Womb with a view


The BBC is going to be showing a program with images of developing embryos (there are some galleries online) generated from ultrasound, cameras inserted into the uterus, and largely, computer-generated graphics. It’s all very pretty, and I hope it will also be shown in my country, but…these pictures violate all the rules of scientific imaging. The images are clearly generated by imposing artistic decisions derived from the conventions of computer animation work onto the data that was collected—I can’t tell what details in these embryos were actually imaged, and which were added by the CGI guy.

I can tell you that the way they’re rendered as free-floating individuals suspended in great airy spaces lit by a glow through distant membranes like stained glass windows is complete hokum, and the textures just look all wrong. They ought to be slimy, wrapped in membranes, and enveloped closely in maternal tissues. I hope the program includes some honest description of the process of making the images, with before and after photos, so viewers can see how much of the work is interpolated and artificially added.


  1. j.t.delaney says

    It’s interesting, they’ve elected to “leave mom out of the picture”. It probably wasn’t intentional, but it does seem to reinforce a certain idolatrous mythos about foetii, i.e. they are perfect little platonic forms, floating in the magical aether of JesusLand(tm).

  2. says

    It will be on Channel 4 (and the National Geographic channel for those with dishes, cables) in the UK, not the Beeb. Which means adverts :(

    Anyway, the images are stunning. I expect the technology behind them is just as amazing.

    Did you notice the U.S. comments in the Daily Mail link?

  3. Hugo says

    Yeah Simon, I tried to add some reason to it but the comments are filtered and mine hasn’t shown up yet.
    Some might find warts beautiful and probably at a cellular level and photographed with some CG they are but I’d still rather get rid of it if I had one ;)

  4. James Orpin says

    “the images reveal what until now has been a secret – exactly how animals develop in the womb”

    I wasn’t aware that foetal development, from the point of view of what the foetus looks like, was a secret.

  5. says

    The image with the elefant looks cool though. Wish I could see the animation.

    But if they don’t really represent the actual developping stages than this should be made clear as well …

  6. says

    I call this the “Discovery Channel Effect”, which sensationalizes and sanitizes at the same time. It has even infected NOVA and includes scary or inspiring background music.

    In related fashion I have taken to calling the Discovery Channel “The Scary-Things Channel” as they seem obsessed with poisonous critters, volcanoes, asteroids, dangerous jobs, sharks…

  7. suirauqa says

    The images at the BBC site do mention that they are computer generated. I hope they would spend some time during the program to describe how it actually looks (from the USG and all) and how much of it is the artist’s representation. Otherwise, it is too easy to drown in the cuteness and start thinking of a ‘design’ – as is quite evident from the comments of the readers at the Daily Mail site! I could not see any comment from Hugo either; perhaps they don’t like doses of reason at the Daily Mail?

  8. says

    First you want to take away religious hope. Now you want to take away fetal cuteness.

    Oh, they’re cute enough — just really mooshed up and slimey.

  9. SEF says

    The BBC is going to be showing …

    That BBC link say it is going to be on Channel 4 (ie not the BBC). I can’t see the Daily Mail page contents (other than its frame and advert junk) at all!

  10. says

    It starts December 12th. (I just happened to be watching a show on Jamestown before checking my mail, and they showed that ad about 50 times.)

    Also, if anyone missed the original “In the Womb,” they’re running a Thanksgiving marathon today.

  11. Dave Godfrey says

    This manner of presenting fetuses developing in huge spacious wombs goes back to that guy in the 70s taking photos of fetuses. (You know the ones used in anti-abortion literature, drawn on placards etc.) All of which were taken of fetuses from abortions and miscarriages.

    Personally I think the best images I’ve seen in the womb were the ones of intra-uterine cannibalism in nurse sharks.

  12. SmellyTerror says

    They ought to be slimy, wrapped in membranes, and enveloped closely in maternal tissues.

    You are forgetting the lowest-common-denominator principle of teh teevee. Simple folk do not want reality, they want cute happy critters lounging in bathrobes, swirling a cognac in one hand and tipping a cigar in the other. Smart folk who watch the show can be expected to know about this icky fetus stuff already, and are just in it to see the pretty graphics and/or mock the simplified science.

    I mean, why else do you watch “pop science” shows?

  13. says

    Seriously people, these are far better than the alternative. Have you seen what the inside of an elephant’s uterus looks like? There is something to be said for artistic license.

  14. says

    Didn’t NASA do the same thing with images from the Hubble telescope of the gaseous pillars in the Eagle Nebula ? I seem to remember reading that the colours in that startling image were basically pulled out of the asses of a couple of guys at Arizona State University to make the photos more dramatic and “newsworthy”. In fact the pillars are basically invisible to the naked eye

  15. valhar2000 says

    Bargal20, that happens often, since most photographs from space have only a passing acquaintance with the visible spectrum. Normally, though, the astronomers who work with them develop and explain some sort of convention for how they assign the colours to the image, so that other astronomers can look at them and know what they are seeing.

  16. Hans says

    we also inserted cameras into the womb via the elephant’s rectum

    Huh? Into the womb via the rectum?

  17. Kele says

    My dad was listening to Michael Savage the other day and he was rambling on about how these images show that life is sacred and other such nonsense. I don’t see how computer generated images of a fetus shows that, but whatever.

  18. DavidB says

    These are reminiscent of the human fetal development “photos” published in Life magazine back in the 60s (70s?). These were also largely constructed images, but they did a lot to cement the cultural construct of the developing fetus as an individual as is beautifully deconstructed by Barbara Duden in her book Disembodying Women.

  19. llewelly says

    I don’t see how computer generated images of a fetus shows that, but whatever.

    Most people decide whether to accept an image based on whether they think it shows something they are comfortable with accepting. Most people will not realize that, for example, the apparent spaciousness of the wombs depicted is a very unrealistic CG illusion, as are many of the skin textures.

    These pics and the accompanying program, are likely to receive, as others have pointed out, a similar interpretation to the early 1960s and 1970s pics of human fetuses; average people will think: ‘wow, it’s a baby’ … while you are thinking the subtly different ‘it looks like a baby’ . An average person’s pre-existing notion that a fetus is a baby will be reinforced by the baby-like appearance of these pics.