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On the Fabric of the Body

I love science because its history is a list of moments when people changed their minds about the world. Once upon a time the ocean tides were a mystery, or were drummed up by Poseidon, but then around 150 BC Seleucus of Seleucia suggested that they were caused by water’s attraction to the moon in combination with the whirring of the earth, and they were mediated by pneuma (breath). Seleucus was also a proponent of the heliocentric theory of the universe nearly 1,700 years before Copernicus’s model, and was probably the first astronomer to explain the earth’s rotation around the sun.

Many years and miles away, in thirteenth century Egypt, a physician named Ibn al-Nafis refuted Galen’s long-accepted explanation of the workings of the heart and blood by looking into a human body himself and writing down his observations:

The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa to the lungs, spread through its substances, be mingled there with air, pass through the arteria venosa to reach the left chamber of the heart and there form the vital spirit . . .

To understand the intricate waterways of the blood, al-Nafis needed not only to see clearly—a tricky enough task—but also to trust what he saw.

In 1977 people changed their minds when oceanographers discovered deep-sea ecological communities at the Galapagos Rift in the eastern Pacific. We used to think sunlight was the only energy source powerful enough to sustain large-scale life, and the deepest depths of the ocean were a vast desert home to only the few scavengers who could live off the tiny bits of detritus that floated down from the photic zone. But the array of organisms we found living around the hydrothermal vents was rich, colorful, and thriving, and included specialized species of shrimp, barnacles, bivalve mollusks, limpets, and other gastropods. Instead of photosynthesis, these fauna were found to derive their energy from chemosynthesis, a process by which the bacteria at the bottom of the food chain convert toxic chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide and methane into carbohydrates.

One of the most striking creatures the scientists discovered around these hydrothermal vents—places where the water reacts with magma rising up between tectonic plates, becoming very warm and filled with minerals—was the giant tubeworm called Riftia patchyptila. These tubeworms live miles beneath the ocean’s surface and grow up to 2.4 meters long in dense colonies. Curiously, they have no eyes, mouth, gut, or anus, and rely on symbiotic bacteria living inside themselves for nourishment. Visually, the Riftia patchyptila is beautifully obscene. The bright red, fleshy worm secretes the tube in which it lives, and which is attached at the base to a hard surface. While most of the worm is contained in this snug, whitish covering, the retractable “head” or “plume” of the worm extends out into the water enthusiastically, creating what initially appears to be a garden of crimson phalluses.

If we look closer, we find that each worm is also cleft at the tip as if slit with a knife to expose what looks like two pink lips, or labia. A naive observer might think the opening is a mouth—perhaps the creature is gathering fragments of food from the circulating water and swallowing them down its long shaft to be digested—but that is not so. The vulva-shaped end is actually the worm’s obturaculum, which supports the plume’s many blood-vessel-filled filaments when extended, and also serves as a plug when the worm retracts into its tube for protection.


Attracted by the hermaphroditic appearance of the tubeworms, a young woman stands at a forearm’s length from a panel of display glass in the summer of 2006. She snaps photos of the Riftia patchyptila colony that seems to reach and bend in the water, but is in fact a reproduction painted painstakingly by the museum’s diorama artists. Before her, the tubeworms reach out and up in a disorganized throng, while a couple of pasty and muscular eelpout fish wend their way through the forest of bodies, eyes black and dull as lentils. The young woman’s reaction to the tubeworms is complicated: on the one hand, she feels disturbed. There is a shamelessness to them, the way they expose themselves—like infants or flowers, but grotesque—for all to see; also, they have a disembodied quality, as if a serial killer or mad scientist has drawn back a curtain to reveal his collection of human genitalia. On the other hand, the woman feels a discernible yet unspecified excitement, a charge produced from seeing these specific creatures on this specific day. Zooming in here, we observe her prepare to take another photograph (her arms raise the camera to her face, the skirt of her red dress stops moving for a moment as she stills herself for the click), and afterward shift her weight to her other foot, paused as if waiting for time to start up again, for the diorama to come back to life.

Since she is our subject, we might logically ask: Is the young woman in the red dress sexually excited by the diorama of tubeworms? The way she lingers before this display as opposed to any of the impressive others in the Hall of Ocean Life has its own shamelessness to it, or perhaps the word “innocence” will do here. Analyzing her three digital photographs of the Riftia pachyptila as evidence, we learn that the young woman is not at all concerned with documenting the helpful information that appears on the plaque to the left in bold Helvetica typeface. Not one of her images even includes the portion of the plaque that identifies the animal’s name, despite that she could have incorporated this seemingly crucial information with only a five-degree change in the angle of photographs number one and two, which show an approximately one half meter swath of the tubeworms (with an horizontal and vertical camera orientation, respectively) in addition to the right edges of the two informational plaques. The third photograph is up close and blurry. In it, one worm’s obturaculum curves toward the camera wantonly, like an orchid.

Figure 1: Riftia pachyptila, photo no. 3
Figure 1: Riftia pachyptila, photo no. 3


For a long time, people had little idea of what the insides of their bodies looked like, and in the Middle Ages in Europe, curiosity about the world was punishable by death. If a person fell ill, her physician might diagnose her by observing the color of her urine in concert with a chart of the planets. Then he treated her by lancing her arm and letting her blood flow out into a large bowl resting on a chair by the side of the bed. Consulting a priest was, perhaps, even worse: Whatever the problem, the person clearly deserved it; all afflictions were levied by God. Luckily, Andreas Vesalius was of the Renaissance persuasion and he exposed flaw after flaw in the current understanding of human anatomy that was still, in sixteenth century Brussels, primarily based upon the writings of Galen from the second century. Vesalius’s studies of cadavers, which he memorialized in the illustrations for his famous De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), mark the inception of the modern field of human anatomy.

Like Ibn al-Nafis three hundred years before him, Vesalius found Galen’s theory about invisible pores between the chambers of the heart to be false. He also helped us change our minds about where our minds are located, believing that the brain and nervous system was the center of thought and emotion and that the nerves extended from the brain, rather than from the heart. In his studies of the internal organs, Vesalius perpetually regretted the difficulty of obtaining female bodies for dissection and was forced to rely on autopsy findings and grave robbing for material. Once, when Vesalius and his students learned that the mistress of a certain monk had passed away, they went out under cover of night and snatched her corpse from its tomb. But when the monk and the woman’s parents learned of the crime and complained to the magistrate, Vesalius stripped the body of its skin, making it unrecognizable to the authorities. He also, quite hastily, excised the corpse’s female organs for study, as she had been obtained for that purpose.

Figure 27 from De humani corporis fabrica, which depicts those very organs, is controversial for another reason in addition to the method of the sample’s collection. On first glance, it appears to be a drawing of the male genitalia (perhaps, as critics have suggested, as a result of some Freudian foible in the anatomist) but it is in fact a depiction of the female organs. However, even when the observer learns this fact from the caption, the initial impression has been so strong that the image retains its doubleness. Starting at the bottom of the illustration, what looks like the head of the male penis is simultaneously the vulva cut away from the groin of the body. The penis’s shaft is the long vaginal canal, half-encased in surrounding flesh and ringed with uneven lines that seem to indicate wrinkles. And at the top of the column a heart-shaped bulb—which is not a scrotum but a uterus that has been roughly removed from the body sans fallopian tubes—has been cleft in two to expose its hollow interior.

Figure 2: De humani corporis fabrica, fig. 27
Figure 2: De humani corporis fabrica, fig. 27


The abdominal cavity is dark and many-layered; to understand it is to engage in a descent. If we were to direct the young woman to lie down on the cold marble of the museum floor so we could cut through the front of her red dress with shears, cutting also into the belly of August 2006 where scores of New Yorkers have escaped from the record-breaking heat wave into the cavernous, air-conditioned halls of the American Museum of Natural History, we could peel back the outer fabric of her body and answer our questions with our own eyes. (Vesalius writes, “The trunk of the female body is represented lying on the ground. The peritoneum, together with the abdominal muscles, has been opened and . . . has been pulled to the sides.”) But since the young woman is still breathing, we’ll leave our tools resting on the table for now and allow her to stay as she is, enclosed as a dark sea. Besides, she’s on vacation. She’s come to visit friends in the city and is traveling, for once, without her husband whose opinions usually form a screen between her and the world. As her gaze moves from the tubeworms to the eelpout fish, and then along the neighboring wall where an ancient relative of the squid grapples hungrily with the dirt, her stomach grows eyes and stirs in its sleep.

She exits the museum into blaring sunlight, crossing sidewalks where accented men hawk bottles of water to passersby. The heat, like every disaster, is making the city friendly, but it will also cause the deaths of at least thirty-one residents by mid-month. The young woman’s skin, sticky with sweat, gathers particles of dirt and grit from the air as she descends into the subway station. Later that night she arrives at a party on an abandoned street of warehouses, one of which is occupied by a group of young artists. The artists have turned their vast main room into a reef-like structure by building separate niches into the walls for sleeping. They gather around a snack platter that someone has arranged in the shape of a penis with two peaches for testicles, a long stack of crackers bordered with figs for the shaft, and a heavy red tomato at the head. The young woman finds she is hungry. She hasn’t eaten in years.

Figure 3: Food
Figure 3: Food

Though she’s slow to see them, the signs keep adding up that she’ll leave her husband within the next three months. Two days after returning home from the city, she first notices the change while in the shower: Whereas before when she washed her body, massaged shampoo into her dark hair, or shaved stripes up her lathered legs she’d be thinking about something else, this time she’s right there inside herself. Without warning, her feet grow wide and deep as if they’re planted in the floor below the tub, and her skin, amniotic under the running water, shimmers. She presses her palms against the tile and stretches her hamstrings, lets the spray run over her open lips, feels a surge travel through her. If she wanted to, she could bend the metal pipe of the showerhead with her hands.

After she dresses she wades into the night, which is eerily lit by street lamps that make the undersides of the trees look bioluminescent. Her hair is damp and sticks to her forehead. She inhales magnolia, the rank scent of a skunk, exhaust fumes from passing cars, and feels their chemical compounds mixing inside her, turning into fuel. She remembers the urban legend about Orthodox Jewish couples making love through a sheet with a small hole in it. That’s what it feels like, she thinks: Like the fabric separating her from the atmosphere has been suddenly pulled away, revealing the nakedness on both sides. Now, as she walks up and down the residential streets, she and everything else is touching. Strong and firm, her body is a column pushing into the air in front of her, penetrating it, while at the same time her eyes, nose, and mouth take in the world.

Weeks go by and the spell doesn’t break. Or, weeks go by and the spell stays broken. One evening in September, the woman softens her senses with a few pills and joins her friends at their regular bar. As the outlines blur, we observe her telling anyone who will listen about the creatures that live miles under the ocean, divorced from light. Taking sips of her drink through a straw, gesturing excitedly with her hands, she describes the tubeworms from the diorama in intimate detail (though she doesn’t remember what they’re called) and explains how her internal organs have turned into swimming, feeling things—some conical, some lumpy and slick—from another planet. She can feel them floating along the bottom of her insides like week-old helium balloons.

Figure 4: The woman
Figure 4: The woman


When a new discovery is made, the mind often needs time to adjust; it doesn’t change right away. Rather, the idea takes hold in one million, nearly imperceptible increments until at a certain point we can’t imagine going back to thinking the old way. That is how we continually make strangers of our former selves. Even Aristotle, who loved nothing more than to organize the world into tidy categories, had to acknowledge the tendency of living things to resist demarcation (and aren’t ideas living things?). In the eighth book of his comprehensive zoological study, History of Animals, he notes that:

Nature passes so gradually from inanimate to animate things, that from their continuity their boundary and the mean between them is indistinct. The race of plants succeeds immediately that of inanimate objects; and these differ from each other in the proportion of life in which they participate; for, compared with other bodies, plants appear to possess life, though, when compared with animals, they appear inanimate.

The change from plants to animals, however, is gradual, as I before observed. For a person might question to which of these classes some marine objects belong, for many of them are attached to the rock, and perish as soon as they are separated from it.

What perishes when a thought, for the first time, separates from rock and begins moving like an unfamiliar animal? How long should we wait before we give it a different name?


Alone in my new apartment, I kneel over a book on the living room rug, casting a shadow over the pages with my body. The room smells faintly of artificial lemon from the wood floor soap, and the autumn light pours through two windows behind me, illuminating tiny dust particles that rise and fall like plankton. I settle into this moment, floating in the ocean of data that composes it from trillions of molecules, ions, and cells. And at the same time, inside my body, countless processes go on beneath my awareness, invisible from the outside. If I could perceive everything happening right now, even just in this room, it would take more than a lifetime to sort through it. So instead, I take the world in little by little, and am changed by it little by little.

Aristotle was correct when he observed that some sharks give birth to live young, when he described the anatomy of octopus, cuttlefish, and crustacean, and when he distinguished dolphins and whales from fish. Like him, I find myself drawn, again and again, to hold the world still with definitions. However, if we trust in the process of scientific discovery it means we have to stay alert for changes in the order, even knowing all we know. Holding an idea in place forever can be as foolish as holding the blood or breath, and this applies to humans too. For example, many of us have felt the exhaustion that comes from behaving as a mere man or woman.



Aristotle, Richard Cresswell, and Johann G. Schneider. Aristotle’s History of Animals: In Ten Books. London: G. Bell, 1902. Print.

Bright, Monika, and François H. Lallier. “The Biology of Vestimentiferan Tubeworms.” Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review 2010: 213. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.

Hajar, Rachel. “The Air of History: Early Medicine to Galen.” Heart Views: Official Journal of Gulf Heart Association 2012: 120. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

Howe, Alexander. “Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vent Fauna: Evolution, Dispersal, Succession and Biogeography.” Macalester Reviews in Biogeography 2008: vol. 1, issue 6. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

Osnabrück, Universität, and Günter Purschke, eds. Morphology, Molecules, Evolution and Phylogeny in Polychaeta and Related Taxa. Dordrecht: Springer, 2005. Print.

Neugebauer, O. “The History of Ancient Astronomy Problems and Methods.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1945: 1. JSTOR Web Resource. 3 Mar. 2015.

Vesalius, Andreas, and J B. C. M. Saunders. The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels. Cleveland: The World Pub. Co, 1950. Print.

Sarah Rose Nordgren writes about science, technology, and nature, and is the author of the poetry collections Best Bones (2014) and Darwin's Mother (forthcoming 2017), both from University of Pittsburgh Press. She is currently a doctoral candidate in poetry at the University of Cincinnati.