Art or Science?

Art or Science?

Are these pastel fractals the creation of an avant garde artist from some postmodern cubism movement?  You may be surprised to learn that these are high resolution images of bacterial populations growing on a petri dish!

Bacterial Art: First, the familiar E. coli bacteria were genetically marked with differently colored fluorescent proteins before mixing together on an agar plate. Each rod-shaped bacterium grows by division to give a single file of cells that is sensitive to small mechanical forces from neighboring cells pushing and jostling against each other. The line of cells buckles in a way that is predicted by fractal mathematics.  As the bacteria grow to form a confluent film, jagged boundaries emerge between differently colored clonal lines. Zooming in, the patterns are self-similar, repeating at scales from millimeters to micrometers! Mutant bacteria that form spherical cells don’t produce these fractal patterns. 

Form and Function: What do these beautiful images teach us? They help us understand how patterning happens on a nanoscale. In synthetic biology the goal is to engineer populations of cells to produce spatial patterns, synchronized signals and predictable behavior that can be simulated using simple, mathematically coded rules.  

Life Imitates Art? Oscar Wilde reversed the conventional when he claimed that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. What do you think he meant by this? It seems to me that this bacterial fractal “art” perfectly illustrates John Berger’s definition of Cubism: “The metaphorical model of Cubism is the diagram: The diagram being a visible symbolic representation of invisible processes, forces, structures.”

Reference (and more beautiful images):


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92 Responses to Art or Science?

  1. Jen says:

    this immediately reminded me of the storefront display for the movie Contagion (they created giant acrylic dishes and seeded it with microbes to grow a billboard sign)


  2. Gary Ray R says:

    Definately art.  And science.  

    The research paper is beautifully illustrated and going in my save to read later file.

    Thanks Rajini Rao.

    Pinging Charles Strebor who has done some terrific fractal images.

  3. Rajini Rao says:

    Jen Spacey I love that Contagion billboard! So creative and stunning..especially as it “matured” over time. Thex Dar speaking of mold and cheese, check out the Contagion billboard in Jen’s link 🙂

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Gary Ray R it was fascinating that the authors could apply fractal analysis to the bacterial growth, even if it was not a perfect fit. The image in the graphical abstract was particularly helpful. 

  5. Shah kush says:

    Li s art of science 5 zo Fooß​

  6. Rajini Rao …….: NATURE is the biggest artist, who else ! Good postings. Thanks Rao.

  7. Dr. Cassone says:

    Nice post! My father was an art professor. I wonder what he would say. I say it’s a creative post, which makes you an artist 🙂

    Great Oscar W. quote, btw.

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Dr. John Cassone I’m a fan of Oscar Wilde 🙂 Very cool to have an art professor father! 

  9. Dr. Cassone says:

    Rajini Rao it really was. He passed away a few years back but his words are in my mind often.

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    I lost my father a few months ago too, Dr. John Cassone and think of him often. Here’s to happy memories. We’re lucky to have such wonderful parents. 

  11. These are far more impressive than the smiley faces I would draw. I’ll have to take a look at the paper later 🙂

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    That’s because they were made by microartists Carissa Braun 🙂

  13. Dr. Cassone says:

    Rajini Rao I am very sorry for your loss. I was very close to my father and think of him often. I have found that he pops into my mind spontaneously with memories and insights that are actually different than in real life. In this way, I feel I still have a relationship with him as it is still unfolding. 

    My mother passed away 8 months later.

  14. Dean Calahan says:

    Nature’s fractals only extend a few orders of magnitude in scale, whereas the mathematical kind extend infinitely.

    Also, nature’s fractals sort of fractally-wactally blend into one another, sort of like the way you patch manifolds together seamlessly in general relativity.

  15. Mani A. says:

    The Peircean view of this semiotics would be interesting.

  16. OMG!! But anyway they have some kind of beautiful, like abstract art.Nature is amazing!!

  17. Robert Moser says:

    What a delight. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    Robert Moser thank you! The paper was a challenging read, mathematically, but I got the gist of it, if not the details 🙂

    Dean Calahan the authors measure the fractal dimension of the bacterial growth pattern as 1.23, which they describe as indicating “significant self-similarity”. I wonder if someone can put a perspective on this value. Wiki says that the familiar Koch snowflake has a fractal dimension of 1.26, but is described as a “less complex” fractal- as this number approaches 2, it represents a surface rather than a line. 

    Does this make sense, Jonah Miller ?

  19. Gary Ray R says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that had difficulty with the math in that article.  The pictures were mighty purty though.

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Haha, Gary Ray R ! Unfortunately, I felt morally obligated to wade through at least some of the math before posting. But the images were so stunning that it was a worthy exercise 🙂

  21. Loving those colors. Reminds me of all those venomous toads, frogs, lizards, snakes and insects.

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh, that’s a creative interpretation and I love it Jesus M. Candelario !

  23. Maja nai ayay kuch galti me wajah se

  24. whats the diference?

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    The Diamond Oreo none, it was a rhetorical question 🙂

  26. God’s Art, Science is how we understand it.

  27. I. Love. Seun Ogunbona

  28. Chaos with organization imposed by growth parameters.


    it reminds me of crystal growth and grain boundaries.

  29. Jesse H says:

    It’s all in how we choose to look at it. Science in its self is a work of art. Excellent post Rajini.

  30. Rajini Rao

    Life Imitates Art? Oscar Wilde reversed the conventional when he claimed that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. What do you think he meant by this? 

    It’s difficult to explain this meaning.

    Oscar Wilde was the most notable proponent of anti-mimesis, a philosophical position that holds the direct opposite of Aristotelian mimesis.

    Aristotle defined mimesis as the perfection and imitation of nature. Art is not only imitation but also the use of mathematical ideas and symmetry in the search for the perfect, the timeless, and contrasting being with becoming.

    According to Aristotle, in imitation there are three different levels: or we imitate things as they are, or we imitate things as they seem to be, or we imitate things as they must be.

    He thus distinguishes the direct mimesis, operated in tragedy and comedy, from the narrative one that is the basis of the epic, but in imitation he also includes arts different from those containing an essentially aesthetic value of beauty as, for example, the culinary art, that with cooking food promotes their digestion: intending in this way that the imitation can not be reduced to the representation of the natural things, but it should be seen as a useful work, similar to that done by nature itself. To this theory, that extends the concept of mimesis, adhered  the Western aesthetic until the eighteenth century.

    In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, written as a Platonic dialogue (where you can find the claim above), Oscar Wilde holds that anti-mimesis “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”

    What is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art.

  31. Rajini Rao says:

    Thank you, annarita ruberto !

  32. Todd Hatcher says:

    I think it’s both and special.

  33. √ G☺☺d Afternoon 🙂 df♡) 💋

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  34. ii think some missing u no

  35. Todd Hatcher says:

    Science and Nature are one-Always

  36. La naturaleza no deja de sorprendernos

  37. That is art of science 🙂

  38. i love biology……this is awesome….

  39. Science is kind of like art except it’s written in a physical movement.

  40. Very nice is nature artist good and cool…..

  41. Jose Merlos says:

    Well for me its ART

  42. Dear Friends, Please see my pictures.

    Regards : Pawan Raghuvanshi

  43. both science and art the same, I THINK

  44. Thats crazy i feel like the top one in the morring, the bottom one after a day with my kids .great picture!

  45. Laura Ess says:

    One of my Lecturers  at University of Newcastle  was creating art with things like this.

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  48. Laura Ess says:

    But it’s evening here!

  49. CHANDRU. R says:

    Science = “Laws of Nature.”

    Art = ” Action of Mind. ”

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