Picture the virus that spreads Covid-19, and you might imagine a scary-looking dustball crowned with crimson, orange, and yellow spikes that help it attach to the victim’s insides. At least, that’s how it looks in those renderings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, circulating everywhere from your uncle’s Facebook to President Trump’s Twitter.
But the real coronavirus measures just 120 nanometers, or 0.0000047 inches—teenier than the smallest visible wavelength of light. It has no color at all. If you glimpsed it through an electron microscope, you’d see something much more like this 9-inch crystalline sculpture by British artist Luke Jerram. “It’s nearly 2 million times bigger than the actual thing,” Jerram says.
SARS-CoV-2 is just the latest lowlife in a lineup of more than 20 microbes that Jerram has supersized for his series Glass Microbiology. He started in 2004, after flipping through The Guardian and seeing some color close-ups of HIV. Though scientists add color to make such pictures understandable, Jerram is red-green color-blind, and it bugged him. He started working with industrial glassblowers in northern England on more accurate representations of infectious agents like HIV, SARS-CoV, and Ebola.
“Of course, by making it in glass, you create something that’s incredibly beautiful,” Jerram says. “There’s a tension there, between the beauty of the object and what it represents.”
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Scientific institutions often commission his sculptures to reflect their research, so when Duke University School of Engineering called Jerram two months ago, wanting a Covid-19 sculpture, he wasn’t surprised—though he didn’t expect it to become a global pandemic. Now his studio is crowded with models of deadly microorganisms that were slated for since-postponed exhibitions. But at least he hasn’t caught the virus, which is more than he could say while working on a swine flu piece in 2009.
“I remember going into a pharmacy and saying, ‘Can I have some Tamiflu? I feel rather ill.’ And they just said, ‘Can you leave the building now, please. We’ll come speak to you outside,’” he says. “It was strange to be making this artwork of the thing that’s inside me.”
It takes up to eight weeks to create one sculpture. Jerram begins by studying and comparing existing scientific imagery and models of viruses made through techniques like electron microscopy and x-ray crystallography. After making a detailed sketch, he often runs it past a virologist, then delivers it to borosilicate glassblowers in Sunderland trained by Pyrex 30 years ago.
The technicians fashion each virion from the inside out, starting with the nucleic acid core that codes the virus. A glass rod as thin as a plastic straw is heated with a 3,000-degree Fahrenheit torch, then twisted like a lightbulb filament to form a snaking strand of ribonucleic acid. It’s sandblasted, then inserted inside a 6-inch-wide test tube rotating on a lathe. The glassblower clamps the end to form a sphere—technically, the virus’s outer protein shell, or capsid—then places it in a kiln to cool for a day. Finally, they glue on the external proteins and clean the whole thing with a soft cloth … carefully. “You breathe on it—haw!—and with the humidity of your breath, that small amount of moisture, you clean it all,” Jerram says.
As science evolves, so do Jerram’s sculptures. Back when he made his first HIV model, people didn’t fully understand what the RNA looked like, but knowledge has improved, and Jerram is now on his third edition of the piece. A few years ago, he got a letter from a man suffering from the virus thanking him for revealing the enemy inside.
“By making the invisible visible, we’re able to feel like we have a better sense of control over it,” Jerram says. “Science can help give us a sense of empowerment.” The more representations we have, the better.
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