Art + Science – scientific illustrations, real or imagined


While scientific illustrations are often crucial to explaining how something works, I often see much more than that. Sometimes they can be quite beautiful. Other times they seem so simple but give form to something that existed only in scientist’s imaginations and extrapolations from their data- for instance, the first illustrations of the DNA double helix. And in yet other cases, artists have been inspired by scientific illustrations to create their own meticulously detailed diagrams of imagined worlds. Let’s take a tour.

This is a diagram of the unicellular organism Stentor coereleus, which has the remarkable ability (as diagrammed) to regenerate when its single cell is chopped into smaller pieces – as long as that piece contains one of the organism’s many micronuclei. This illustration originally appeared in Popular Science Monthly in 1907. The author is unknown, but I imagine some rich gentleman scientist with a dissecting microscope. Wallace Marshall at UCSF has recently revived interest in this strange little organism as a model for studying regeneration.


Janet Iwasa is a current scientific illustrator and animator and faculty member at the University of Utah. Here, she animates the process of HIV entry into a host T cell:

HIV entry

Odile Crick, the wife of the Francis Crick, drew the original illustration of the DNA double helix that appeared in Watson and Crick’s original 1953 paper detailing the structure of DNA in Nature. On first glance at this figure, you might think “huh… nothing special”. But Odile was the first to take her husband’s (and Jim Watson’s, and Rosalind Franklin’s) interpretations of their data and translate it into a simple, memorable image.


This structure was inferred from data including the diffraction pattern of x-ray particles off DNA molecules, which gave a pattern that looked like this:


And now for something completely (!) different- a few illustrations from the massive work of Luigi Serafini, the Codex Seraphinianus. This work was published in 1981 and contains illustrations of all kinds of imagined flora, fauna, and physical phenomena. Serafini is an architect and artist. I can’t fathom having such a depth of imagination! This guy would have made a great scientist.

A few favorites: trees (i) uprooting and walking and (ii) populating a field by binary fission (much like you would see a bacterium do).


I don’t even know what this one is. I see some sort of specialized cell, maybe a sensory neuron.


Bonus: many of these illustrations would make a great tattoo!