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Wednesday, October 7, 2020

As I scanned the headlines this morning, I was struck by two colorful images. There was that familiar gray and red coronavirus which we see all the time, and just below it was Hurricane Delta in vivid shades of magenta and scarlet bordered in yellow and green. Both are examples of “false colors,” the science (and art) of assigning colors to photographs of objects which we would not be able to see with our own eyes. It’s the same idea that NASA uses in displaying those beautiful pictures from space.

The Tarantula Nebula, through NASA’a Spitzer Space Telescope

The colors are more than an aesthetic enhancement, however. They convey information. The telescope detects three wavelengths of infrared light which are represented by the colors magenta, green, and blue, making it possible, for example, for us to distinguish areas of dust (magenta) from areas of hot gases (green).

Similarly, the colors in the image of Hurricane Delta convey real information detected in the decibel value (dBZ) of the energy reflected back to the radar. Here, magenta would represent a severe storm and light blue would mean light rain.

Image of the novel coronavirus by Eckhert and Higgins at the CDC

What about the now familiar picture of the gray coronavirus with red spikes? This illustration, produced by Alissa Eckhert and Dan Higgins at the Center for Disease Control, has become the most common rendition of the novel coronavirus seen in the news media and on the CDC website. The colors were not translations of quantifiable data measured in infrared light or decibel values. Neither were they random. They were a product of the need to convey vital information through a striking visual impression.

Ever since a 17th-century Dutch textile dealer named Leeuwenhoek first saw tiny organisms through his home-made microscopes, researchers have been trying to interpret the world of microbes to the world-at-large. Humans who intuitively back away from spiders and snakes just don’t ascribe much importance to things they can’t see. Viruses, first seen in the mid-twentieth century using an electron microscope, are especially hard to conceptualize. They don’t look real.

The biomedical illustrators at the CDC who created the now-iconic image decided on portraying a single individual virus to give it prominence. They researched the proteins characteristic of the new virus on the RCSB Protein Data Bank (https://www.rcsb.org/). Founded in 1971, the Protein Data Bank has been managed by the RCSB (Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics) since 1998 and is now a part of a worldwide data bank that maintains an archive of macromolecular structures.

The RSCB has a Molecule of the Month! Who knew?

The team decided to emphasize the spike proteins which the virus uses to attach to human cells by making them red. Envelope proteins were colored yellow and the membrane or M-proteins were shown as orange. Decisions about color, texture, and shading were brought together in a computer graphics program called Autodesk 3ds Max to come up with the highly recognizable final image which is now in the public domain and can be seen in news reports, media, artwork, and cartoons, as well as on CDC publications.

You see other colorized renditions of the coronavirus now and then, but those of us who experienced the pandemic of 2020 will never forget the ugly gray blob with those wicked red spikes.

Articles on Today’s Topic:

“Scary red or icky green? We can’t say what color coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears,” Phys Org, March 31, 2020. https://phys.org/news/2020-03-scary-red-icky-green-coronavirus.html

“The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World: How C.D.C. medical illustrators created the coronavirus pandemic’s most iconic image,” New York Times, April 1, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/health/coronavirus-illustration-cdc.html?searchResultPosition=1

“Why the Centers for Disease Control’s Creepy Illustration of the Coronavirus Is Such an Effective Work of Biomedical Art,” Art News, April 1, 2020. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/cdc-biometical-art-1822296

Additional References:

“Tarantula Nebula Spitzer 3-Color Image,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cal Tech, Jan. 27, 2020. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA23647

“Radar Images: Reflectivity,” National Weather Service. https://www.weather.gov/jetstream/refl

Image, Public Health Image Library, 2020. https://phil.cdc.gov/Details.aspx?pid=23311

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.

You are on History’s Edge.

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