Depictions of skulls and bones in artwork are common, especially during the Halloween season when we celebrate the things that most terrify us. Often, portrayals of the barest human and animal remains are associated with death, fierceness, or foreboding. What’s unusual is to find skeletal art that invites us to consider the once-living or the otherworldly in a reverent, uplifting way–as a reflection of life and the glory of living processes rather than focusing on fear, disgust, and suffering. Almost no one does a better job of deriving positive significance and beauty from bones than scientists who study them.
At Salt Lake Comic Con last weekend, I came across a rather interesting booth that, at first glance, appeared to display photographs of various animal skeletons. Companies who manufacture high-quality fossil casts sometimes come to these events, and I thought perhaps these were advertisements for such. After taking a closer look, I realized these images were not photographs but digital renderings. With some inquiry, I came to discover that the booth represented a laboratory at the Idaho Museum of Natural History which has set up an ambitious project of digitally imaging fossil and archaeological bone collections to make specimens more widely available for educational and public perusal.
The skilled “digitization specialists” of the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory appeared to enjoy not only expanding their digital archive, but also manipulating the 3D images to re-imagine fantastical creatures like dragons (using dinosaur skulls, of course), mermaids, a steampunk orca, and the mythical Pan. All images invite us to literally flesh out and imagine these creatures as they might have appeared in life–if they were real.
Here are some of the creative images they came up with, available on their Facebook and Pintrest pages:
My favorite image they put together, which I bought as a poster, was something more simple and realistic that resonated close to my heart: a Neanderthal gazing at a skull of Paranthropus boisei (an older relative on the human evolutionary tree), with a modern human skull sitting next to it. On the lab’s Pintrest page, the image bears this description: “As no post on this page is quite complete without a little sciencey 3D model action, here is a Neanderthal contemplating his past, present, and future.” If you look closely, you’ll see that the rocky outcrop behind him is also a zoomed-in cross section of bone.
As human beings, we have powerful minds. We can use our imaginations both to solve mysteries about things that really happen, and to create new things that have never existed before. I love science because it teaches us that knowledge is power. Wisdom is mankind’s flashlight, rendering harmless the shadows of the unknown. Exploration and discovery give us more choices and control over our environment, chasing away fear, doubt, and misconceptions.
I’ve heard people joke that paleontologists, anatomists, and even doctors must be psychos because, to some extent or other, we “love playing with dead things.” The difference between the mad scientists who will grace our television screens or fill our spooky story indulgences this season, and reality, is that true science inspires and advocates a deep reverence for life. When science loses its reverence for life, it ceases to be science. Thus, as a natural scientist myself, I hold immense awe and respect for bones and the extinct life they represent, from which I have had the opportunity to learn and to contemplate worlds past time and again.
To learn more about the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory, check out these links to their website and social media pages: