Five iconic science images, and why they're wrong

Over the years, we've been blessed with innumerable breathtaking images from the pursuit of science - from the unimaginably huge Pillars of Creation to the endlessly tiny Mandelbrot Fractals. But some of these images have taken on an iconic status, instantly recognisable to schoolchildren and Republican presidential candidates alike. The problem is, a lot of these iconic science images are more icon than science. Here's a few you might have seen before.

The Rutherford Model

What you think it means: This is an atom.

What's wrong with it: This model is a century out of date.


Back in 1911, there was still considerable debate about the structure of the atom. J. J. Thompson had discovered the electron in 1897, demonstrating that there were fundamental particles much smaller than an atom, and conceived of the Plum Pudding Model, imagining the atom to be a cloud of positive charge in which electrons hung out like the fruit in a plum pudding. Ernest Rutherford advanced things in 1911, showing atoms had a central charge concentrated into a tiny, dense spot in the centre of the atom (the nucleus), overthrowing the dessert-based model. After a few throwaway comments about planets and moons, someone sketched out a small nucleus surrounded by rings of orbiting electrons. Despite the fact that another scientist, Niels Bohr, had put forward a more accurate model, the Rutherford Model caught the public imagination and was inaugurated as the official symbol of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The discrepancy is referenced by Alan Moore in Watchmen, where Dr Manhattan rejects the costume bearing the atomic rings and instead marks his forehead with the symbol for hydrogen, as per Bohr's model.

The March of Progress

What you think it means: This is evolution.

What's wrong with it: This is not how evolution works.


Despite competition from a little fish with legs, there is no more a potent and popular symbol for evolution than this column of apes striding purposefully into the future. The problem is, that's exactly what it isn't. The March of Progress was drawn by illustrator Rudolph Zallinger for the "Early Man" volume of the popular Life Nature Library series by Time-Life books. Faced with the task of compressing several million years of human evolution into a single graphic, Zallinger chose to place the figures in a steady queue, starting with the oldest, and ending with the most recent. The original title was "The Road to Homo Sapiens", which arguably even more inaccurate than its popular name, as both imply that our species is somehow the culmination of millions of years of directed evolution. The graphic flatters our perception that we are the crown in the tree of life, rather than one of its many side branches. In fact, the original image features fifteen hominids, including a few evolutionary blind alleys. It was not supposed to imply that each one led to the other, or that humans travelled through discrete stages of evolution to arrive where they were today. But, as the book's author F. Clark Howell noted: " was read that way by viewers.... The graphic overwhelmed the text. It was so powerful and emotional".

The World Map

What you think it means: This is what the world looks like.

What's wrong with it: This is not what the world looks like.


I know what you're thinking: "Surely, Frank, you're taking the mickey. That's the World Map! Everyone knows that's what the world looks like!" But it's not so. This is certainly one of the most popular way ways of showing our globe on a map, but it's also grossly distorted. The problem stems from trying to squash down 3D surface onto a 2D plane: it's just not possible to accurately represent our world in a flat rectangle. You can try it yourself if you like, with deflated football. See if you can press it flat without cutting it up into pieces. If you've ever watched the in-flight animation of your progress on a long haul trip, you might have wondered why the pilot seems to be flying in a long curve to your destination rather than a straight line. In fact, you are flying in a straight line, it's the map that's curved. Mind. Blown.

Two-dimensional representations of the Earth are called "projections", and the one above is known as the Mercator Projection. It works by wrapping a cylinder of tracing paper around the Earth and drawing on the countries as you see them through the paper. At the equator, where the cylinder touches the Earth, distortion is zero. But the further away you get from the equator, the more messed up things look. Greenland looks as big as South America, even though it has actually only one eighth the area. As a result of Greenland, North America and Russia becoming gigantic, while Africa and South America look tiny, the Mercator map has been decried as quasi-imperialist, distorting the world to flatter Western egos. Unfortunately there is no perfect solution to fixing the globe on a 2D map, and many! different! projections! exist!, depending on what the author thought was the most important variable to conserve: area, shape, distance, contiguity, and so forth. Why not seek out some of the more unusual ones, such as Werner's effort from 1515, which imagines the world shaped like a love heart?

The Nautilus Shell

What you think it means: A fine example of the Fibonacci spiral in nature!

What's wrong with it: It does not follow a Fibonacci spiral.


Maths in nature is truly a beautiful thing, but unfortunately some people seem intent on embellishing that beauty. The Fibonacci sequence is made by adding each number to the previous one, to get: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so forth. If you make squares with sides the same length as the numbers in this sequence, you'll find they nestle themselves into a rather delightful spiral pattern. There are lots of places in nature that this pattern crops up, from pineapples to pine cones. However, the nautilus shell isn't one of them. Despite resembling a Fibonacci spiral, it's in fact a much tighter logarithmic spiral. You can see the Fibonacci spiral overlaid on a nautilus shell here, and marvel at how closely they don't match. The author of that post notes the odd voice has been raised to point out this discrepancy, and I note that the one linked came from a retired mathematician, so clearly there is some powerful lobby capable of ruining mathematician's careers that is vested in keeping the Fibonacci-nautilus myth alive.

The Solar System

What you think it means: This is what the Solar System looks like.

What's wrong with it: This is not what the Solar System looks like.


The above image is taken from Wikipedia's entry on the Solar System, and I'll give you five seconds to point out as many flaws as you can. All done? Where do we start? Clearly our sun is dying, its once-dazzling surface now an ember, and there's some other star, several times larger / closer / brighter than our own sun, tucked just out of view in the upper right frame. To be honest, I find that kind of geocentrist shading interesting more than anything else, but it's not what we're here to discuss. Similarly, I'm going to ignore the presence of "dwarf planets", which everyone knows is a concession by International Astronomical Union to keep Arizona happy. No, I'm talking about the fact the planets seem to be breathing down one another's necks, Jupiter within fist-bumping distance of Mars, the asteroid belt apparently slipped from the gaunt hips of our emaciated sun.

Now, there's a very good reason that the planets are often presented squished up together like this: it's because black ink is really expensive. Given the choice between illustrating planets as pixel-sized dots on a single page, or going all-in on a 30 page wide fold-out showing planets in all their glory and scale, most artists prefer to cut out all that "empty" space and bring celestial bodies into frame. It's an obvious design solution, but one that nevertheless impacts upon the public's understanding of astronomy. Even though the Wikipedia page makes pains to point out that the scale in this image has been messed about, the industry-wide practice of moving planets about trickles down into public consciousness. Want proof? Simply ask people how far the Moon is from the Earth (embedded for win:)

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Now thats easy. When you know that the distance between the earth and the moon is ca. 380.000 km You simple have to cut this distance into equal peaces. For example 380.000/2000 = 190 And no you can do 190*2m= 380m So the yellow ball is 380 m away from the basketball. I think its a good approximation, isnt it??? Greets

Here's a simpler formula, MisterX. The distance from the earth to the moon is pretty close to ten times the earth's circumference. That basketball's circumference is about 28 inches, which would put the moon's distance at roughly 280 inches (a little over 7 meters).

By Matt Gubser (not verified) on 15 Sep 2011 #permalink

The image of the solar system departs in a variety of ways from objective reality, but in what sense does the intimation of "some other star, several times larger/closer/brighter than our own sun, tucked just out of view in the upper right frame" represent a "kind of geocentrist shading?"

By bob koepp (not verified) on 15 Sep 2011 #permalink

I had read it as "30 times the Earth's diameter" when I was a kid, so I would've gotten this close to right. (Probably. I'm lousy at eyeballing distances greater than a couple of feet.) When I found a Moon globe in a museum store which, though a little large compared to my existing Earth globe, wasn't too obscenely large for scale, I measured the diameter of my Earth globe, measured thirty times that, and found that if I put my moon globe on my bookshelf and my Earth globe on my nightstand, they were about the right distance apart.

So I was faced with this particular distance day in and day out, literally, through much of my adolescence. ;-) I still have the two globes, though the Earth one is a tad outdated now.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 15 Sep 2011 #permalink

@4 Bob Koepp

You asked why I described the planets as having "geocentrist shading" - by this I mean that on Earth, the sun is generally above us (from our point of view). This means we tend to think that convex sphere-shapes have shadow at their bottom, and concave ones have their shadow at the top. If the artist of that planets image had chosen to place their imaginary light source below the planets, we would perceive them as indents(!), even though it's perfectly justifiable for a planet to be lit from "underneath" (from the photographer's perspective). You can experience this illusion for yourself: find a photo of a rivet or something similar, and turn it upside-down. What do you see? An indent.

You forgot to mention that all the planets in image are on the same orbital plane. Not so in reality.

Nope. I just flipped the image of the solar system over, and didn't "see" the planets as "indents." So lighting from "above" vs. "underneath" didn't produce the common visual illusion to which you allude.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 15 Sep 2011 #permalink

How could you leave off the Haeckel drawings? Those have been seen by a lot more school children, thus fitting your criteria of iconic, than nautilus shells/Fibonacci spirals.

So glad that you mentioned Dr Manhattan, as that is exactly what I was thinking while looking at the picture of the Rutherford model.

The basketball tennis ball people might have fared better if the ratio of a tennis ball to a basketball was the same as the ratio of the moon to the earth.

Not sure what the author is trying to say about the March of Progress... Yes it skips some steps, but man DID evolve from apes, roughly in that order. Or is he a creationist??

The drawing of the solar system - well you'd have to be a pretty big idiot to think it really looks like that, and that is certainly not an "iconic" image, in fact I've never seen it before.

"Not sure what the author is trying to say about the March of Progress."

Umm... That evolution isn't a "march of progress"? (That's my contention, anyway.)

@12: "Not sure what the author is trying to say about the March of Progress."

That evolution is not about progress, it's not directed, and it's not purposeful. That in reality, there were many contemporary lineages of hominids evolving in different directions instead of one just getting progressively more and more human. I do think it's quite clear from the text, but it might be just because I knew what to expect.

This post is a nice summary, though the Haeckel embryos might have made a nice addition.

I too would like to know, though, what exactly is wrong with the "March of Progress," other than its title and the occasional Homo neanderthalensis. I discussed this on the German ScienceBlogs, but I just don't see the problem. Sure it can be misunderstood as directional, lacking ancestors, an evolution TOWARDS man, etc. Nevertheless is depicts Homo sapiens and his/her ancestors nicely.
It may not be the most elegant depiction of evolution, but it's not trying to. Contrary to those other images here, there's nothing exactly 'wrong' with it.
Or is there?

How clever.

Actually this representation of either Rutherford's model of the atom or Bohr's is still not correct. Rutherford knew that the nucleus was VERY tiny but had no idea where the electrons were. It was Bohr (who was working in Rutherford's lab) who determined ( with observations as well as math and a fantastic ability to think) that electrons are held in energy levels. Bohr drew the atom as a "solar system - and definitely it has stuck. The drawing that is shown is a very poor representation of a quantum model and doesn't fit any of the models old or present day.

Nice collection of items! To elaborate on JALarson (18) the iconic 'Li atom' is indeed a very ideographic representation of Bohr's atomic model as extended by Sommerfeld - the old pre-Schrodinger quantum theory that is only of historic interest today.

Just think about how enormous would have to be the scale-preserving picture of solar system. If Earth's radius would be 1 px then Sun's would be 110 px, Sun-Earth distance would be 23 760 px, and Sun-Eris: 2 284 700 px! In fact, if Earth's radius would be 1 px, then Mercury, Venus, Mars and all dwarf planets wouldn't be visible! It's not a problem of saving ink - that real scale graphic wouldn't really show anything!

Calli Arcale said "(Probably. I'm lousy at eyeballing distances greater than a couple of feet.)"

What you do is go out to a football field someday and measure your stride. It is much more accurate than most people think. If I had to pace off 30 feet, I could mark it within a foot easily. Probably more like within 6 inches.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 24 Sep 2011 #permalink

Regarding the rivets viewed upside down as dents, I found this:, pasted it into Paint and turned it 180 degrees, and for a split second, it fooled my brain, even though I knew what I was looking for.

Jim, note that the planets are not, in fact, on the same plane. Each planet's orbital plane passes through the center (more or less) of the Sun, which means that these planets, in a line about 1 Jupiter above the center of the Sun, would be in planes with asymptotically decreasing inclination.

Count me in the camp that thinks the March of Progress is not really wrong, at least not for the reasons listed. If I make a slideshow of things I passed along my road trip, with photos of the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, and the giant ball of string in Kansas, I'm not misrepresenting my road trip. I don't have to show all the crossroads that I didn't take. That doesn't mean that nobody else took them. Given the slideshow format, I'm restricted to showing you discrete images, but it's understood that I actually made the trip between each location.

By Tom Singer (not verified) on 28 Sep 2011 #permalink

There are several inaccuracies with the model of the atom not addressed here. While the Bohr model is more accurate than what is drawn, it is not the most accurate model. To show our current understanding requires overlaying the various atomic orbitals see here:

Also there are some issues with both showing the electrons as the same size as the protons and neutrons, and showing them as discrete points when they exist as both particles and waves.

Bravo, many of these cliché are all too common to me. As a science tutor it is amazing some of the things students think are true. Another funny observation is isn't it unethical on some level to continue distributing these images. I am sure that they exist in some form in every clip art gallery out there. Visual information is powerful, not surprising that these myths have stuck around prominently.

There are many errors on those representations / images BUT if author was really SURE about what he wrote here, it would be prudent to show "the real things" besides this "wrong" images. We all are indeed aware of Sun/Earth distance and we know that if that distance is so small like on that picture, the earth would be a scorched rock, and that's ok but other then that ...

By John Crichton (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013 #permalink