photograph by Andrew Cutraro

Science History as Art

Julie Simpson and Frank Midgley capture the essence of renowned scientists in their mosaic portraits.

For neurobiologist Julie Simpson, beauty is microscopic. In her second-floor office at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, circuit diagrams of fly brains are neatly framed. Simpson’s favorite t-shirt is an Andy Warhol-style shot of fly images, in four squares. “I’m not tempted to buy a Monet,” she remarks, “but I do like a good Golgi stain.”

Now, Simpson can get the best of big portraits and tiny science. She and her partner Frank Midgley, a scientific computing expert at Janelia Farm, have created a one-of-a-kind art exhibit, “MacOSaiX Scientific Heroes.” They generated mosaic portraits of 35 scientists—from Gregor Mendel to E.O. Wilson—assembled from Google search images of key research terms.

Midgley wrote a software program, using the Macintosh operating system, that cranks out the portraits. To remix the classic portrait of Mendel, for instance, the program performed a Google search for images chosen to describe Mendel’s work: “genetics,” “peas,” “heredity,” “law of segregation,” and “law of independent assortment.” The program then compared the resulting image tiles against his portrait, numerically ranking and sorting the tiles into a logical layout to fill up the picture. Tile by tile, the new portrait emerged, composed of about 5,000 images that convey Mendel’s work.

At a distance, the mosaic Mendel thoughtfully gazes, same as always, from a simple background. Draw closer, however, and you see that his eyes dance with a motley mix of tiled images of peas, the DNA double helix, a butterfly, chromosomes, garden images, monk robes, and thousands of other illustrations, pieced together like a giant crossword puzzle.

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Zoom in on the mosaic eye of Gregor Mendel.
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“What’s cool is that these portraits are driven by the real work the scientists did,” Midgley says. Equally satisfying, Simpson adds, is learning the history behind that work. The couple wrote short biographies to accompany each portrait.

Simpson and Midgley got the idea for their MacOSaiX project in the spring of 2010 as they stopped in Janelia’s art gallery and began thinking of ideas to dress the walls in art with a scientific twist. Soon, they were spending weekend hours on the project, with Simpson researching scientists and Midgley writing code. The collection grew as colleagues at Janelia lobbied for must-haves, like Freeman Dyson and Maria Goepfert, and voted down others (sorry, B.F. Skinner).

“It was a huge hit. Our scientists loved it,” says Kim Ripley, special projects manager at Janelia Farm, who coordinates exhibits. “In fact, we’ve decided to make the images a permanent collection,” just outside Janelia’s popular dining room.

Back on the second floor, Simpson is identifying brain cells that control fly behaviors, such as grooming. Midgley is developing computer tools to allow Simpson and other scientists to make sense of huge data sets on those behaviors.

You can try out Midgley’s free MacOSaiX program at www.macupdate.com/app/mac/9219/macosaix/. Midgley notes that your creation will be your own: image search results constantly change. No two portraits are ever the same.

Scientist Profile

Janelia Group Leader
Janelia Research Campus
Neuroscience, Systems Biology