Island in the Sun

Are humans ultimately no more remarkable than bacteria in a petri dish? Or are we capable of foreseeing our challenges and forestalling their consequences?

Author Charles C. Mann ponders all of the above in “State of the Species,” a remarkable essay in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion:

“By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food.”

Along with Mann’s article, readers of the print and digital editions of the magazine will notice the intriguing and metaphorically rich art of Jim Toia decorating the page. Toia, whose work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe, asked residents of Key West, Florida, to fill his dishes with found material of their choice—material that, in some way, answers the question: What does an island mean to you?

“The petri dish is a metaphor for islands of thought, interaction, evolution, oasis,” says Toia. “Each dish is created by an individual, who can choose to fill it with whatever they deem valid.”

Our editors found Toia’s images to be aptly suggestive of the situation shared by laboratory bacteria and Homo sapiens: we’re all on an island together—Earth—and the island, being an island, has its limits. As humans, it’s up to us to deal intelligently with our situation and avoid the fate of Gause’s single-celled protozoans.

Along with the project’s metaphorical aspirations, Toia hopes to elevate the viewer of his photographs to the role of creator.

“So often we feel separated from the creative process while viewing art, and I want people to recognize that their ideas and contributions are valid. The concept of the Petri Island Project came from work with science colleagues and my general interest in their explorations. It occurred to me one day, while in a science lab, that the petri dish is the scientific equivalent of the blank canvas and could be used as such. We just needed to provide the conceptual agar. So I poured that in by asking: ‘What does an island mean to you?’”

Find out more about Jim Toia and the Petri Island Project here.


  1. Love art like this that is combined with science. As Ed Abbey said of poetry, the best stuff is from poets whose feet are firmly planted in science.

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