Cool pictures of scientists (UPDATED)

Do a few Google image searches for “scientist”, or for specific scientists, or just look at some lab websites, and you’ll find that the pictures run to type. Lots of shots of scientists in the lab or at their field site, or with some obvious stand-in for their lab or field site. For instance, here’s E. O. Wilson with an ant sculpture,

Judging from Google image search results, it’s apparently the law that E. O. Wilson must be photographed next to an ant. Preferably with his head in his hand.

Jane Lubchenco in the rocky intertidal,


Jane Lubchenco in her natural habitat.

Rees Kassen with a petri plate and a colony counter,

Rees pretending he still remembers how to count his own colonies. (Just kidding Rees!)

and Robert Oppenheimer with a chalkboard full of equations.


Then you carry the two…

The conventional nature of these images is understandable. The whole point of a photo of a scientist is to convey some sense of what they work on. But effective as images like the above are, they’re not very creative. I prefer images that are just as effective, but more visually imaginative.

How about a fisheye lens to jazz up that conventional scientist-standing-in-lab shot?

Graham Bell, evolutionary biologist, McGill University.

Shooting in black and white smartens up what would otherwise be a pretty conventional shot of an ecologist talking to students at a field site:

My former labmate Timon McPhearson, urban ecologist at the New School, making ecology look even cooler than it actually is.

More imaginatively, why does the scientist’s study system have to be the background? Why can’t it be the foreground?

My friend Bill Nelson, theoretical ecologist at Queen’s University, looking AWESOME. Seriously, I am so jealous of this shot it’s not even funny.

Peggy Farnham, biochemist, USC.

Peggy Farnham, biochemist, USC. This is awesome too.

The setting or object illustrating the scientist’s study system can be chosen more creatively. This is risky–the resulting image might not work–but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Lord Robert May, posing with a Tasmanian wolf to illustrate his work on extinction.

Lord Robert May, posing with a Tasmanian wolf to illustrate his work on extinction.

Richard Dawkins. I don’t agree with his aggressive brand of atheism, but I like this image as a commentary on his atheism.

Actually, I don’t like this–I find it a heavy-handed, obvious provocation compared to the previous shot of Dawkins. But your mileage may vary.

Allegra LeGrande, who works on glaciers, in the “climate models” calendar I’ve linked to in the past ( I actually find most of the shots too corny and photoshopped-looking to be effective. But your mileage may vary, and I give them points for imagination.

Bob Paine with a whole pile of Pisaster, rather than just one or two.

Bob Paine with a whole pile of Pisaster, rather than just one or two.

Michigan State postdoc Zachary Blount saying to Bob Paine "That's not a pile. THIS is a pile."

Michigan State postdoc Zachary Blount saying to Bob Paine “That’s not a pile. THIS is a pile.”

The scientist doesn’t have to just stand there and smile, either. That previous shot of Robert Oppenheimer is nice, but it couldn’t be more conventional. I much prefer this shot of him:

Philippe Halsman’s iconic shot of Robert Oppenheimer jumping. Oppenheimer decided on his own how to jump, and denied that he was trying to symbolize striving for discovery or anything like that. He said he was just reaching. But of course, Oppenheimer’s own intent doesn’t dictate how the image reads to viewers.

Speaking of iconic, unconventional shots of physicists:


Tell me this isn’t better than all those shots of Einstein just staring at the camera showing off his hair.

Finally, my casual googling failed to turn up any interesting group shots of scientists. Best I found was this image, which I think is famous in paleontological circles:

The scientists who first reconstructed the jaws of Carcharadon megalodon, posing inside their handiwork.

The scientists who first reconstructed the jaws of Carcharadon megalodon, posing inside their handiwork. Apparently, it’s now thought C. megalodon’s jaws weren’t nearly this big.

Lack of cool group shots of scientists seems a shame in our increasingly collaborative age. Someone needs to do for group shots of scientists what Rembrandt did for group portraits in the 17th century: find a way to portray everyone doing something:

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631).

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631). Man, Rembrandt was GOOD.

Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1662).

Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1662). Have I mentioned that Rembrandt was good?


Night Watch (1642). Somebody ought to do something like this for a field crew preparing for the day’s work or an NCEAS working group or something. Except without all the weapons. Presumably.

In the comments, share links to your favorite pictures of scientists, especially ones that play with or defy the conventions of the genre. (UPDATE: our commenters came through, as they always do! See the comments for a great shot of Charles Elton on a motorcycle with a bag full of mousetraps!)

p.s. Shameless self-promotion alert: the University of Calgary photographer took this shot of me for a story about various Darwin-related events I organized back in 2009. He put some thought into how to represent Darwin visually, and eventually came up with what I think is a nice variant on the “academic sitting in an office surrounded by books” genre:

Me leaning on some of my Darwin-related books. The book on top is my old (late 19th century) copy of the Origin. I’m still jealous of that shot of Bill Nelson, but I do like this one.๐Ÿ™‚




27 thoughts on “Cool pictures of scientists (UPDATED)

  1. Nice post; the images are not just cool they also say a lot about how scientists see themselves and how society sees scientists. There’s been some good viral examples of this in the last couple of years, e.g. the “sexy women lab scientists” meme that came out of the Hunt sexism debacle. I tried to start one back in the summer but it turns out that starting memes is not as easy as it looks, there was a little uptake but not much๐Ÿ™‚

    • “the images are not just cool they also say a lot about how scientists see themselves ”

      I’ve considered doing a post on the photos ecologists choose for their lab websites, for exactly that reason.

  2. To me, it looks like Bill Nelson is trapped behind the glass wall. “Help, get me out of here! The Equations are keeping me prisoner!” (And maybe they are…)

  3. York University Magazine did some really nice ones of honeybee behaviour geneticist Amro Zayed… also good ones of Lawrence Packer (wild bees) and Bridget Stutchbury (songbirds). Amro’s its the best though – a closeup of his bald head with bees crawling on it!
    I don’t think I can link to the pictures directly but here’s the link to the magazine

  4. The classic photo for people who do my sort of work is one of the scientist with the algal chemostats bubbling somewhere prominently. Bubbling green liquid in a chemostat is just too good for photographers, it seems.

    • Lab Coats In Hollywood, which I reviewed for the blog a while back, talks about how bubbling vials of colored liquid became ubiquitous visual shorthand for “science lab”. So even if you didn’t use algal chemostats, there’s a good chance photographers and filmmakers would insist that you get some, to make your lab look like a “real” lab in the eyes of the viewing public.๐Ÿ™‚

    • Yes, those are good silly fun, but mostly not sciencey. The “lab transforming big science” one is a good sciencey one.

      Back in college, my friends and I used to amuse ourselves by taking “Civil War style” group photos. Basically, people standing or sitting around, looking serious, but with few or none of the subjects looking at the camera. Because that’s what many groups shots of Civil War regiments look like.

      I have a few ideas for what I think would be cool lab photos. But it’s all in the excecution; I’d need to persuade one of the many excellent amateur photographers in my dept. to shoot it. I think it’d be cool to do a black and white lab group shot in the style of an indie band album cover, for instance. Just have people slouching around the lab in street clothes, looking moody, with no one looking at the camera. Maybe have one person casually holding a microscope or something, the way you might have one band member with a guitar slung over his shoulder.

  5. There are some nice photos at, where a professional photographer was commissioned to do stuff with UNSW researchers in the field. But despite the photo quality, they didn’t strike me as likely memes. You could say the same about the photo competitions at Ecol Soc Australia meetings.

    So yes, I think it’s a really interesting question whether researchers can change the way others see them through this path. (And indeed, what change they’d be wanting to make.)

    • Thanks, those are really interesting–a mix of quite conventional images of scientists at work (well done, but conventional), and more creative ones. Some of which are sufficiently creative that you need a caption to know that they’re images of scientists and the stuff they work on. For instance, the striking shot of climate scientist Sara Perkins-Kirkpatrick way off in the distance on a massive sand dune. Without the caption, you’d never know what it was supposed to convey. Which maybe just goes to show that most pictures need captions.

      I really like the shots of the plant ecologist and the wildfire modelers too. Those and the shot of Sara Perkins-Kirkpatrick seem to me like better versions of the sort of thing the “climate models” calendar was going for. Understated cool as opposed to hammy, and not obviously photoshopped.

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