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Why is coronavirus represented with this image?

All the ways graphics and science have made us see what's invisible

Why is coronavirus represented with this image? All the ways graphics and science have made us see what's invisible

Throughout the entire course of the quarantine, media and newscasts represented the coronavirus with a now famous image: a gray globe, dotted with yellow with menacing twisted and red tips. But this image, although perhaps the most representative of the Covid-19, is not the closest to reality. It is in fact a graphic rendering created by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, two illustrators of the Center for Disease Control or CDC – the main public health institute of the United States. Of course, this iconic image is not the result of imagination: the two illustrators generated it from the graphic representations of proteins enclosed in the RCSB Protein Data Bank, a free access database that collects graphical renderings different protein structures. Once the structures of the three basic components of the virus (membrane, casing and virions, which would be the red "points" were collected) the Autodesk 3ds Max program did the rest. But the colors with which we represent the virus, its grayish and rough appearance reminiscent of a stone or the menacing red of the virers, are the result of the intuition of Eckert and Higgins.

What is curious about the story is that, strictly speaking, it's not possible to "see" a virus. You can photograph it with an electron microscope, but even that representation is more useful to specialists and doctors than to the public. The electron beam that passes through the samples and fixes their image on a slab, enlarged millions of times, faithfully represents the virus but is not representative of the virus: what you see is nothing more than a background of grayish bubbles with small globes that roam around. As Eckert told The New York Times, in fact, her mission as a medical illustrator is to give "identity" to viruses. A mission that lies on the line between science and art – understood as a representation aimed at obtaining a psychological effect on the viewer. The virions of the coronavirus, in fact, are certainly not red, and even if they were no one could prove it by direct witness. Eckert colored them red to attract the public's attention, to create a sense of danger. The photo of the virus helps us to give it a precise identity, to "create" it in our mind.

Anyone who has followed the constant stream of news and ads given by the media or, even worse, has read one of the countless Facebook or Instagram posts in which social users, improvised poets and writers, have offered their own, unsolicited opinion on the current state of the health emergency, you will have noticed a certain type of rhetoric related to the virus: that of the "war" that is "fighting" against an "invisible enemy". This rhetoric, like the graphic representations of the virus, responds to the need to give a shape to something that is invisible, create a contrast between humanity and its invader. The same kind of rhetoric that has tried to turn the narrative of the pandemic into a "teaching" that nature wants to give to the world. It's wrong, but necessary. The virus is a thoughtless organism that spreads blindly, according to the same biological imperative that drives every living thing, from plants to animals, to reproduce continuously. It has no will, it is not an "enemy", but in order to react to his appearance we humans must represent him, create a narrative – and the graphic representation of the Covid-19 is perhaps the most important part of that narrative, because it allows us to determine who we are and what "it" is.

That said, the graphic rendering of Eckert and Higgins is not the only representation of the Covid-19 that was created.  A biologist named David S. Goodsell has designed a less "digitized" version and almost more like a creepy Liberty-style watercolor. The image represents the virus inside the human lung tissue, painting it purple to counteract against the greenish background that instead represents the mucus present inside the lungs. Oddly enough, this image comes much closer to the photograph of the virus made by the electron microscope. A middle ground between Goodsell's accurate but "soft" representation and Eckart and Higgins' iconic image are the graphic renderings of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which take the exact image of the virus more closely, and enhance it dyeing it strong colors. 

Coming out of the world of medicine and scientific research institutes, the most everyday representations that the general population makes of the virus move through emojis. According to a report by Emojipedia on Twitter's most used emojis, there is a huge increase in the one called "Microbe" to talk about coronavirus. It is also a not entirely correct representation – it is indeed a microbe and not a virus – although the iOS version of the emoji is a good approximation to the actual appearance of the virus. But after all, private social media and WhatsApp are certainly not channels of scientific information nor should they be considered such even if each sharing, each image strengthens the identity that we attribute to the virus in our mind and decreases our anxiety, gives us the certainty that what we are facing is not abstract but, on the contrary, tangible, physical and manageable. What is certain is that when this moment is passed and the Covid-19 will be just a memory, the image of Eckert and Higgins will remain powerful because it will become the symbol of the first dramatic collective experience of the globalized world.