21st: Body bits

Digital anatomies offer high-tech medical education, intimations of mortality -- and a whiff of the crypt.


Scott Rosenberg
May 24, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

Round bone at the center; ovals of veined, dark-crimson meat; a corona of white fat at the edges. You could be at your supermarket meat counter, looking at tonight's dinner -- only the cross-section slices belong not to a cow but to a human corpse, filleted in the name of science and displayed on your monitor.

The images -- compiled in "Body Voyage," a new CD-ROM from Time Warner Electronic Publishing -- belong to the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human project. The body they portray once belonged to Joseph Paul Jernigan, a 39-year-old convicted murderer. After his execution by means of lethal injection, Jernigan's cadaver was mapped by CT (computer tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, shaved millimeter by millimeter and exhaustively photographed to provide a digital record of the male human anatomy -- complete except for a couple of parts, since Jernigan was missing his appendix and one testicle.

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Alexander Tsiaras, the photojournalist and artist who took the 120 billion bits of Jernigan's anatomical data and translated them into the unsettlingly beautiful and macabre images of "Body Voyage," views his project in the tradition of Renaissance anatomical drawing epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius. But there's another tradition involved here, too, a lovingly cheesy pop approach to envisioning human anatomy -- exemplified by movies like "Fantastic Voyage" (1966), in which shrunken scientific explorers race through body cavities and float down blood-vessel tubes, Chutes and Ladders-style. When "Body Voyage" offers Gothic-dark "fly-throughs" of the interior of the human skull or chest, what it's providing is not so much a valuable lesson as a video game thrill. (The gaming influence is even more visible in the kind of online health-education animations provided at sites like Cellsalive, where you can watch phagocytes gang up on cellular invaders like so many Pac-Man blobs.)

"Body Voyage" is only the latest -- and most determinedly photographic -- entry in the booming field of digital anatomy. On a bevy of popular CD-ROMs and, increasingly, on the Net, model bodies are being diagrammed, dissected and reanimated, limb by limb, organ by organ. The purpose is uniformly educational, but the fascination, let's face it, stems more from the subject's inherent luridness than from its redeeming social value. The inheritance of Leonardo Da Vinci can't help getting mixed up with the inheritance of Edgar Allan Poe, "The Twilight Zone" and superhero-style X-ray vision.

"Body Voyage's" predecessors in the field include A.D.A.M. Software's "A.D.A.M. The Inside Story" and Dorling Kindersley Multimedia's "The Ultimate Human Body," two highly acclaimed CD-ROMs that have been around since the early days of the multimedia explosion (two or three years ago) and have recently been revised and reissued. Predictably, the new versions feature more extensive 3-D views of torsos and limbs and organs viewable from multiple angles. But these products serve their family-educational goals by remaining somewhat squeamish; A.D.A.M. even provides a "modesty" setting that plasters non-removable fig leaves over genitalia and breasts.

Both "Ultimate Human Body" and "A.D.A.M. The Inside Story" rely almost exclusively on clearly delineated, cartoon-like anatomical drawings of pristinely discrete bodily elements. The visual style recalls that of their lower-tech plastic predecessors, like the old build-it-yourself model of "The Visible Man" or the World Book Encyclopedia's see-through laminated pages. Even as these CDs offer full explanations of the functioning of the urinary tract or the mysteries of lymph, there's nothing messy or gooey about their rendition of the human organism. Everything is as sterile as a well-maintained lab.

With its thousands of images of ice-packed human meat, "Body Voyage" -- despite the tastefulness of its design -- can't help providing an utterly different atmosphere, a whiff of horror-movie gore. Listen hard enough and you just might hear a ghoulish mutter like "Igor, come to the slab!"

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To be sure, "Body Voyage" has its own commitment to medical accuracy and claim to educational value. The CD's video introduction includes an anecdote about a little girl who needed a complex skull operation involving the temporary removal of half of her face; images generated by Tsiaras' project allowed her surgeon to see beforehand what he was getting -- and cutting -- into. But going into an operation yourself, you wouldn't feel hugely confident knowing your doc had boned up using "Body Voyage": Its 3-D cutaways and rotations lack the high resolution of a real diagnostic tool and tend to run together into striking but blurry tableaux of flesh and bone, tissue and organ.

For the non-medical audience, "Body Voyage's" experience is far more aesthetic than scientific or didactic: It offers mesmerizing displays of body parts -- skulls and hearts and snaky intestines -- rotating independently in black 3-D space like Christmas tree ornaments. Its most striking sequences are video animations created by rifling through the Visible Human Project's photos, flip-book style, so that the full human body appears slowly to dissolve, top to bottom, layer by full-color layer, organ by organ and bone by bone, like an ice cube in the sun. It's as if the technology was just waiting to illustrate Hamlet's celebrated exhortation, "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt."

If your goal is to learn the names and functions of different body parts, you'd be far better off with "A.D.A.M." or "The Ultimate Human Body." On the other hand, if your goal is to contemplate the ephemerality of flesh and the nature of mortality, it's hard to imagine a better aid to meditation than "Body Voyage"; it's the high-tech equivalent of the medieval scholar's tradition of standing a skull on one's desk. A CD-ROM with the soul of a Jacobean revenge drama, it is the digital world's first memento mori -- or, if you will, memento MRI.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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