Far Out: The Most Psychedelic Images in Science

Scientists know you don't need psychedelic drugs to make mind-blowing psychedelic images: Fractals, particle collisions, computer simulations, and sunspots will do the job just fine.

Jan 26, 2011 6:45 PMNov 20, 2019 9:16 PM


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Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists know you don't need psychedelic drugs to make mind-blowing psychedelic images: Fractals, particle collisions, computer simulations, and sunspots will do the job just fine.

Fractals form a major section of psychedelic art, and the king of fractals was Benoit Mandelbrot, who just died in October 2010. In his famous Mandelbrot set, each small part is the same as the whole, and the image boundary becomes continually more detailed as you zoom in.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons

But Mandelbrot's set isn't the only, swirling, psychedelic fractal derived from a little mathematics. This is an illustration of a Julia set, named for the French mathematician Gaston Julia.

Photo Credits: Image: P.E. DesJardin

Hot hot heat: The turbulent fury of a flame is caught in this computer simulation created by Paul DesJardin and his colleagues at the University of Buffalo's Center for Computational Research. The scientists wanted to model the "instability dynamics" of a fire plume to gain insight into erratic heat transfers that have been observed in experiments with fire.

Photo Credits: Image: Raymond E. Goldstein, University of Cambridge

The heart of this image is a spherical colony of Volvox algae, about 100 micrometers across, with a flurry of nutrients fluttering by. Volvox have been forming these multicellular colonies for more than 200 million years.

Photo Credits: Image: Gerd Gunther

This October, Gerd Gunther came in 18th in Nikon's "Small World" competition of ultra zoomed-in images with his trippy picture of soap bubbles blown up 150 times. The light shines on the top and the bottom of the soap film in his setup, and the colors are constantly changing. That makes it a difficult image to capture, but one worth the effort.

Photo Credits: Image: Kai-hung Fung

This picture, titled "What Lies Behind Our Nose?", won a tie for first in the 2007 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. Dr. Kai-hung Fung of Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong created the stunning image by taking computed tomography (CT) scans of a patient he examined for thyroid disease. Stacking nearly 200 CT slices yielded this image, which looks up at the sinus cavity from below the head.

Photo Credits: Image: NCAR

This sunspot is not real. It is, however, one of the best models of a sunspot ever made. Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research produced this simulation by plugging the newest sunspot data into a 76-teraflop supercomputer. The image required nearly 2 billion data points to simulate the magnetism, temperature, and other features of a sunspot; it models the phenomenon down to a depth of nearly 4,000 miles.

Photo Credits: Image: A Journey Around My Skull

1972: It was half a decade past the summer of love, but the creators of Biology Today were still overcome by the emotion, apparently. Will at the blog A Journey Round My Skull dug up this textbook chock full of period illustrations. Here is the title page to the chapter on human sexuality, but check out Will's blog for plenty more illustrations.

Photo Credits: Image: M. A. Geday and A. M. Glazer / Journal of Applied Crystallography

This rainbow image of concentric circles is a quartz crystal as seen through a microscope that images its "birefringence"--the crystal's unusual ability to bend light to varying degrees depending upon its orientation. Since differently oriented light rays are refracted differently, they diverge as they go through the quartz crystal, creating doubled images and, more psychedelically, these crazy colors. The image is taken from research by Mike Glazer of Oxford University.

Photo Credits: Image: CERN

This may look like a child's Spirograph drawing, but it's actually what scientists at CERN hope to see when the Large Hadron Collider in Europe reaches full smashing power: The decay of that elusive subatomic particle, the Higgs boson. To remember all the technical hiccups and theoretical challenges and end-of-the-world fear-mongering it took just to get to this point, check out the DISCOVER feature article "A Tumultuous Year at the LHC" by physicist Lisa Randall.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA

NASA's false-color treatment of satellite images turns ordinary shots of our planet into pictures of another world worthy of science fiction, replete with purple oceans and orange outcroppings. This inverted treatment of the Himalaya Mountains was made with the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), which combined near-infrared, red, and green wavelengths.

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