Cold Fish Judith Mantell Art of Science Bristol Biochemistry

Art of Science – Cold Fish

Science is amazing. Science is advancement. And sometimes, science is art. Each month this year Memetic Drift will feature a winning image from the University of Bristol’s Art of Science competition 2014.


Unlike last month’s entry, this fish is not really a fish. It is a fish of the mind!

Most people are irresistibly vulnerable to the phenomenon of pareidolia. This is when you see a pattern, face or shape so strongly that it’s almost impossible to unsee, even when it doesn’t really exist.

Case in point: I dare you to look at the image below and tell me with a straight face that you don’t see a slightly derpy fish…Cold Fish by Judith Mantell an Art of Science 2014 winner at the University of Bristol.

Scientists aim to remain objective in their studies and work to understand life, the universe and everything. But scientists are also very much human, and just as prone to pareidolia which can make for great art!

The image was taken by Judith Mantell (BrisSynBio), using Transmission Eletcron Microscopy (TEM) on a sample provided by Laura Senior (Biochemistry). The blob which makes up the main body of the fish is a cross-section of an unusually shaped liposome – a sort of fatty bubble. Laura was studying how fantastic little creatures called diatoms can take up silicon and use it to make complex and beautiful shell-like structures. Using liposomes allows her to isolate the particular protein responsible and see how it behaves in different situations.

So much for the fish, but why is it cold? To see clearly inside the liposome, it had to be flash-frozen so fast that the surrounding water has no time to form ice crystals but instead freezes smooth as a pane of glass. This is what the “fish” is swimming, or rather immovably suspended in. The fish’s vacant stare comes courtesy of small contaminating ice crystals.

Incidentally, “cold fish” made me think of the incredible anti-freeze proteins many Arctic fish have, allowing them to stay alive despite being cold blooded in the extreme cold conditions of the North.

Next month’s image explores the boundaries and connections between order and chaos…


The annual Art of Science competition at the University of Bristol bridges the perceived gap between art and science, showing imageds which visually demonstrate that the pursuit of knowledge can be as beautiful as it is fascinating. 

This year there were three prize categories; Judge’s vote, People’s vote, and Schools’ vote. Each category had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize, and a runner-up. Cold Fish won 2nd prize in the Schools’ vote. Image used with permission. Thanks to Judith Mantell for additional help and information. 

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