Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

At Sea in Berlin

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

At Sea in Berlin

Article excerpt

In education today, there is a stress on interdisciplinary studies, on linking fields in order to counteract the specialization and compartmentalization that has gone on for decades. This is a great idea. After all, separations between areas of knowledge are human constructs, so humans should be able to bridge them. However this is easier said than done. Interdisciplinarity is exhilarating, but also a little unsettling, as I discovered when I went to a workshop called "Cultures of Seeing 3D and Beyond" in Berlin. Held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, it started off with a talk by a philosopher of science, followed by presentations by two developmental biologists and an historian of science. Such diversity, such interdisciplinarity, was unsettling indeed. The three-day meeting had just begun and already I was at sea.

But I wasn't the only one suffering from intellectual vertigo. Everyone seemed to be overwhelmed, because we were all being pulled out of our disciplinary cocoons. The historians and philosophers were trying to understand molecular and developmental biology, while the scientists were attempting to make sense of the humanities. It was a tough morning, but an exhilarating one. The desire to communicate not only across disciplines but thought styles was apparent, and the common theme that everyone was interested in was the visual: the history of visualization, how new visualizations tools are being used in biology, and what it means to translate ideas into diagrams. Since visual aspects of biology are my passion, I was having a great time, even while suffering from a little seasickness. This wasn't aided by a big German lunch of mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and meatloaf--with gravy, but the table conversation did help to settle my anxieties because it became obvious that everyone was as overwhelmed as I was.


The afternoon brought topics that I found more familiar. The first was probably the presentation I liked most. Marianne Klemun of the University of Vienna spoke on her study of the herbarium sheets of Ludwig Reichenbach and how she paired them with illustrations he created for his botanical treatises. The congruence between the two is striking, at least in the examples she presented. The herbarium is at the Vienna Botanical Garden and the books are in the Austrian National Library. By bringing the two together through photos, Klemun has discovered how closely the illustrations match the herbarium sheets, where the plants are very artfully arranged on the page. She contends that Reichenbach probably positioned the specimens on the sheets with an eye to the later illustrations. At the same time, Reichenbach worked hard to restore dimensionality and perspective in the images he created. While the placement is similar, the flatness of the specimen sheets is much less apparent in the drawings.

Like the other historians and philosophers at the workshop, Klemun is a scholar pouring over original research. Examination of the herbarium sheets revealed that some of them still have the tracing paper Reichenbach used in transferring images to his drawings. This corroborates the impression that the sheets and the drawings are closely linked, and makes it even more amazing that he was able to have the plants in the drawings seem three-dimensional. It also suggests that Reichenbach was more interested in scientific accuracy that in aesthetics. Even though the plants might have looked more appealing if they had been differently arranged, he didn't want to do this at the risk of introducing imprecision into his illustrations.

In addition to collecting specimens and creating drawings, Reichenbach also did the engravings for the illustrations and wrote the text as well. Such multitalented individuals are strewn throughout the history of botany, but there are exceptions as Karen Reeds (2004) notes in her article, "When the Botanist Can't Draw: The Case of Linnaeus. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.