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Earth Notes

Body Worlds: Science or Art?


By Laurel Morales

Phoenix, AZ – Skinned human bodies - muscles, bones, organs, veins and arteries exposed.

Captured in an eternal game of freeze tag: a soccer goalie jumping for the ball, a skateboarder forever upside down.

Both healthy and diseased: Arthritic bones, cancerous tumors, pickled livers all on display at Gunther (GOON-thur) von Hagens' (HAH-guns) Body Worlds 3 exhibit. Some of it educational, some of it playful, some of it artistic, all of it real.

FISHER: It looks really unrealistic at first.

That's Steven Fisher, a sophomore at Northland Prep. He examines the first plastinate, a kneeling woman without most of her skin.

FISHER: It looks almost fake but you know it's something real. It was a person at one time. It's just really neat to see the detail how real it looks.

Some plastinates look as if they could snap to and start talking. The whole experience is quite intimate.

Gunther von Hagens was studying anatomy in Germany when he came up with the idea to drain dead bodies of their fluids and inject them with plastic. The preservation process - called plastination -- took years to perfect. The result is Body Worlds - a show that's allowed millions of people to see themselves inside out for the ticket price of about 20 dollars.

Freshman Carrie James weaves through the crowd to the next room where the respiratory system is on display.

JAMES: We're looking at lungs and there's one of a non smoker one of a smoker and one of a smoker's lung with lung cancer. It's pretty interesting seeing as my mom was a smoker and she's been smoke free for eight years I think now. And now I see a lung and I'm like ew. It's pretty nasty.

SOBECK: It's amazing what smoking does to you. It's black it's like a piece of charcoal.

That's Colin Sobeck, a tall freshman.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Science Center tells us that clean up crews from other Body Worlds exhibits kept finding packs of cigarettes on the display case next to the smoker's lung. So the center has mounted a clear plastic box on the wall where smokers can throw out their cigarettes.

Chaperone Alvaro Laguna gleans another health lesson from a cross section of an obese plastinate whose heart is literally surrounded by fat. Laguna's eyes widen as he points to the person's hip.

LAGUNA: I mean there's like five inches of fat that's a lot of fat

The person weighed 300 pounds and died at the age of 50 from heart problems.

RYNN: We tend to stay away from death. We don't like disease. We don't like to deal with the insides of our body because it's uncomfortable.

That's Kaitlin Rynn, a freshman at Northland Prep.

Her science teacher Jeff Hines seems quite at ease around the plastinates. This is his second show. He stands near a plastinate called the hurdler and points out the contracting muscles to a few of his students.

HINES: You look at the neck muscles you look at the deltoid, the shoulder muscles they're all engaged. His form is perfect. He's knocking a quarter right off the top of that hurdle. It's perfect form it's amazing how they have this plastinate balanced on top of this hurdle.

Hines may be a science teacher but it was really the art that grabbed him.

HINES: That's what my eye catches then I'm looking at the muscles, the muscle structure and how much I can learn from this. I don't really separate art and science It inspires me to go home and draw and paint. I want to sit down and sketch this.

Senior Kaitlin Hance says she sees only art and doesn't see much of the scientific value.

HANCE: It's cool. I'm not sure I don't really know how it helps people a lot of it's for shock value somewhat but it's cool.

In the exhibit we see three dancers - one in the splits holding all of his organs neatly stacked in a pile above his head. Freshman Mandelin Bonsey (BON-see)

BONSEY: It's really really interesting. I like seeing how the body is inside. It's not an experience every person can get. I mean his foot was so pointed and all of the muscles. As a dancer it's really nice to know what muscles are doing what. It's amazing how vulnerable humans really are and how we think we're so powerful.

RYNN: The faces are so interesting but you wonder without the skin on them would someone recognize them? Would his wife know who he was if she were to come and see this exhibit? Are we all the same underneath?

Chaperone Margaret Rynn points out there aren't any racial distinctions. I find myself wondering, who were these people? How would this guy feel about being forever posed in the splits?

I ask Rynn's daughter Kaitlin and a couple of her classmates if they would donate their bodies to a project like this.

RYNN: I think I would. I mean I'm dead I have no use for my body anymore and it's something that would serve other people even after I'm gone so why not?

BONSEY: I don't know. I have mixed feelings. In one way if I can expand knowledge in general that would be amazing but it's kind of weird the thought of having millions of people looking at your insides. It's really freaky.

FISHER: No, no, I wouldn't be comfortable with it I do praise the people that donated themselves to it. It sure is a great thing to look at. Personally I wouldn't do it.

That was Kaitlin Rynn, Mandelin Bonsey and Steven Fisher, all students at Northland Prep.

Gunther von Hagens says more than 7,000 people have donated their bodies to his Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany.

I've thought about it and I think being an organ donor is as far as I'll go.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.

Body Worlds 3 will remain at the Arizona Science Center until May 28th.