Seashells and the Spiral of Wonder at the Intersection of Art and Science

“Seashells were money before coin, jewelry before gems, art before canvas… To stare into the spiral top of a whelk or cone shell is to see the swirl of the Milky Way.”

Seashells and the Spiral of Wonder at the Intersection of Art and Science

“To lay the logarithmic spiral on / sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,” Howard Nemerov wrote in an exqusite poem, “the same necessity / ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise / without kinship — that is the beautiful / in Nature as in art.”

Sea-shells encode not only the fundaments of beauty but the logarithmic spiral of life itself, housing some of this planet’s most vulnerable species with an evolutionary history stretching further back than that of any organism alive today — each a miniature cathedral of non-Euclidean geometry, each a portable cosmos of wonder, swirling nature’s art and nature’s science into a single miracle.

That miracle — evolutionary, cultural, aesthetic — is what Cynthia BarnettExplores The Sound of the Sea: Seashells & the Fate of the Oceans (public Library).

Art from Conchology: or, The Natural History of Shells (1893). This print is available for The Nature Conservancy.

She wrote:

The second-largest group of animals behind the arthropods that include insects, mollusks are everywhere — from the hundreds of snail species high in the Himalayas to the bone-white clams clustered at Earth’s greatest depths, filtering hydrothermal vents at Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.

The marine mollusks that create seashells, which are among the largest animal groups in the oceans, have the job of creating them. They inhabit worlds tiny — spiraled Ammonicera washing up on beaches around the globe with exquisite stripes too small to admire; and worlds vast — TridacnaGigas, also known as giant clams or gigas (or gigas), can weigh hundreds of pounds, and glow with thousands of microalgae.


Seashells were money before coin, jewelry before gems, art before canvas… Seashells are the earliest-known keepsakes tucked into graves… Seashells have often been messages — to scientists, to diviners, to worshippers called together by the voice of a shell.

Art from Conchology: or, The Natural History of Shells (1893). This print is available for The Nature Conservancy.

But seashells have played an even greater role in humanity’s eavesdropping on the dialogue between life and death, in our evolving understanding of the nature of life and the necessity of death as our fragile adolescent species began maturing from the age of superstition into the age of science. Barnett examines the impact of the marine mollusks’ calcified houses on our understanding of the home of life.

Ammonites and shells from unknown species provided evidence of the evolution of life in an era when all living things were believed to have been created by God. The story told by seashells found on mountaintops was one of changing continents and rising or falling waters. It is a much more ancient Earth history than that described in the Bible’s six thousand year timeline. Layered in canyon walls and cliffsides and strata belowground, marine shells recorded a fossil diary for half a billion years, leaving one of Earth’s most complete archives of past life and global change.

Red Hill and White Shell by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1938

Three scallop shells make up the coat of arms for the Darwin family. But as they revolutionized our science, seashells also revolutionized our art — their logarithmic splendor inspired the first minaret and the majestic staircase Leonrdo da Vinci designed for the Royal Château of Blois and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House.

Barnett, in an evocative passage, combines the evolutionary and cultural undertones from the tale of seashells and mathematics with the magic of magic.

The spiral of a cone shell or whelk is a great way to look at the Milky Way. It’s a reminder of how Native American people, such as those of Arizona and Nebraska, used shells as stars.

Because of their logarithmic growth pattern, spiral seashells invoke galaxies. This can be seen best in the Chambered Nautilus cross-section. A nautilus shell is one of nature’s most recognizable spirals. Each coil is wider than its counterpart by a constant factor. Logarithmic spirals are adored by life. The shells of small foraminifera were shaped by them, which was one of the first microscope-equipped marine microfossils. They created patterns for the ammonites (fossil mollusks which have been long lost but were close enough to the living nutilus) that scientists of the same time could think more about evolution and geoologic change.

Hand-colored engraving by the self-taught seventeenth-century teenage sisters Anna and Susanna Lister for their father’s book Historiae Conchyliorum. (Bodleian Library, Oxford University.)

Barnett’s enthralling and fascinating The Sound of the Sea continues to link cultural history and science. As she recounts the story of the seashells that has seen many amazing creatures and bizarre human practices and manias. The book also includes remarkable adaptations by visionary scientists and visionaries who were able to look into the beyond-creature limits of their species to discover the greatness of the world of these wonderful and mysterious kin. (More than half of the scientists and scholars Barnett profiles and interviews are women — that subtler and far more effective way of countering the dominant narrative not with polemic but with the quiet, irrefutable power of example.)

Complement with poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan on the sea and the soul and some stunning Victorian illustrations of shells, then find a terrestrial counterpart in The Snail with the Right Heart — the illustrated true love story and science story of a mollusk with a one-in-a-million shell.

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