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Image(rie)s of Science

The Interplay of Science and Images

It is hard to imagine media reporting without science images – and not just since the coronavirus pandemic. We encounter them in a wide variety of contexts and functions, ideally attracting attention and support understanding of scientific topics. At the same time, the popularisation of science images shapes the notion and the image of science itself.

In this essay, Corinna Hartwig uses components of iconological context analysis to approach the reciprocity between material and notional images of science.

The COVID-19 pandemic still rules the world. It was the top theme in 2020 and will remain so well into 2021. There are many reasons for this: A slow vaccination process, shortage in vaccine supply and, above all, the risk of virus mutations. The latter in particular pose new challenges for scientists and politicians. The data is still scarce. Nevertheless, findings available in the moment indicate that it is above all the faster transmissibility that poses a great danger.

The “Tagesschau” published an article on January 6, 2021, with the headline “New Coronavirus Variants. How dangerous are the mutations?”1 and uses the picture shown above as a cover picture. In the centre of the picture, two round, roughly equal-sized objects can be seen, which stand out strongly from the rest of the picture with their salient red-yellow colouring. At the outer edge, both objects are framed by a blue-green glow with small peaks protruding outwards. The two circles differ from each other in their inner colouring: While the left circle is coloured dark red with a few orange spots on the outer edge, the right circle consists of a lighter red colouring on the inside and an orange to yellow colouring towards the outer edge. The rest of the image is predominantly black, except for an indefinable, shapeless blue area in the left part of the image.

The round objects are coronaviruses. The colours strongly emphasise the viruses against the black background. The red, yellow and orange colouring symbolises alarm and danger. The different colouring underlines a presumed difference between the otherwise uniform objects. This image was taken with an electron microscope. The method of negative contrasting was used, in which the viruses are surrounded by a contrasting agent. This method makes the viruses appear brighter in their environment and visible to the human eye.2 A characteristic feature of this particular virus is the protein molecules embedded on its surface, which protrude outwards like the tips of a crown. This special shape gave the virus the name it has.3

Images have long played a major role in science, especially in natural sciences. Thinking back to a time when art and science were closely intertwined, this becomes particularly clear in Leonardo da Vinci’s work on the “Proportions of the Head”. As a passionate naturalist, he recorded his observations both in words and pictures in the form of hand-made drawings.4 Due to the increasing development of technology in recent decades, science images now exist in a variety of forms and functions. Many images are the result of instrumentally supported observation and analysis processes. These imaging techniques visualise what is usually imperceptible to the human eye. They contribute to the emergence of a reality that would not exist without them.5

At this point, a brief excursion into the field of science studies is required. One main question this relatively new discipline addresses with historical and philosophical methods is, what the function of science actually is. It sounds trivial at first, but it is not. One short answer is: Science produces knowledge. More detailed, one can say that it creates an ever more complete picture of reality through objective knowledge.

It is crucial to understand that science can never give a definitive picture of reality.

Scientifically declared facts are the results of scientific action and socio-technical interventions. This also applies to scientific images.6 The recipient should always be aware that what is depicted on the image does not represent reality, not the evidence of the factual. Rather it is always shaped into an object by the rules of science and research programs.It can only be understood as an example of an infinite number of display possibilities. In relation to the coronavirus image, this means that the creator could perhaps have used other contrasting colours, set a different resolution or chosen a different image section.7 The image would then perhaps look quite different, especially to the layperson’s eye.

After sharpening the understanding of the concept of reality in regard to science, it should be noted: technological processes help to make the smallest objects visible to the human eye. However, images taken with the best electron microscope can only dimly depict coronaviruses. Researchers therefore often resort to computer-animated models that illustrate the smallest objects such as viruses in even greater detail. A research group at the University of Würzburg has created a model of the pathogen that is said to be the closest to its true appearance to date. The single components can even be printed out and assembled using a 3D printer.8 A virus you can touch.

Science images are taken up and disseminated by the media particularly frequently when they have a news value or aesthetic appeal.9 The image chosen by the “Tagesschau” cannot be said to have a particularly high news value. With the help of Google Image Search, it can be found as the cover picture of an article already published in March 2020.10 That is, the picture probably does not explicitly show the virus mutant but two “original” coronaviruses. The choice of this image can therefore rather be attributed to aesthetics. Thus, the objects shine on the otherwise black image and stand out strongly. The colours underline the “dangerousness” and the “threatening”, which is mentioned in the headline and the introduction. Another reason for the choice of image could be the coherence between the image and the headline and topic of the article. The different colouring highlights the divergence that – may or may not – exist between the two viruses shown. The layman could easily interpret these as different variants or even mutations.

What effect science images actually have on recipients in online contexts has not yet been researched thoroughly.11 However, there is consensus that the media has great influence on the dissemination of science images and thus also on the image of science itself. Since the late 19th century, the popularisation of science has been discussed. In the beginning, slide lectures and books written in simple language were available for this purpose. The advent of film, television, the internet and new printing methods expanded the channels and allowed a mass distribution of science images. In recent years, the visualisation of scientific phenomena has reached a new quality. The number and significance of science images increased by leaps and bounds and reached a broad public.12

To what extent the public’s image of science is shaped by writers, journalists, scriptwriters or cartoonists is still uncertain.13 What is certain, however, is that a higher level of information does not necessarily correlate with a more positive attitude towards science.14 A special survey on trust in science and research in the coronavirus crisis shows: in April 2020, the proportion of respondents who “tend to” and “fully” trust science rose compared to the previous year. In the following months, the trend fell but was still above the average of the preceding years.15 How can this development be explained? Many reasons are conceivable here: in times of crisis, research and science have a high value as a reliable source of information for the population. The good communication of many scientists in the form of podcasts, YouTube videos or social media posts may also be a reason for this increase, as well as the willingness to speak transparently about gaps in knowledge. The trust that a large majority of the population places in research goes hand in hand with a high level of expectation, for example regarding the development of medicine and vaccines.16 One reason for the decline in trust may be due to expectations not being met immediately or quickly enough. Other reasons could be the supposedly different views and statements of virologists as well as the inconsistent implementation of scientific findings into political action.17 All these factors must be seen in the context of media coverage and influence our image of science both positively and/or negatively. 

At this point, I would like to plead for public education. Education about what the function of science is, how research processes work and that science can and may be mistaken from time to time. As already explained, knowledge processes are never complete but are only valid for a time – until they are disproved. The process of education should be continuous, because, just like other parts of society, the science system is constantly evolving. 

As in other contexts such as politics, some images are used so prominently in public that they achieve iconic symbolic value. For example the image of the polar bear has established itself as a symbol for climate change communication18, and the double helix of DNA has become a contemporary icon for life sciences.19 Due to its distinctive and quickly recognisable shape, chances are good that the coronavirus could symbolise something in the long term, too. Maybe it will represent virology as a science discipline. Or it will not even stand for something scientific, but a policy that was all of the sudden more capable of action than ever before. Or perhaps it will be more general and remind us of a difficult time period for humanity.


1. Translated by the author; Tagesschau: „Neue Coronavirus-Varianten. Wie gefährlich sind die Mutationen?“, accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.tagesschau.de/faktenfinder/faktenfinder-corona-mutationen-101.html.

2. Spektrum, „Negativkontrastierung“, accessed January 14, 2021, https://www.spektrum.de/lexikon/biologie-kompakt/negativkontrastierung/8061.

3. Institut für Mikrobiologie der Bundeswehr, „Das neuartige Coronavirus unter dem Elektronenmikroskop“, accessed January 14, 2021, https://instmikrobiobw.de/aktuelles/ansicht/das-neuartige-coronavirus-unter-dem-elektronenmikroskop

4. Glossar der Bildphilosophie, Uni Tübingen, „Bild in der Wissenschaft“, accessed January 18, 2021, http://www.gib.uni-tuebingen.de/netzwerk/glossar/index.php?title=Bild_in_der_Wissenschaft.

5. Hüppauf, Bernd and Weingart, Peter (Eds), „Science Images and Popular Images of the Sciences“, in Science Images and Popular Images of the Sciences, Routledge Studies in Science, Technology and Society, 8. London: Routledge. 2007, 1-31.

6. Borck, Cornelius, „Bild der Wissenschaft“. NTM International Journal of History & Ethics of Natural Sciences Technology & Medicine 17(3), 2009, 317-327.

7. Hüppauf, Bernd and Weingart, Peter, „Wissenschaftsbilder – Bilder der Wissenschaft“, in Frosch und Frankenstein. Bilder als Medium der Popularisierung von Wissenschaft, 11-44, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009.

8. n-tv, Kai Stoppel, „So soll das Coronavirus wirklich aussehen“, accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.n-tv.de/wissen/So-soll-das-Coronavirus-wirklich-aussehen-article21953600.html.

9. Hüppauf and Weingart, Wissenschaftsbilder – Bilder der Wissenschaft, 11.

10. No time to make it shorter, „Exponential and Geometric Distributions: A COVID-19 Example“, accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.hildeberto.com/2020/03/exponential-geometric.html.

11. Metag, Julia, „Visuelle Wissenschaftskommunikation. Zur visuellen Darstellung von Wissenschaft, ihrer Produktion, Nutzung und Wirkung“ in Handbuch Visuelle Kommunikationsforschung, 292-307, 2019.

12. Hüppauf and Weingart, Wissenschaftsbilder – Bilder der Wissenschaft, 15.

13. Ibid., 13.

14. Ibid., 16.

15. Statista, „Wie sehr vertrauen Sie Wissenschaft und Forschung?“, accessed January 24, 2021, https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1193534/umfrage/vertrauen-in-wissenschaft-und-forschung. 

16. Fraunhofer, „Vertrauen und Erwartungen: Wissenschaft und Forschung in der Corona-Pandemie“, accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.fraunhofer.de/de/presse/presseinformationen/2020/april/fraunhofer-unterstuetzt-wissenschaftsbarometer-corona-spezial.html.

17. Süddeutsche Zeitung, Hanno Charisius, „Warum das Vertrauen in Wissenschaft sinkt“, accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.sueddeutsche.de/wissen/coronavirus-wissenschaft-vertrauen-1.5144958.

18. Metag, Julia, „Visuelle Wissenschaftskommunikation. Zur visuellen Darstellung von Wissenschaft, ihrer Produktion, Nutzung und Wirkung“, 291.

19. Bock, Cornelius, „Bild der Wissenschaft“, 323.


Written by Corinna Hartwig. Short intro:
– What do you identify as? she / her
– What is your guilty pleasure? Watching cat content (the type of animal doesn’t matter actually) on Instagram… for hours!
– Which book do you recommend? Mark-Uwe Kling: Die Känguru-Chroniken (2009-2018) und Qualityland 1.0 (2017) & 2.0 (2020)

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  1. In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…

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