Photographic Atlas of the Body

by Science Photo Library, Susan Greenfield
ISBN: 1552979733

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A Review of: Photographic Atlas of the Body
by Olga Stein

The Photographic Atlas of the Body (Firefly, 288 pages) is marvelous from the start-in fact from the start of its foreword, written by Baroness Susan Greenfield. She begins with the following: "This book truly spans the science/art divide. Indeed, it goes one better: it shows how once can merge into the other. Science can actually be art, and in turn, in the exquisite and ultimate mechanisms and function of biology, there is an intrinsic beauty." Further down, she writes of the section on the nervous system and the brain, "I hope that you will be able to capture some of the excitement that I had when I was first a student, wondering how such quintessentially physical matter could generate subjective experiences such as personality." Greenfield's words inadvertently hint at a more profound confluence-that of science and religion. In The Photographic Atlas of the Body, we find this subject crystalizing around the most important of junctures-human biology, human life itself. The 250 colour images of this book were scanned with the most advanced imaging technology-Transmission Electron Microscopy, Comptuted Tomography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (these are just three in a section at the front of the book which lists and explains seventeen imaging techniques). The pictures are breathtaking for the beauty and wonderousness of all that they reveal going on at various levels of our physical life. A short but excellent introduction to the book's first chapter, "Cells", gives us this vivid passage:

"At the cellular level, the human body has been compared to a vast city. But outside the pages of science fiction, no city is as large, complex or efficiently organized as the human body. The thousand or so different types of cells we possess work in superb harmony to regulate all the processes essential for life-food processing, production and storage; repair, transport and waste disposal; surveillance and defence; communication and administration."

The city analogy serves perfectly to introduce the first chapter and all those that follow - "Tissues", "Systems", "Brain and the Senses". And while the first chapter is entirely given over to cells, the cellular perspective is retained in every other chapter in the book. Thus, we're shown the structural appearance of blood vessels in the human neck, for example, while on the next page an image taken by a Transmission Electron Microscope zooms in on the blood cells inside a blood vessel in the spinal cord. Or we're given a cross section of the spinal cord with its regions of grey matter (nerve cells) and white matter (tracts of nerve fibres), but in pages that follow, images taken with a Light Micrograph offer closeups of the dentritic nerve cells of the spinal cord, the essential transmitters of signals between the brain and the rest of the body. My favorite images are of cells-a macrophage white blood cell engulfing bacteria, pillar-like chochlea cells which transform soundwaves into auditory signals, sperm and egg cells, and mitotic cell division. But just about everything shown in the book is fascinating, and the text accompanying each picture is well written, clear and concise.
Baroness Greenfield closes her foreword with a thought-provoking quote: "Someone once said that science is all about seeing what everyone else can see, but thinking what no-one else has thought'." I'd like to put it differently and say that science is ultimately not about what one sees but what one is able to imagine. Imagine the destination and you will find the way there. With this book, we travel to that miraculous universe that is the human body.

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