“Making sense of artful science: The art of model making in the natural sciences”. A Working Model of the World.

By María Fernanda Cardoso

The following account of the integration of art and science in scientific modelling was originally part of my practice-based doctoral research based on the large-scale installation The Museum of Copulatory Organs

As a visual artist and visual thinker, I believe in the power of images and objects to communicate concepts. As the old adage goes, ‘an image is worth a thousand words’. But as a sculptor, I also believe in the power of three-dimensional models, not only to create and embody knowledge, but also to trigger high-order thinking [1] in others, (including the maker herself). 

I want to propose that making things is essential in research and in the production of new knowledge. I will argue that three-dimensional models can enhance our understanding (of both art and science). They are essential in the making of culture in general, and in advancing the transference of scientific knowledge and research to a wider field. In a profound sense, I want to show that making is a form of thinking. Through the process of making, we come to understand, to create and to communicate simultaneously. “To see, observe and make things visible is one of the great challenges of science”[2] writes Michael Mosley, a science historian and physician. The same words can be used to describe the great challenges of art. Artists often use their perceptual skills and ability to create things in order to make things visible, tangible or available to the senses. 

One of the best examples that shows this integration of art, science and apprehension can be found in the famous anatomical waxes from La Specola in Florence, produced in the 18th century by a team of anatomists working in tandem with artists and technicians. This work provides an excellent starting point for my discussion of the role artists can play in the creation of new knowledge and the enhancement of our scientific understanding of the world.

Figure 87 Reclining female figure by Clemente Susini. Figure 88 Mascagni’s lymphatic vessel man Specola Both late 18th century wax, La Specola, University of Florence.

By dissecting, casting and copying the exact textures and colours of each organ, the team observed closely and in great detail in order to be able to clearly replicate their observations in wax. After all, “models are, by definition, mimetic objects.” [3] The need for the anatomical waxes was generated by the increasing necessity to use substitutes for the human body in anatomy lessons, and to complement the live dissections being performed at anatomy theatres of this period. At the same time as they learned the complexities of human anatomy, the team at La Specola innovated and then perfected the techniques for making highly accurate wax models and casts. Technically and artistically masterful, the anatomical waxes of La Specola have influenced not only the science of anatomy and medicine, but the arts as well. They influenced wax museums across Europe, including Madame Tussaud’s. Their extraordinary work predates the special effects industry in today’s film industry, which employs similar techniques of prosthetic make up (part of the lineage of wax modelling and casting). Challenged by the standards set at La Specola, Gunther von Haghen, the controversial anatomist and contemporary inventor of ‘plastination’ has taken extraordinary artistic licence for his own human anatomical models exhibited in his international touring exhibitions such as Body Worlds. We can comfortably say that the anatomical waxes from La Specola have had a profound influence upon popular culture and anatomy right up to the present day.

When I look at these waxes, I concur with Ludmilla Jordanova who says that “the physical properties of the models are far in excess of any ‘need’ for information.”[4] The ineffable excess she points to is precisely the artistic component of those scientific models. These works resonate at many levels simultaneously; they are more than the sum of their parts. This is what makes these waxes so intriguing and their impact so long-lasting. They demonstrate the ways in which scientists and technicians can collaborate to produce scientifically accurate models that nevertheless are incredibly ‘artful’. The making of these anatomical models is a team effort that requires not only the keen observation of the artist, but also an informed scientific understanding of the anatomy in question. This example also reminds us that we must always aim for excellence and innovation in craftsmanship. This is especially true in relation to the difficult task of mimicking life forms. Since life is generated from within the life form itself, it is technically very difficult to replicate with our human technologies and human-scale hands. Wax was the technology of choice for biological models made in 18th and 19th century. In Florence, craftsmen pushed the technology to its limits. Because casting suited the human scale of the cadavers they were depicting, their casting techniques allowed them to make accurate models on a one-to-one scale.

Anatomy, biology and medicine have traditionally relied on actual specimens for research and teaching. However, there are significant limitations to relying exclusively on actual specimens (or often the lack of them). The anatomical waxes at La Specola facilitated the teaching of anatomy by not having to rely on the continual supply of cadavers for anatomical dissections. They also rendered the anatomical structures more clearly than an actual cadaver could by the considered use of colour. In a way, the models were better than the actual specimens, as they could emphasise the knowledge that needed to be understood and communicated in the pedagogical framework of the operating theatre.

Similarly, the 19th century science of embryology initially relied upon actual embryo specimens for the purposes of research and teaching. Obtaining embryos was a difficult and unreliable process, and brought with it the additional limitation of having to look through the microscope, one student at a time, in order to be able to apprehend the anatomy.

As historian of modern medicine and biology Nick Hopwood confirms,

natural preparations had an aura of authenticity, but also three major drawbacks: some objects were very scarce; most embryos had to be viewed under the microscope, an obstacle to group instruction; and even expert preparation did not display the structures of interest as clearly as a purpose-built device.[5]

According to Hopwood, the solution was found in the mid 19th century by a pair of wax modellers: the father and son team of Friedrich and Adolf Ziegler, whose studio ran from 1850 until 1918. The Zieglers invented a technique of working in wax, layer by layer, copying the sliced dissections of the embryos and then colouring the different organs in unique colours. They then stacked up the layers and removed the excess wax. The result was an accurate anatomical model of the inside and the outside of the specimen, colour coded for easy interpretation

This method was revolutionary, and can be considered a precedent to the 21st century technique of 3-D printing or rapid prototyping, which similarly builds things in an additive process that ‘prints’ material, layer by layer. The Zieglers are important as they developed innovative approaches to the technology of wax modelling, not just in terms of methodology, but also in terms of the materials they used. They developed models out of specially made hard waxes that would not melt or deform at room temperature (as was the case with most waxes up until this time).

In the late nineteenth-century heyday of print, known for the foundation of journals, textbooks, handbooks and manuals, a major university science relied on wax modelling in its core teaching and research. [6]

Their models helped to train an entire generation of biologists and doctors around the world. Instead of making unique specimens, they made editions of objects that could be easily distributed to a number of different locations simultaneously. For this reason, they called themselves “plastic publishers” (even though they used wax). They made their technology comparable to that of paper printing, publishing multiple copies of each specimen. Since there was a great effort involved in the making of each specimen, and as they worked closely with scientists to ensure their models were accurate, it made financial and pedagogic sense to work in editions. This innovation sped up the science of embryology and created a new business model for the artistry of wax modeling.

Models were often used in conjunction with two-dimensional images. These artful images and objects supported the lecturers who were the human conveyors of this scientific information. As Nick Hopwood puts it,

models were special — and always produced and used in tandem with various printed materials, from prospectuses and catalogues to textbooks and journal articles. We gain a richer view of both books and models when we see how modelling shaped the printed page, and letterpress joined wood-cuts and photographs in helping spectators make sense of objects that would otherwise have remained strange. [7]

I understand this strangeness Hopwood describes, as it is consistent with my experience as a sculptor. When exhibiting formalistic sculptures made out of unfamiliar materials that have been dislocated from their original context — for example in my “Colombian Material Series” from 1992–93 — I have always noted what I call ‘a gap’ in meaning when exhibiting in a culture other than my own.

The audience may be able to absorb the physical shape and form of the sculptural objects, but their interpretation is only made in reference to forms of knowledge they are already familiar with (e.g. Minimalist art, formalism, etc). They do not necessarily have access to the ‘new’ knowledge provided: in this case, unrecognisable materials and their meaning (understood by Colombians, but mostly opaque to others). I learnt from my practice that in order to communicate the ‘inaccessible’ contents imbedded in the sculptural objects, I needed to provide other forms of communication and delivery (other than the physical presence of the sculptures on their own). In the visual arts, this is usually done through artist talks, or written statements, but many people would miss both of them. If my aim is to clearly communicate knowledge imbedded in scientific models, it is very important to look at the historical precedents for guidance.

Being aware of my own experience as an artist communicating visually with objects, and reflecting on the way objects of science have been treated and used in the past reinforces my conviction that it is essential to frame the context in which such objects are exhibited. My experience also confirmed that other types of information need to be delivered simultaneously, and through different mediums. The written word, narratives, descriptions of objects, interpretation, lecturing, drawings, pictures, and video all reinforce the knowledge transmission function of the objects/models. The anatomical waxes of La Specola were not intended for aesthetic observation (the context they are mostly observed in nowadays). They were originally accompanied by guided instruction and two- dimensional illustrative plates. We can agree with Barbara Maria Strafford when she observes that the “history of science … has become fascinated with three-dimensional models as research tools. Such ‘epistemic objects,’ it is being argued, are mediators in the making of knowledge”. [8] While Stafford is correct in reminding us that objects are important communicators, we shouldn’t think of them solely in their isolated form.

In contemporary Art-Science, an interesting example of how to present ‘beautiful’ natural forms which preserve the conflicting accounts of their visual existence can be found in the glass microbiology series made by contemporary British artist Luke Jerram.

Working directly from scientific photographs generated by electro-microscopy, and in collaboration with virologist Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol, Jerram commissioned highly skilled glassblowers Kim George, Brian Jones and Norman Veitch to make a series of large glass models of humanity’s most famous and feared viruses: HIV, smallpox, Sars, avian flu, E-coli, Malaria and several other viruses. He chose viruses that are highly visible in news and contemporary culture, but which can hardly be seen (even with the aid of the microscope). His first approach was to make these objects colourless and transparent:

I’m colour blind and this has given me a natural interest in exploring the edges of perception. Often images of viruses are taken in black and white on an electron microscope and then they are coloured artificially using Photoshop. Sometimes that will be for scientific purposes but other times it will be just to add emotional content or to make the image more attractive. The problem is that you end up with a percentage of the public believing that viruses are these brightly coloured objects.

These are often portrayed in newspapers as having an air of scientific authenticity and objective truth, whereas actually that isn’t the case. Viruses are so small they have no colour. They’re smaller than the wavelength of light. [9]

Making them transparent and colourless may seem like an unimportant decision, but from my perspective it is critical. As we have seen in the discussion of anatomical and embryonic waxes, colouring is a scientific methodology that helps distinguish between forms and to emphasise different aspects of a morphology. Yet in this case, the use of colour ‘fictionalises’ and distorts the human interpretation of viruses. The use of transparency allows for the internal structures to be seen as colourless (not white, as if you were drawing them on paper). Viruses are smaller than the wavelength of light. This provides an essential point of reference. The problem of how to indicate appropriate scale when using the microscope or electron microscope to enlarge things is very difficult to solve. Scale is a central component in our understanding of the parasitic life forms that exist within us. Making them in three-dimensional form allows for greater expression of accurate rendering of form than that allowed in the case of two-dimensional models. Colourless glass avoids the problem of introducing decorative decisions into the model. Working in glass also pays homage to the tradition of glass model making in natural history, from 19th century virtuosi flame glass artists such as Leopold (1822–1895) and his son Rudolf Blaschka (1857–1939). This father son team are well-known for making what are widely considered to be the most extraordinary glass models of marine invertebrates and botanical specimens: the Glass Flowers from Harvard. Viruses, invertebrates and plants are all perishable and impossible to preserve and exhibit as natural specimens. The translucency and durability of glass has made it the most suitable material for the manufacture of organic models, and that technology has not yet been surpassed.

Returning to the consideration of Jerram’s large handmade glass models, I would argue that Jerram has made the virus morphologies ‘exist’ at the human scale. His works have made them visible and palpably understandable. The fact that there is a long tradition of teaching with three-dimensional models in science indicates that there is a need for objects that help us to apprehend the world. As Lorraine Daston puts it, “without things we would stop talking.”[10]

Figure 95 Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrates from the Harvard Zoological Collection and Figure 96 from the Cornell collections. (circa 1870 – 1880)

Figure 97 Luke Jerram, e-coli, HIV and malaria glass viruses

We have all seen microscope photographs of viruses, but they don’t seem to resonate in the same way that Jerram’s objects do. Let’s try to understand why. Firstly, he made them novel, technically masterful, beautiful, but not at all decorative. He depicts them as distinctive individual things, each with a shape we can recognise. Scientists have long known that viruses have distinctive morphologies, but this is largely unknown to the general public. Indeed, they were incredibly novel to me. It is as if he gave a face and a form to an unknown danger. He gave them a physical body that we can now more easily recognize and understand with a range of our senses. He points to one of the importantroles played by the diversity of biological forms: diversity helps us to correctly recognise and make distinctions between forms. According to E. O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert,

the use of nature as symbol is perhaps most critically reflected in the development of human language and the complexity and communication of ideas fostered by this symbolic methodology … Nature, as a rich taxonomy of species and forms, provides a vast metaphorical tapestry for the creation of diverse and complex differentiations. [11]

Jerram has given his viruses a presence and made them part of a taxonomy we can now recognise and negotiate. He has made them part of human language, and exposed their relevance. For this reason I argue that they are more than simple decorative objects. It is our knowledge of what they are (or what they represent) that attracts and repels us. We may like them as forms, admire them, love them, even find them beautiful. We may feel affinity for Jerram’s models in a ‘biophilic’ and ‘formaphilic’ way. And yet those viruses are most fearsome. Therefore they provoke an interesting intersection of fear and empathy, admiration and respect.By loading the morphology with all the cargo of our human emotions, as well as knowledge about those specific viruses, he creates a complex set of meanings and understandings of the viral forms. In other words, for me, the most important contribution of Jerram is to the tradition of scientific models (in addition to the field of contemporary art). The morphologies he has imaged help us distinguish taxonomies, in the same way as all biological models (like those made by the Blaschkas) were used in the past; we look at the glass viruses in relationship to our own human existence. 

Jerram’s simple, well-conceived artworks, are informed by both science and popular culture, and fall on the side of reality rather than fantasy. His work adds more dimensionality to our apprehension of viruses than science or popular culture can offer on their own. Jerram’s work acts like a multidimensional bridge, creating connections between concepts, facts, emotions, realities. A clear concept, accurate science, and highly skilled craftsmanship are central to the success of his project. Because of both art and science’s interest in the visual, science and art are inherently linked. Art theorist Barbara Maria Strafford has convincingly shown “how images integrate information and make us aware of that fact”. [12] Following cognitive scientist and neurophilosopher Andy Clark, Stafford has proposed “that complex and unruly problems are ’representationally hungry’”. That is to say, we have a need, a hunger, for representations. The tools that allow us to make those representations have the capacity to organise and integrate knowledge. Once we can assign some sort of visual pattern to these objects, we can comprehend a concept; and not before. Visualisation is for this reason very important for science. Visualization is deeply affected by the technologies that are available. To clarify this point, I will provide two examples: 

The first is in the realm of mathematics, and the second is in the area of optics (microscopy in particular):

For two thousand years mathematicians knew about only two kinds of geometry — the plane and the sphere. But in the early nineteenth century they became aware of another space in which lines cavorted in aberrant formations. Offending reason and common sense, this new space came to be known as the hyperbolic plane. Although the properties of this space were known for 200 years, it was only in 1997 that mathematician Daina Taimina worked out how to make physical models of it. The method she used was crochet. [13]

Figure 98 On top, mathematically precise models of a hyperbolic panes by Dr. Diana Taimina. (1997)
Figure 99 Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef and Anemone Garden by the Institute for Figuring IFF (2005–2011)

Hyperbolic geometry is widespread in nature such as in corals, anemones, flatworms, kelp, even flowers. But nobody saw it as such, or understood it as such until the technology of crochet allowed for the expression of these hyperbolic formulas by human hands. Nowhere is it more precise than in the example of what Lorraine Daston describes as things knitting together “matter and meaning”. [14] The act of making these morphologies by hand, in three dimensions, with a conscious awareness of the algorithmic variations of the hyperbolic planes, is what allows the crochet models to ‘make sense’. This ‘making sense’ is also the result of the changing of contexts that I referred to when looking at natural history specimens in the previous chapter. It is also the result of the mimetic act of replicating a life form in a new material and a new context. It is the transition between what a life form is to what it is to us, that gets revealed in the making.

This idea of mingling the aesthetic with the cognitive by means of new systems of vision also finds expression in the field of mathematics. In the late 1860s and early 1870s the concept of embodied mathematics was first expressed by Herbert Mehrtens when looking at the studies of algebraic surfaces of the third order by Felix Klein. He comments that it is

the geometrical form that guides the mathematical interest and the characterisations given in typographical formalism. The models (and diagrams) were constructed to ‘grasp’ the form and to show the typical forms of a class of surfaces. If form or Gestalt is the epistemic thing around which the research circles, then the model is one of the representations of this thing, and not fundamentally different from the algebraic formula or the diagram. It is one of the many simultaneous and consecutive representations of the object. In this sense the model is part of doing mathematics, embodied mathematics. Research is the creative work of representing epistemic things. In this act of representation I suggest the model is real mathematics, embodied mathematics. [15]

According to Herbert Mehrtens, mathematicians like Thomas Kuen (who made one of the models that Man Ray photographed) considered his models as a valid form of scientific research.

The history of science, for example, has become fascinated with three-dimensional models as research tools. Such “epistemic objects,” it is being argued, are mediators in the making of knowledge. [16]

Ludmila Jordanova argues for something very similar in her essay “Material Models as Visual Culture”. She suggests that we might want

to consider the extent to which the distinction between conceptual and material models reflects academic practice in the humanities and social sciences. Professional scholars place great, if generally unconscious emphasis on two-dimensional items. Words, pieces of paper, computer screens, and, to a lesser extent, images are our bread and butter. I would suggest that virtually every person who has received a humanistic education feels more comfortable working in two dimensions than in three … So working with three dimensions, which is a commonplace in most sciences, could be seen as the province of some specialists, while most other academics operate with two … Thus while serious attempts are being made here to get a way from the dominance of words and texts, perhaps because so much is being covered the precise problem of understanding 3-D thinking in general and models in particular is swamped. The issue here has been marginalised further by the dominance of literary critical methods in humanities and social-science disciplines, which has reinforced their propensity for 2-D thinking. [17]

Even though the 3-D model has been an instrumental tool in the history of science and in the making of knowledge, its role has been neglected by historians of science, until the publication of the groundbreaking book Models: The Third Dimension of Science edited by Soraya de Chadarevian and Nick Hopwood. The authors make the parallel of imagining a history of art without the inclusion of sculpture. Despite this observation, much of our teaching and learning of science continues to be done in two dimensions, in spite of how much effort two- dimensional communication requires. Learning how to read and write requires of years of schooling. Watching movies is a learnt skill. Even drawing, and interpreting drawing is an acquired technique, also taught at school. We know, as expressed by innumerable artists, scientists, illustrators and educators that we draw in order to understand, and to help others understand. (Leonardo’s sketches are a perfect example of that process.) There is a practicality to drawing, which has made two-dimensional illustrations quite ubiquitous in the tradition of scientific research. There are reasons for this: “There is nothing you can dominate as easily as a flat surface” writes Bruno Latour. This expresses something of the practical side to drawings. They are quick, cheap and easy to make; they can be stored flat, collected and catalogued in libraries, where historians can find them easily. They can be inexpensively reproduced thanks to the printing press, and placed in the context of illustrated books. Drawings of models have also been common, and so three-dimensionality is not completely separate from two-dimensional media. In fact they often go together.

Objects are harder to collect than drawings or text, harder to store, more difficult to classify and harder to preserve. They may be “too expensive and immobile for routine use” [18] write Chaderevian and Hopwood. They might be too fragile or cumbersome to move around and as unique objects, and they are expensive to make and to reproduce. But despite this – and perhaps even because of this – they are unsurpassable as objects of display for public exhibition and education, and the traditions of early museums and museums are built upon them. As objects of inquiry, they display relationships that are hard to represent on paper. By making visible those relationships, they become crucial tools to engage the public with research and scientific knowledge. 


  1.  In Bloom’s taxonomy, skills involving analysis, evaluation and synthesis (creation of new knowledge) are considered high order thinking. 
  2.  Michael Mosley, The Story of Science: Science, Proof and Passion Episode 6: Who We Are (BBC documentary, 2010). 
  3.  Mack, The Art of Small Things: 72. 
  4.  Ludmilla Jordanova, “Material Models as Visual Culture,” in Models: The Third Dimension of Science, ed. Sorraya de Chadarevian and Nick Hopwood (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004). 
  5.  Nick Hopwood, “Plastic Publishing in Embryology,” in Models: The Third Dimension of Science, ed. Sorraya de Chadarevian and Nick Hopwood (Standford: University Press, 2004), 182.
  6.  Nick Hopwood, Embryos in Wax: Models from the Ziegler studio (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge and Institute of the History of Medicine, University of Bern., 2002). 53.
  7.  ibid., 4.
  8.  Barbara Maria Stafford, Echo Objects: the Cognitive Work of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 6. 
  9.  “Luke Jerram’s GlassVirus Artworks,” (Wellcome Collection: BBC World Service, 2009).
  10.  Lorraine Daston, Things that talk : object lessons from art and science (New York Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books; MIT Press distributor, 2004). 10
  11.  Edward O. Wilson and Stephen R. Kellert, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993), 51.
  12.  Stafford, Echo Objects: the Cognitive Work of Images: 3.
  13.  Margaret Wertheim, “The Beautiful Math of Coral,” https://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_wertheim_crochets_the_coral_reef.html.
  14.  Daston, Things that talk : object lessons from art and science: 10.
  15.  Herbert Mehrtens, “Mathematical Models,” in Models: The Third Dimension of Science, ed. Sorraya de Chadarevian and Nick Hopwood (Standford: University Press, 2004), 289.
  16.  Stafford, Echo Objects: the Cognitive Work of Images: 6.
  17.  Jordanova, “Material Models as Visual Culture,” 443.
  18.  Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, eds., Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. (Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage, 1979 ), 45.

Link: https://workingmodeloftheworld.com/Making-Sense-of-Artful-Science#fn:14