The inner life of the cell

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 24, 2009

I was recently reminded of this wonderful visualization of the processes inside the cell.  As a physicist, I found this quite powerful in imagining this mysterious (and usually, to me, boring) microscopic world.  It was created by a Harvard professor in conjunction with a scientific animation company.  Here’s the video:

In my art and science visualization seminar we had quite an energetic discussion about this video, however.  There seemed to be a lot of skepticism in the room about this visualization.  “It’s not art,” claimed the artists in the room, and the scientists (who were not biologists) were suspicious of its scientific content.  I’m here thinking this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and they’re tearing it apart.  What gives?  Are we distrustful of something that looks slick and expensive, as opposed to something homegrown?  I haven’t seen such resistance to people’s aesthetic garage experiments.  Perhaps because the garage experiments are simply celebrating aesthetics, not trying to convey scientific content.

One aspect of this video, of course, is its emotional content, which can serve to motivate people to learn biology.  It uses different camera angles, an movement, and music, to make the viewer feel that they are zooming around these dynamic views of the inside of the cell.  In terms of how people learn information cognitively, this is also useful. Multiple representations of a phenomenon are very useful in helping people make sense of information.  Most science content is presented quite abstractly.  As our guest speaker Martin Kemp said, this isn’t the science lesson, it’s the teaser.

Certainly, this video doesn’t stand on its own — it needs verbal support.  Presumably an instructor would use it before or after instruction where the content is more explicitly explained.

There is an emotional narrative here, said the seminar participants.  How does that relate to the intellectual narrative.  Does this compromise the science?  One claimed that there is incredible intentionality depicted here.  The processes we see aren’t random, it’s very cooperative, like a small city.  These little things are working very hard to accomplish what they do.  They’re not self-conscious, but still are active agents.

This is dangerous, several people argued.  We don’t know if these objects have intentionality.  It turns out that the Discovery Institute co-opted part of this video to illustrate that God exists in the cell.

But, I argued against this.  The “intentionality” that people saw in this video, I think, was their own anthropomorphizing.  There was no intentionality inherent in the video — only motion.  Any intentionality is just a metaphor, just like the “selfish gene” is just a metaphor. It can help us to imagine these ideas by ascribing intentionality, perhaps, but we need to be very aware that it is just a metaphor.

So, I think that this video is great — it helps us imagine something we can’t usually see and relate to scientific content in a new way.  Phooey on the naysayers.  Does anyone agree with me?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura September 25, 2009 at 12:29 am

There is a narrated version of this video at http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/. Once you get there, click on the box “The Inner Life 8 Min.” on the left. On the next page are three file sizes of the animation that all include the narration.

Personally, I found myself anthropomorphizing while watching the video with the music. Without the music or with the narration, I felt less of an emotional connection with what I was seeing on the screen.

Gene Gordon September 25, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Thank you for a great link for a discussion I was already planning to have in my Physics of the Arts class. I brought up your blog and ideas. I plan to link my class wiki to this discussion on your blog.

Rosemary Carstens September 25, 2009 at 11:27 pm

The video is beautiful and compelling but, as you say, it does not stand alone without narrative because it’s not evident what the viewer is seeing. With any media, its success depends on how its goal was defined before its creation. If its goal is to transmit the wonder of a process, to interest nonscientists in knowing and/or understanding more, then with the right narrative it fulfills its purpose beautifully. I think the scientists are making a point that is EXACTLY WHY people’s eyes glaze over with some presentations. Art compels and is by its nature emotional–and anyone who wants to go deeper then can, but those who don’t have still been given a tool to comprehend some part of what goes on in our bodies.

Laura Wilson September 26, 2009 at 2:18 pm

It’s beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Terry Ollila September 27, 2009 at 7:45 am

It’s true that this might not stand alone as a compelling work of art to someone with no understanding of cellular mechanisms, but there is also the idea that a particular work of art does not have to be intended for everyone. What about the appreciation that a person who does have a working knowledge of cellular biology might have for the piece? Esoteric perhaps, but still a highly worthwhile venture for those who understand what it is that they’re looking at. After all, most modern art is only accessible to people with a working knowledge of artistic form and history. For those people with more logical, scientifically-inclined brains, there may seem to be very few compelling works in the world, things that speak to our own knowledge base and understanding of the world around us, and a clip like this can be very moving.

Sure, things might not look exactly like this if we could shrink ourselves down to this size and look around, if for no other reason than the fact that light doesn’t really do the same thing for us at that sub-microscopic level. But it does seem to be a compelling visualization of how things happen within the cell, and every one of the pieces is recognizable to a person with the right background. As for the way things appear to be moving with such intention? Well, there’s a lot that has to happen inside of a cell at any given time, and if they didn’t seem to be moving with intention, the job wouldn’t get done. That doesn’t mean they are conscious or that a divine force at work . . . it just shows that we’re looking at a very fine-tuned machine, honed from three or four billion years of evolutionary forces. And if you scale up from there? Why, what are we people but these simple but effective mechanisms working in concert ten trillion times over? Molded into a form so complex as to give rise to the illusory consciousness we are so quick to ascribe to ourselves and so quick to deny anything slightly simpler.

Is this piece, as it is without narration, emotionally moving on an artistic level for a person who understands the processes at work? I can testify that it is, and judging from my limited perspective (as we all must), that is all that I can ultimately say about it.

Another sciencegeekgirl September 27, 2009 at 8:59 pm

My response to the video depends on where it’s going to be used. Certainly the visuals of a microtubule zipping up with tubulins flying in from all over is disturbing to anyone who likes to think about the statistical “random walk” behavior of molecules. One of the problems with any kind of visualization like this is, what do you show and not show? We are not seeing a gazillion (technical term) tubulin molecules that didn’t make it into the microtubule. That has to be OK or we wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything — but do ALL of the monomers have to be shooting towards the growing polymer at top speed? And I’m sorry, the motor protein towing a vesicle along with no hesitation or missteps, that is not biology. I agree with the critics in your group — way too much apparent purpose here.

Andrew B September 28, 2009 at 2:14 am

This blog post incredibly upsets me. If you go to the video’s original website, you get the commentary of what’s going on. http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/ . You might find the wonder of nature ‘boring’ if your motive is to figure out what exactly she’s doing – thus why there is a music version for the typical dull average american. I’m just going on memory, but it was commented by ‘sciencegeekgirl’ that some of her students (and it even seems some of the posters) rejected the content of the video. Science is done for the excitement of what is found out – for what Nature is telling us. She’s like a divine goddess who you must question and do experiments in order to figure out she is infact doing… it has nothing to do with human hopes and wishes. What peeves me is the people posting seem to think they are entitled to an opinion of whether this is indeed the life of a cell – if they were truly interested all they would have to do is look into a text book or buy a microscope and look into the mechanisms of cells – its beautiful. For them to just sit there and say ‘i dont think this is how a cell works’ and then go twiddle their thumbs is like me watching a tv telecast of barack obama and then saying ‘i dont think thats barack obama’ and then going outside to play vide ogames – you can’t just disagree for the sake of it.
Another thing – videos and books and discoveries are going to be protested again in the future by posters of this blog and her ‘seminar students’ because of a misconception. Science is ‘doing’ something.. it’s not about talking and arguing. There’s no need to talk, and for someone to say ‘I am a physicist so im not sure if this is how the cell works’ shows that she is interested in the status – aura – honors of ‘being a scientist – of being a ‘female science geek girl. This is raping the spirit of nature for some superficcial desire to appear learned or wise. Why on earth would u say your a ‘science geek girl’ unless you wanted the status that goes with it.. especially when you yourself do not do science, but talk about what other men have discovered and misinterpret how science works thinking u can just debate discoveries. I plead with you to bring a microscope to class and to starty exploring the world around u with your students, rather than showing videos and reading open ended textbooks about what may or may not be right before their eyes.
I personally believe God created purgatory for people who use science for some perverse fashion.. specially for those who use it as some sort of job – or some sort of ‘consultant website’ – also for people who don’t realize that nature is a woman who must be tempted to show us her secrets – and is not something u can just debate..
this takes a lot of independent thought.. which will come if you continue reading..

Tom M September 28, 2009 at 6:58 pm

The things that jumped out at me as hard to accept are the same as for “Another ScienceGeekGirl”. The very orderly marching formation of the components of the tubule *before* become part of the tubule could only be explained by guiding structures that are not shown. So either those structures are left out, or we’re given an inaccurate impression of how this process proceeds – not random enough.

But going to the question of “does this compromise the science”? I think the discussion would be well served by pointing out that there is science, and there is the body of knowledge that has been accepted as true by the scientific method as employed by the scientific community, and these are separate things. “Science” should be thought of as a process. It is separate from the body of knowledge that it produces. This video attempts to convey some of that knowledge. That it does not do so entirely accurately doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Don’t think of it as science, think of it as a pedagogical tool. Might it mislead? Perhaps a bit. But it does far more to provide my imagination a starting point for visualizing what happens inside a cell than do the static pictures I saw in my textbooks. I suspect students in biology classes underestimate what a dynamic place the inside of a cell is. This video most likely brings its viewers closer to the real picture of what goes on, not further from it, and so I see in it value there. Also it may instill a sense of wonder and curiosity about cellular biology in those that didn’t have it before. So more value there.

I watched this on a computer that didn’t have sound on. So I have nothing to say regarding the music and/or commentary. I will certainly make an effort to hear the narrated version.

My response to the video depends on where it’s going to be used. Certainly the visuals of a microtubule zipping up with tubulins flying in from all over is disturbing to anyone who likes to think about the statistical “random walk” behavior of molecules. One of the problems with any kind of visualization like this is, what do you show and not show? We are not seeing a gazillion (technical term) tubulin molecules that didn’t make it into the microtubule. That has to be OK or we wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything — but do ALL of the monomers have to be shooting towards the growing polymer at top speed? And I’m sorry, the motor protein towing a vesicle along with no hesitation or missteps, that is not biology. I agree with the critics in your group — way too much apparent purpose here.

Toby Koscinski September 27, 2010 at 8:17 am

Hi, this is my first time visiting your site. Congrat.you have one more followers now 🙂 I’ll visit again here.

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