Dali’s DNA

My parents went to Barcelona a few weeks ago and saw this Dali painting of a DNA structure in a museum.

Naturally, they sent me a postcard of it.

This is one of Dali’s stereoscopic paintings. Some of them have separate panels for left and right viewing, but this is only one. The left and right pink groups can be superimposed to show a a 3D structure.

Uses of stereo viewing in science
Aside from the hands, this might be one of Dali’s least surreal works. The method of viewing chemical structures three dimensionally using steroscopy is in fact quite common.
Structures of proteins and other, even smaller, chemicals can only be determined using indirect methods such as NMR. You can’t actually see these kind of structures with your own eyes, not even with a microscope. All the images of chemical structures you’ve seen are based on mathematical calculations of atomic and subatomic interactions. To get a better idea of the three dimensional structure, some computer programs allow you to rotate the molecule model on screen. That doesn’t help you much when the structure is only shown on paper. And even using the computer, the rotating model is shown on a two-dimensional screen.
To get a better idea of the three dimensional structure, these images can be viewed in stereo: a left and right image merge together to form one, seemingly three-dimensional, model.

I first had to learn stereo viewing myself for a bioinformatics course, but immediately realized that I could already do this. If you can see “Magic Eye” images, you will have no trouble viewing three dimensional structures. (Finally, all those hours spent gazing at 3D bunnies in psychedelic patterns paid off!) For some people it’s easier to learn the technique than for others, but it really is a skill that everyone is able to pick up. It’s basically staring: Instead of looking right at the paper or screen, you can pretend that it’s transparent, and focus on a point far behind it. Everyone can do this: it’s the same as looking out of a window instead of looking right at the window. The trick is not to get distracted by what’s on the paper/screen (or dirty window).

Butterfly LandscapeBack to Dali
Dali’s stereoscopic works were some of his latest works, produced in the seventies. By that time the structure of DNA was a familiar concept. According to this Economist article, the representation of the now common DNA structure in art was not widely used until after the publication of Watson’s “The Double Helix” in 1968. However, the original publication of the structure was in 1953. The article suggests that Salvador Dali was in fact the first to produce DNA-inspired art. They probably referred to “Butterfly Landscape (The Great Masturbator in a Surrealist Landscape with DNA)“, which he painted in 1957-58.



Eva Amsen is a writer, science communicator and blogger. She has been writing about science and scientists in art/culture/life since 2005, both on this blog and for other sites and publications. Portfolio | Twitter | Contact

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5 Responses

  1. Ewen says:

    I have a friend who works in a structural biology lab at UCLA, and they use 3D glasses (like for the movies) to view protein structures on their computer.

  2. Maria says:

    Dali is one of my favourite favourite painters! love him!

  3. pim says:

    And he even drew a unit cell box around it, amazing! I can hardly believe it actually, are you sure it isn’t a hoax 🙂

    Cool title for this last painting by the way.

  4. Paul says:

    the eye crossing 3-D thing is cool. I don’t think it would have helped me much in organic chemistry, but I can see how it might help.

  5. Dan says:

    I am working to educate the art buying public. Salvador Dali was a complex and brilliant artist who had a dream to combine Art, Religion and Science in his work. Dali achieved his dream and his DNA related works are housed in some of the worlds finest museums.
    I recently sold the “Maximum Speed of Raphaels Madonna” by Dali to a collector that happens to be working in the DNA field. I have also sold to many in the Mental health and other Research fields.
    If you have questions about Dali, feel free to call me at 888-888-DALI
    ask for Dan.