Why this picture should have won the Wellcome Image Awards 2012

“Wellcome Image Awards 2012 celebrates the most informative, striking and technically excellent images acquired by the Wellcome Images picture library in the past eighteen months.”

Cell Division, Kuan-Chung Su

Cell Division, Kuan-Chung Su, Wellcome Collection Images

As ever, the work selected for the  Wellcome Image Awards 2012 is a mixture of the fascinating, the beautiful and the strange. Mostly I attend the annual exhibition and am just intrigued by the pictures and the science, not really making any judgements on whether the winning entry was the one I would have picked. This year was very different.

The Image Awards exhibition is in a small dark room on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection building. Each backlit image hangs next to an explanation of what process or structure you’re looking at and for the last few years there’s also been a QR code hovering nearby to take you to the Image Awards’ website.

The majority of the entries are beautiful (especially if you’re into a certain false-coloured microscopic-level abstract geometric aesthetic) with some notable exceptions. One was the winning image of the cortex of a person undergoing a procedure related to epilepsy – interesting for its subject matter but not outstanding aesthetically I thought. Another was the composite confocal micrograph which you can see above.

The red and cyan spiral of blobs on a black background clearly showed cell devision (“holla” for A-Level biology) but I couldn’t see anything particularly outstanding about it so I read the wall text hoping for further enlightenment:

“This composite confocal micrograph uses time-lapse microscopy to show a cancer cell (HeLa) undergoing cell division (mitosis). The DNA is shown in red, and the cell membrane is shown in cyan. The round cell in the centre has a diameter of 20 microns.”

And that was all it took.

This was cancer. Living and growing and spiraling and replicating. I – childishly – imagined myself as a scientist panicking as the cells multiplied, crushing them in a petri dish with a thumb to prevent the spread of the disease. After reading the text the image became endlessly fascinating to me. The persistence of life, the idea that one thing becomes many, the terror as well as the wonder of that persistence.

A quotation from The X Files came to mind. There’s an episode where Scully is diagnosed with cancer and one of the things she says stuck with me:

“It’s difficult to describe to you the fear of facing an enemy which I can neither conquer nor escape.”

When I was standing there I had a flash of that utter powerlessness in the face of life, for better or for worse. To throw in another pop culture quote – Jurassic Park this time – “Life finds a way”.

Interestingly, the image’s creator, Kuan-Chung Su seems to feel very differently, his description referring only to the beauty of life:

“Over 200 years ago, it was proposed that cells arose from pre-existing cells. We now know that cell division is a fundamental characteristic of life on Earth. All living organisms begin with a single cell that divides repeatedly with astonishing precision to create organisms so complex and wonderful. The spiral arrangement best captures the journey of a cell as it proceeds to divide and create new cells in the process. One could imagine the spiral to spawn an infinite number of interlocked spirals, each representing a single cell but as a whole capturing the beauty of life.”

It was such a strong feeling it took a little while to fade – I’d be really interested in hearing from other people who have been to the exhibition and whether any of the work affected them unexpectedly.