Scared of spiders? Spider silk — the stuff spiders spin their web with — is one of the most amazing things on the planet. Just imagine being able to extrude filaments from orifices of your own body and to build yourself a tent with them. Spider's silk is five times as strong as an equal amount of steel. For more interesting facts, check out Edniweus's website and the news about manufacturing spider silk from goat's milk.
Spider silk coming out of spigots; microscope image by Dennis KunkelMy painting, entitled "Silk Neural Network," was inspired by a photograph of Dennis Kunkel's electron microscope image of silk emerging from a spider's silk glands through spigots, each of whose valve controls the thickness and speed of the extruded material. As the liquid protein molecules are extruded into the air, the molecules are stretched out and linked together to form long strands. The spider's spinnerets wind these strands together to form the sturdy silk fiber.
At the time I discovered Kunkel's image, I was reading about the early theories of the structure of the nervous system by two scientists, Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906. Golgi theorized that the nervous system was like a spider web, in which the nerve fibers touch each other. In Cajal's theory, nerve cells are separate, communicating with each other via chemicals called "neurotransmitters" (almost a common household word today) that travel across the tiny gaps between the neurons. Cajal insisted that the pattern of the whole system was dendritic, or branching. History proved him right.
As I painted this picture of silk fibers rising upwards from the fabulously shaped spigots, I thought of how thin and filamentous our nerves are, like fine silk threads. And then the brain appeared on the paper, with nerves extending outwards, releasing the tiny molecules of chemicals at their ends. I added the spider net behind the silk braids, and hey, why not a few pink spiders just for the fun of it? After completing the painting, I saw how it represents (for me) both Cajal's and Golgi's theories. By the way, both men were excellent draughtsmen. Cajal had wanted to be an artist, but his dad "persuaded him" to go to medical school. The rest is history.