Losing My Wings

Morphing in the 1990s

These types of gothic moments never solely exist within science. Although science is an exemplary way of viewing the world, it is also a cultural activity. Consequently, the tools used to visualize changes in biology are often applied in other cultural contexts. You can see this as Sean Carroll’s lab also made movies to explain the significance of the results of mapping the formation of butterfly eyespots. The use of monoclonal antibodies coupled to fluorescent dyes coupled with the development of confocal microscopy, provided images sharp in resolution and detailed in molecular specificity. Researchers could then view the expression of a tiny amount of Distal-less molecules at the very spot in the organism the molecule was being expressed. Equally important for the making of these movies was the advent of personal computers and the development of computer animation software compatible with these computers. Members of Carroll’s lab effectively combined these techniques in order to help animate their data of butterfly wing development. The result is an important example of how 1990s visualization practices helped to reveal the changing form of living organisms without sacrificing molecular specificity. 

The first movie, burdened with the very descriptive but very dry title, “Distal-less expression in larval wing imaginal discs in both Junonia sp. and Bicyclus sp. is correlated with the eyespots in adult wings”, morphs still images of developing wing spots in two different genus of butterflies the common Buckeye (shown above) and the Bush brown. The movie is intended to show how the positioning of the Distal-less stains and the wing eye spots are perfectly conserved during development.  

Although the images of this movie are highly specialized, in that they involve confocal micrographs of fluorescing caterpillar tissue, the movie software is little more than off the shelf personal computing visualization software: such as Photoshop, Adobe Premier, Maya, and some commercial morphing software. The technician responsible for the morphing sequence of this film, Eric Hazen, wrote at length on the process of making these movies in the book chapter “Morphing Confocal Images and Digital Movie Production”, where he describes why morphing is useful for biology and how to go about doing it on your computer. “Visualizing change over time is essential to understanding biological events such as embryogenesis and development.”  Visualizing these types of images, however, is very difficult. The images needed to be fixed, stained, and dissected in order to see the stains with clarity and specificity. “Computer technology”, observes Hazen, “provides an alternative method for simulating changeover time: a process called morphing, which was originally developed for the movie and advertising industries to create visual effects.” This process takes two (or more) images and creates a series of in between images, effectively animating a smooth change between the images. Or, as Hazen explains what is created is a “change over time from one still image to another still image . . .”. This morphing between images "allows the computer to model the intermediary stages of development”. Hazen is careful to point out though, that the same ease of visualization of change that makes morphing useful for educational purposes might keep it from being a good source for a scientific analysis as the parameters for changing the image are the vectors between two points in time as opposed to the actual continuous morphological changes of the larva.

That this technique is a product of the advertising industry and movie special effects helps illuminate how certainly ways of visualizing change can be seen in science as well as entertainment. On the right, is a scene from the 1991 movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This film used morphing special effects to wow its audiences with the transformation of the human-like appearance of the T 1000 robot into pliable and nearly-indestructible liquid metal. This type of transformation was criticized by some scholars of animation as representative of the political economy of the 1990s, where neo-liberal policies, such as globalization, promoted rootless and nomadic identities that prized visualizing the effects of change over the often difficult mechanics of seeing how these changes actually occur. The implications of this critique for viewing the movies from Carroll's lab suggests that one needs to be very careful in the shortcuts one chooses in documenting scientific stories of change. One should never obscure how each change haunts across biological and chemical scales as it is often in these details, that one finds the premonitions of the changes yet to come.

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