’s painting and the CDC’s rendering speaks volumes about how we think about pathogens. The CDC vision is otherworldly, a death star floating in deep space, with curious stars glimmering in the distance. The red spikes give it an ominously sticky quality, as if it is some alien, manufactured burr picked up on a stroll through a blasted, dystopian landscape. Part of the CDC’s mission is to promote “healthy and safe behaviors,” and the color scheme chosen clearly emphasizes the threat this virus poses to those who refuse to, or cannot, socially distance themselves.
Goodsell, by contrast, depicts the virus interacting with the human body, in its natural context. Although seemingly more stylized, it is more emotionally neutral than the CDC image. The color scheme, beautiful in itself, makes no comment on the virus’s relation to human beings. It is presented as a naturally occurring phenomenon, morally and emotionally indifferent. And its beauty — the complexity and recurring pattern of its parts — places it in a realm independent of human wants, needs or fears. His virus simply exists, as all other things exist.
And paradoxically, his colorful, more cartoonlike rendering isn’t just neutral about the moral purpose of a virus — it has none. It is connected to an essential idea about beauty. In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrestled with how to distinguish aesthetic judgments about beautiful things from the feelings aroused by things that are merely pleasurable. And his solution was to suggest that judgments about beauty must be “disinterested,” that is, unrelated to our desires. They aren’t about grasping or craving, but inspire a free play of the mind, whence their pleasure.
Goodsell’s image, which is aesthetically pleasing, renders the virus in an even more disinterested way, as completely disconnected from our tendency to anthropomorphize viral threats with the rhetoric of war. And thus it removes the virus from its political context. By rendering it truthfully, yet also as beautiful in itself and without reference to human fears, he puts the virus exactly where it needs to be: a thing apart, to be studied, anatomized and understood.
“My experience is that scientists keep these aspects separate,” he says when asked about the bellicose metaphors of political rhetoric, and the way he and his colleagues think about the virus as an object of study. “They are very much focused on their scientific topic, as opposed to thinking about the larger relationship to humanity, except when we go to get funding.”
The benefit of that is obvious. “You have to focus on what you are doing.”