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The Universe Within

Internal Dialog

One can easily imagine the ecstasy of 15th and 16th century artists and anatomists, especially Leonardo da Vinci, had they been able to see what we can now do -- carefully and accurately preserve human bodies, dissected, sliced, and revealed in almost any way possible. Thanks to a technology called plastination, whereby water and lipids in biological tissues are replaced by curable polymers (otherwise known as plastic), cadavers can be transformed into odorless, dry, durable specimens invaluable for anatomical study and analysis.

The Universe Within is a collection of plastinated bodies (and parts of bodies), and was created with the intent of giving the general public and medical practitioners an "under the skin" view and an awareness of the form and function of the human body. People from Beijing donated the bodies; a fact that is underscored by the frequent dark spots on lungs and in internal organs, often the result of pollution and smoking. Cigarette anyone?

Honestly, I anticipated the exhibit with a small measure of dread. I have a touch-and-go relationship with blood and guts. I'm fine if I'm cleaning fish or game bird, but certain things set me off, which affords my lovely wife no end of cruel delight at my squeamishness. Sure enough, the first body we saw had me feeling faint. But I sucked it up and soldiered on.

The bodies were strange, bewildering, and oddly familiar. You're somewhat prepared for the experience; after all, most of us have seen anatomy books. But some things were a big surprise, like the amazingly intricate circulatory systems. Bright red, they hang in their vitrines like exquisite Issey Miyake art pieces. Spectacular. How did they do that? Evidently it takes about six months (!) and involves injecting the blood vessels with polymers that harden. Then the cadaver is immersed in a solution that dissolves everything else. (I'm getting queasy again).

A pair of young sisters taking in the exhibit found it sort of frightening but cool and exciting. The younger sister assured me that they "loved blood" and watched gross stuff on TV all the time. An articulate brain surgeon who was pointing out parts of the brain stem on one body to friends and family found the exhibit very helpful. One guy could not believe how tiny and fragile the bones in the feet really are.

Perhaps the best part of the exhibit was the living people enjoying it. The overwhelming reaction was one of fascination and curiosity rather than disgust, and lively discussions and explanations ensued. Perhaps we were all just a bit more glad to be alive.

The Universe Within
at the Nob Hill Masonic Center Exhibition Hall, presented by the Chinese Society for Anatomical Sciences and the Museum of Life Sciences, Beijing, and supported by the department of Anatomy of Beijing University and Medical University in Vienna, Austria.

Open Daily, 11am - 7pm (Thu till 9pm)
Adult-$17, Child (13 and under)-$10, Senior-$15, Student w/ID-$15