Archive for January 20th, 2011

On the Discovery Docket: Proteus

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

On the Discovery Docket is the blog’s on-going series of book, film, television and experience recommendations.

Haeckel Illustration of a Radiolaria

Many of us grew up with the idea of space as “the final frontier.” But 200 years ago, while there were plenty of people imaging the possibilities of the heavens, there was a much closer, and just as mysterious, frontier here on Earth: the oceans.

The oceans were places where the imagination still reigned and mermaids and kraken were still possible. And as the technology of the microscope improved in the 19th century, the mysteries of the water compounded again. Not only were there marine creatures that were unknown because they hadn’t been seen before, there were creatures that were unknown because they couldn’t be seen before.

Proteus, the 2004 documentary by David Lebrun, tells the history of how 19th century naturalists discovered and began to explore that unseen ocean world.

Much of the story focuses on Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, naturalist, doctor, philosopher and artist. Haeckel is famous for his extensive, meticulous and amazingly beautiful drawings of microscopic marine life, and the darlings of his work radiolaria. Radiolaria are single-celled marine organisms with incredibly complex mineral exoskeletons and, in his lifetime, Haeckel discovered, named and classified almost 4,000 species.

In Proteus, Haeckel’s amazingly intricate and mesmerizing illustrations are combined with the images of other nineteenth century painters, photographers and scientific researchers to create a film that is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, both in the stunning animation and the remarkable story of life it tells.

They are like an alphabet of possibilities, as if the ancient sea were dreaming in its depths all the future permutations of organic and invented form. From backbones to bridges, and from the earth to the stars – Proteus


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