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Nerdy Dozen: Year's Best Science Images

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Photo Credits: Science / NSF

Here we present the winners (and our favorite runners-up) from the 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. Now in its tenth year, the competition proves that "Science and engineering's most powerful statements are not made from words alone," as emblazoned on the contest's website.

The visualization challenge is designed to encourage a better public understanding of scientific research and is sponsored by the journal Science and the U.S. National Science Foundation. Criteria for entries include visual impact, effective communication, freshness and originality. Scientists submitted a total of 215 photos, illustrations, videos and games, and we've pared the list down to our favorite "nerdy dozen."

The captions were written by the contestants and submitted along with their entries.

Photo Credits: Emmett McQuinn, IBM Research - Almaden

Cognitive computing researchers at IBM are developing a new generation of “neuro-synaptic” computer chips inspired by the organization and function of the brain. For guidance into how to connect many such chips in a large brain-like network, they turn to a “wiring diagram” of the monkey brain as represented by the CoCoMac database. In a simulation designed to test techniques for constructing such networks, a model was created comprising 4,173 neuro-synaptic “cores” representing the 77 largest regions in the Macaque brain. The 320,749 connections between the regions were assigned based on the CoCoMac wiring diagram. This visualization is of the resulting core-to-core connectivity graph. Each core is represented as an individual point along the ring; their arrangement into local clusters reflects their assignment to the 77 regions. Arcs are drawn from a source core to a destination core with an edge color defined by the color assigned to the source core.

This illustration won first place.

Photo Credits: First Faculty of Medicine, Charles University, Czech Republic. Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics, Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech Republic

High-resolution high-contrast X-ray radiography of plant seeds combined with images taken by microscopy. The X-ray images were measured using combination of a micro-focus X-ray source and a state-of-the-art hybrid pixel semiconductor detector. The detector enables imaging in so-called single photon counting regime allowing acquiring radiographs with theoretically unlimited dynamic range (in practice limited just by the number of detected photons). In combination with point-like source magnifying geometry, the technique presents a powerful tool allowing non-destructive investigation of mm-sized object of any kind. The results show a novel application of the technique to plant biology, namely the visualization of seeds (typically 3 mm in size). For better interpretation of imaged features, the radiographs are combined with the images taken by microscopy.

Photo Credits: Michelle Allen, Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, MO

Serratia marcesens is a Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium that is commonly found in soil, water, on plants and in animals and thrives in damp conditions. This organism is well known for its production of the blood red pigment, prodigiosin. Production of prodigiosin can be influenced by several variables, including temperature, nutrient media and ultraviolet light exposure. The metabolic pathways that are involved in the production of the pigment are numerous and complex. Mutations to any one of the pathways can lead to a loss of pigment production. This photo shows a Serratia marcesens colony from a mutated strain in which pigment production has decreased. Instead of a solid red colony, the bacteria exhibit beautiful swirls of red and orange on a white background.

Photo Credits: Kim Falk & Jess Falk

This is a photograph of a high current plasma discharge at a frequency of about 3MHz. Plasma is the fourth state of matter. The majority of visible matter in our universe is plasma. However, plasma is rarely seen on Earth and is an unfamiliar concept to many elementary science classes. This photograph contains multiple levels of visual information featuring image aspects that are familiar (lightning) and much more complex: Why is it curly? Why is it cloud-like? Why does the cloud glow? Is it hot? Why doesn’t the glass bottle melt? It provides visual support to initiate discussions on the fourth state of matter, lightning, aurora, our sun and the solar wind. 

Photo Credits: Insoo Woo Sonia Lasher-Trapp David S. Ebert

These images show the conversion of cloud droplets and raindrops to ice inside a numerically simulated cumulus cloud. The visible cloud (white or blue) emerges from a turbulent, invisible moist layer in the atmosphere (red). Inside the cloud, also invisible to a human eye, regions where frozen raindrops (pink) and cloud droplets (orange) interact are of interest. Laboratory studies suggest that explosive development of ice crystals can occur in these conditions, at temperatures between -4 and -8 degrees Celsius, and this “rime-splintering” mechanism is often invoked to explain past observations of the rapid development of large numbers of ice crystals in cumuli.

Photo Credits: Janice Wong

Initially I built an organic bacteriophage T4 using proteins gathered from the protein data bank and other scientific sources. However, I was captivated by its almost robotic appearance. Instead of giving it an organic texture and placing it in a traditional cellular environment, I decided to run with the mechanical theme. So I rebuilt the bacteriophage using nuts and bolts, screws, gears and metal created in 3-D. Although it is made of mechanical parts, I have ensured its scientific accuracy. The head for example is an icosahedral with each of the proteins represented (gp24, gp23, Hoc, Soc) albeit in shiny metals. The collar, sheath, and baseplate are accurate as well. I then created a suitable environment for it---a work bench with a blueprint, tools and parts you might expect are needed in order to build one in real life. As for the art direction, I've always been intrigued by steampunk art. The details and colors often used in this style are quite fitting for this piece.

Photo Credits: Dr. Kai-hung Fung, Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital (Hong Kong)

Evolution encourages diversity, allowing Nature to solve problems in more than one way. This image is a 3D CT scan of a clam and a whelk, both alive. The clam (left) is nestled comfortably in the bottom half of its shell. Note the simplicity of the hinge design in its bivalve shell. By closing the shell rapidly, the clam is able to fence off a potential attack. Yet the whelk's shell (right) is even more amazing. The sophisticated spiral construction is astonishingly complex and strong, an architectural marvel by itself and an evolutionary success! Once the whelk slipped back into the spiral tunnel of its shell, the shell provides protection similar to a fortress. Both the clam and the whelk solve the vital problem of self defense, albeit in different ways. The whelk however has the upper hand because it has the ability to drill a hole directly through the clam's shell by softening it with secretions and then consumes the clam as meal.

This image earned an honorable mention.

Photo Credits: Pupa U.P.A. Gilbert and Christopher E. Killian

These are biomineral crystals found in a sea urchin tooth. Geologic or synthetic mineral crystals usually have flat faces and sharp edges, whereas biomineral crystals can have strikingly uncommon forms that have evolved to enhance function. The image here was captured using environmental scanning electron microscopy and false-colored. Each color highlights a continuous single-crystal of calcite (CaCO3) made by the sea urchin Arbacia punctulata, at the forming end of one of its teeth. Together, these biomineral crystals fill space, harden the tooth, and toughen it enough to grind rock.

This image won first place and people's choice award in the photography category.

Photo Credits: Maxime Chamberland, David Fortin, Maxime Descoteaux, Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab

This image is the result of fiber tractography from diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It illustrates the white matter of the brain, or in other words, its structural connections. The red smooth surface represents a glioblastoma tumor. We can see the effect of repulsion and infiltration of this mass on the white matter fiber pathways. A distance colormap is used for interpretation. Blue fibers mean that they are located within a safe distance of the tumor whereas red fibers are in a close perimeter to the tumor, and can cause severe post-operation deficits, if resected.

This image won an honorable mention as well as a people's choice award in the category of illustration.

Photo Credits: Miguel A. Aragon Calvo Space images: Hubble Telescope, AURA/STSCI Eye: Photography by Ching-Wa Yip, model Nienke Aragon-Huisman

This poster represents a flight through space and time. We start (from top to bottom) at the most distant galaxies seen when the Universe was very young (Hubble deep field), then an interacting pair of galaxies, the Magellanic cloud, a star cluster, two planetary nebulae (Helix and Cat's eye) and finally at the bottom a human eye. We used a polar mapping in order to 'unwrap' spherical objects into a horizontal band. Each pair of objects is joined together by a similar structure represented as a bright horizontal band. The three bands then correspond to the galactic center of a galaxy in the Hubble field and the interacting galaxy, the center of a bright star in the Magellanic cloud and a star cluster and the last band corresponds to the white dwarf in the Helix and Cat's eye nebulae.

Photo Credits: David Deamer

This is a phase micrograph at 400X magnification of structures formed by a phospholipid in water. Phospholipids are the primary component of cell membranes, the essential boundaries between the cell and its environment. When isolated and exposed to water, most phospholipids can self-assemble into membranous structures. This particular lipid forms tubules called myelin figures, which curl up into the double helix seen in the micrograph. Lipids are colorless, so the NIH Image program was used to add color and contrast.

Photo Credits: NRAO/AUI/NSF; K. Golap; M. Goss; infrared star field and nebulosity from NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)

This beautiful structure, unobserved in visible light but detected by the NSF's recently refurbished and re-dedicated Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope, has been produced by powerful events over roughly the last 10,000 years. First, a massive star exploded as a supernova, blasting its debris out into space. That star, now either a superdense neutron star or black hole, is ripping material from a 'normal' companion star with its strong gravitational pull. That material forms a rapidly rotating disk around the neutron star or black hole, and hurls high-velocity jets of particles from the disk's poles. This image shows the supernova debris shell, expanded greatly over the millennia, will a telltale spiral structure caused by the wobbling jets striking the inside of the shell and causing radio waves to be emitted. In this image, green is radio emission seen by the VLA, with white and red being an infrared image from NASA's WISE satellite.

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