Books, Creativity, Science

Obsessive-compulsiveness at its best — Ursus Wehrli’s art of tidying up

Ursus Wehrli

How to explain abstract scientific concepts? Ideally in a fun, engaging way with a clear punch-line and message that people find easy to carry home with them.

My group works on problems in systems biology and I start many of my talks by explaining that large-scale studies mostly identify lists of important components of cellular processes, but not the way they are connected to each other.

In biological jargon: we have the parts list, but lack the wiring diagram.

There are several ideas around how to convey this idea (one involves the way biologists would go about trying to fix a radio) but I always struggled explaining it and found my own slides pretty boring … until I learned of Ursus Wehrli, a swiss artist, and his efforts to tidy up art.

A tidy Keith Haring teaches biology

Now I use one of Wehrli’s pieces of art on my slides – the left is the original by Keith Haring, on the right is Wehrli’s obsessive-compulsive version:

Tidying up Keith Haring

And what I explain is this:

On the left you see a complex system (a living cell) which is built from many components (proteins) that need to work together to produce the whole (the face). On the right you see the same cell as you would in an high- throughput screen: bits and pieces meticulously ordered by how they look but without any connections.

And the punch-line is: In the screen (the image on the right) we can’t explain features of the cell (the face) because we lack information on how the pieces interact.

Audiences seem to like my explanation and I always get a laugh! Best possible start for a talk.

Of course I immediately lose them again on the next slide when I run out of funny pictures and have to start with statistics and equations — but that’s a different story.

The art of tidying up

Now I am super excited that Wehrli produced a new book, his third. In a major paradigm shift and quantum leap he pushes his art to new levels of insight into the human condition by tidying up –wait for it– things you know from every-day life! Like alphabet soup .. or sunbathers in a lido .. or a car park:

Tyding up a car park

You find more example on Wehrli’s website and at It’s Nice That.

Wehrli might look like a one-trick pony – but I really enjoy his pictures. Somehow they make me laugh every time I look at them.

And I’m pretty confident I will find other pictures in his collection that I can use to pep up my talks.


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