new in print: “from conception to birth” delivers marvels

Sometimes dazzling, sometimes startling, sometimes disturbing, From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds, is the visual diary of a human embryo, following its growth from a single cell to a newborn infant. We are witness to images never before seen with such beauty and clarity — from the beating heart of a 28-day-old, grain-of-rice-sized embryo, to the step-by-step development of the lungs, the nervous system, the eyes, the ears, the teeth, the toes, even the toenails. Everything is shown in graphic, breathtaking, color-drenched detail. A pea-sized embryo is enlarged to fill an over-sized page: Inside and out, its tiny limbs and organs are a delicate marvel of intricacy. Some of the images of the embryo’s early development may make it seem more alien than human, with its flipper-like limb buds and spiral tail (which starts to disappear at 36 days). Other visuals evoke the classic glowing, floating baby-in-space imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The book is meant to be a celebration of the process of life and its amazing machinery and architecture. This is not a science textbook on embryological development, though developmental biologists may well ooh and aah over its vivid, scientifically accurate computer-enhanced visuals. It is meant for general readers, to give them a window into the womb.

Most of the images are not photos, though they appear to be. A photojournalist and artist, Alexander Tsiaras calls these computer-enhanced images visualizations. He created many of them by manipulating the 2-D data from CT and MRI scans of specimens from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. For example, using a magnetic resonance microscopy, or MRM, scanner, Tsiaras obtained hundreds of sequential slices of a single embryo, each a 10th of a millimeter thick, which he then manipulated to form a virtual 3-D embryo on the computer screen. The data can reveal density differences (cartilage is denser than liver tissue, which is denser than blood), and, with the right software, it’s possible to distinguish one organ, one tissue, one cell, even one molecule from another. Using other digital techniques, Tsiaras can isolate any object within the embryo, make it translucent, enlarge it, and show it from any angle. He then can enhance different structures with shadow, light, and color.

The book may add to the abortion debate, since the images look more delicate and human than anything seen before. And if such imaging technologies become widespread, one of their primary uses would certainly be to screen for birth defects. Whatever your views, this book is definitely worth a look for Tsiaras’s stunning visuals and Barry Werth’s clear text, with its well-chosen metaphors and sensible explanations of “what’s going on with the baby now?”

Note: Tsiaras’s company, Anatomical Travelogue Inc., has a Web site that showcases From Conception to Birth. You can access it at The site is nicely organized, but be forewarned: The images can take a long time to load. Save your time and get the book; you won’t be disappointed.

This review appeared in the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 2/04/2003.
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