The Absurdity of Staring at the 3D Model of the Coronavirus

A 3D model of the novel coronavirus against a mugshot background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

My girlfriend recently introduced me to the sleazy, exploitative joy of shows like Forensic Files and The New Detectives. Much has been written about the true crime genre’s explosive popularity over the last couple of decades, and despite the obvious ethical qualms, it’s easy to see why they remain such an entertainment industry staple. They make for cheap, compelling binge-watching, especially now that we find ourselves interminably self-isolated in the wake of this once-in-a-century pandemic. The series’ crimes, while often horrific, almost always satisfyingly end with the culprit facing justice. We see the killer’s face, uncover his motives, are able to act as his judge and jury from the safety of our couches.

It’s ironic, then, that the reason so many of us once again turn to these shows to pass the time is in hopes of sheltering ourselves from a mass murderer we cannot truly see or comprehend. Traditional notions of “justice” simply aren’t applicable to this killer—we cannot hope to understand or sympathize with it, and it has no motive other than survival in the purest sense of the word. So what happens when the culprit’s face isn’t something easily recognizable, when it’s impossible to apprehend for the world to see and subsequently sigh with relief?

Every day, the same few images and renderings we have of COVID-19 are recirculated as accompanying artwork for countless news articles, think pieces, and op-eds. On one hand, it’s easy to see why—an online essay’s visual components often help give us a more holistic look at the subject, alongside the very basic practical need to entice clicks. That said, there’s an inherently macabre sense of absurdity to staring at these pictures. The structures of COVID-19—or any virus, for that matter—mean absolutely nothing to those of us not trained in virology or a similar field (meaning almost everyone). You could replace an image of the novel coronavirus with an image from 2006 of an epsilon 15 bacteriophage, a virus that infects salmonella, and few of us would raise an eyebrow. We are repeatedly shown these images in the media as if they are integral to the public’s understanding and response to the pandemic, and yet when a nuclear meltdown dominates the news, we don’t see the subatomic decay of radiation. We aren’t shown the precise, nitty-gritty images of CO2 molecules alongside the latest ominous climate change dispatch—we’re exposed to the jaw-dropping effects on the world around us, or its numbing statistics mapped out visually on graphs and charts. Why not the same for a viral catastrophe from its outset?

The answer, perhaps, is that there remains something inherently compelling about looking at life that might as well come from a different dimension. It’s as alien to the untrained eye as a literal extraterrestrial descending from the skies. We see an image of something vaguely microscopic, roughly symmetrical, and clinical. In this sense, every virus is the platonic ideal of a virus. Each infinitesimal organism is simultaneously its own and every other organism’s identity. We project our own associations onto these grainy, cellular images. By way of some combination of our evolutionary and societal upbringings, we are troubled by the image of replicating viral cells. We waited on the true crime documentary’s reveal of its serial killer, only to find ourselves staring at a Rorschach blot.

Our gradual detection, identification, and early study of viruses began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it could only truly become effective after Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll at the University of Berlin constructed the first electron microscope prototype in 1931. Ruska’s brother, Helmut, soon aimed these refined microscopes toward the recently discovered organisms, kickstarting the field of virology around 1940, when he, his brother, and Knoll co-published one of the first scientific articles on the subject in the inaugural edition of Archiv für die Gesamte Virusforschung, or Articles of Virology.

The next six decades would see huge strides in visualization technology, which now includes 3D mapping by way of methods like transmission electron microscopy. The first experimental antiviral treatments, mainly for communicative diseases like herpes, began rolling out in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers could begin conducting full genetic sequencing of viruses.

Obviously, viral and bacterial imaging and research are critical to properly identifying and effectively combating these dangers. 3D modeling, for instance, often allows for researchers to better understand how viral infections take control of a body’s cells and to identify its existence in a host earlier. For some, the novel coronavirus’s newest 3D models will be vital to saving as many lives as we possibly can, while others race to find effective treatments and, eventually, a vaccine. Laypersons may learn little, if anything, by looking at these incomprehensibly minuscule organisms, but there will always be that need to put a face to our external threats, to see—however abstractly—that which menaces us.

As the crisis progresses, we seem to see less of a health crisis’s microscopic visuals and more of the virus’s toll on a society—hospitals overflowing with the sick, grocery store shelves bare, small-business windows shuttered for God knows how long. Again, this makes sense, since those representations are far more personal to audiences. Knowing this, would skipping this initial stage of minuscule identification in lieu of a plague’s past, visceral images be more effective in convincing the public to prepare accordingly?

In the end, unfortunately, pandemics like COVID-19 are not limited to their human hosts—they also contaminate both time and memory. A society’s present and future records, not just its population, are rattled by the virus. Their effects will continue long after we hopefully “crest the curve,” echoed in our writing as well as images and artwork that better frame their subject matter. In some cases, however, seeing the author of past, current, and forthcoming pain becomes tragically, numbly pointless. Like the victims of the crimes and horrors we consume on Netflix to briefly escape the desperate reality around us, knowing who is responsible often does little to heal the wounds.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.