The (Viral) Glass Menagerie

Studio 360

Science writer Carl Zimmer described viruses to me as "scary invisible monsters." Are they less scary if they become visible? Glass Microbiology is a project of UK artist Luke Jerram. Working with virologists from the University of Bristol and glassblowers Kim Jones, Brian Jones, and Norman Veich, Jerram creates striking and delicate representations of some of the most deadly pathogens known to man: HIV, swine flu, SARS.

In a BBC interview, Jerram says that he is "interested in exploring the edges of our senses ... the borders and the limitations of what we can perceive." Viruses sit precisely on that edge. Able to be detected with an electron microscope, but pushing the limits of its resolution, they straddle that line of what we can see and what we must infer. At one million times their actual size, these microbes we can hold in our hands (carefully) and get our minds around. Unlike the customary bright colors of textbook illustrations and health articles, Jerram's sculptures are translucent. This choice is based on the fact that viruses, at 20-300 nanometers in diameter, are smaller than a wave of light, and thus don't have color.

Luke Jerram's 'Common Cold (Adenovirus)'
Common Cold (Adenovirus)

Jerram's glass pathogens straddle the realms of science and art. They have been featured in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently acquired Smallpox for its permanent collection. Jerram produces five limited edition pieces of each work. His newest work is perhaps his most benign: Common Cold (Adenovirus) covered in flower-like suction cups. Its beauty might cheer you up next time you're lying in bed surrounded by balled-up tissues.

Glass Microbiology is on view as part of Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass at New York's Museum of Art and Design through April 7, 2013; and in Pulse: Art and Medicine at Strathmore Fine Art in Bethesda, Maryland, through April 13.

Slideshow: Glass Microbiology