The Terrible Beauty of COVID-19 (in GIFs)

How the coronavirus looks, and what it does inside your body
7 min readAug 25, 2020


COVID-19 travelling on a droplet (like in a cough). By David Goodsell

Whether you look up or down — we are entirely insignificant. Look up and we’re lost among trillions of stars. Look down and we disappear into trillions of cells, most of them not even human. Humanity is just a thin slice between cosmos and microcosmos, important only to ourselves.

We think ourselves masters of the universe, but we’re not even masters of our selves. There is no self, just trillions of cells. We think of COVID-19 affecting us so terribly, but COVID doesn’t even perceive us. It lives only in a world of cells, connected by corridors of coughing. To truly understand this coronavirus we must meet it where it lives.

In the microcosmos.

David Goodsell is the artist and dare I say shaman of this realm. He is a computational biologist, a scientist, but what he produces can only be called art. His drawings let you see a microcosmos which is as awesome as the cosmos above, and yet they are accurate enough for working scientists to use.

What follows are his drawings of COVID-19, annotated by an idiot (me) into GIFs. Like the distant violence of a star, the molecular violence of COVID-19 can only be perceived by human beings in one way. With awe.

This is the terrible beauty of COVID-19.


Illustration by David S. Goodsell, RCSB Protein Data Bank. ‘This painting shows a cross section through a small respiratory droplet, like the ones that are thought to transmit SARS-CoV-2.‘

Why do we wear masks? It’s to close the door on COVID-19. To COVID, there are no individual people, just individual cells, and masking prevents our filthy faces from forming a highway of invisible droplets. Which Goodsell has made visible above.

Droplets contain what your lungs contain — mucin (ie, mucus), antibodies, and a stowaway: COVID-19. This is thought to be a primary way that COVID-19 gets around. The corridor of coughs. The superhighway of sneezes. Surfing on a droplet.

First Contact



Indrajit (Indi) Samarajiva is a Sri Lankan writer. Follow me at, or just email me at