Planet Earth

Stunning Science Images Turn Research Into Art

The winners of the 2013 Science Visualization Challenge present an artistic spin on scientific research.


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Photo Credits: Vicente I. Fernandez, Orr H. Shapiro, Melissa S. Garren, Assaf Vardi, and Roman Stocker/Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The first-place photograph, “Invisible Coral Flows,” reveals the hidden natural beauty of the reef-building coral habitat.

The image is of Pocillopora damicornis, or cauliflower coral. The fluid vortex shown is generated by cilia covering the coral’s surface, creating a whirlpool structure in the surrounding seawater.

According to MIT:

Though often appearing as a single organism, reef-building corals are actually colonies of individual polyps. Dense canopies of cilia cover the polyps and stir the fluid layer in the immediate vicinity. To gain insight into the complex flow that’s created, Vicente Fernandez, Roman Stocker, and colleagues at MIT have used video microscopy to track the paths of 2-μm fluorescent beads around the coral Pocillopora damicornis, also known as cauliflower coral... Arced bead tracks, generated from 120 video frames taken at 10 frames per second, reveal the mixing that is occurring perpendicular to the coral surface. The ciliary mixing enhances mass transport near the surface.

Every year, the journal Science and the National Science Foundation sponsor the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. The purpose of the competition is to reward individuals for turning scientific data into beautiful, understandable visual interpretations. 

In 2013, the competition received 277 submissions from 12 countries. Entries included posters, videos, simulations, drawings and more. The 18 winning entries announced Thursday include a biolfilm imaging technigue that conveys the growth of bacteria; a photograph of micro-scale flows produced by reef-building corals; and a photo of microscopic plant hairs. 

Here's a look at the winning submissions.

Photo Credits: Lydia-Marie Joubert/Stanford University

One of the People’s Choice awards was given to Lydia-Marie Joubert at Stanford University School of Medicine for this illustration, titled “Human Hand Controlling Bacterial Biofilms.”

The photograph is of a person-sized sculpture of a hand, on which Joubert has digitally overlaid images of fluorescent-tagged bacteria, at 400 times normal resolution, in the dark-grey fingers and palm. Live (green) versus dead (red) bacteria "illustrate the effective survival of bacteria growing as attached biofilms, with beauty visible in their growth," Joubert writes.

Photo Credits: Stephen Francis Lowry/Steve Lowry Photography

This photo uses polarized light microscopy to examine leaf hairs on the shrub Deutzia scabra, also known as "Fuzzy deutzia."

The deutzias, members of the hydrangea family, are commonly cultivated as an ornamental plant.

According to Culture24:

The leaves have these stellate hairs, each of which is about 0.4mm across. Up to 20 species of Deutzia can be differentiated by the density and size of the hairs and the number of points on the ‘stars’.

In Japan, traditional carpenters use leaves from D. scabra as a final polishing agent for mahogany.

Photo Credits: Anna Pyayt and Howard Kaplan/University of South Florida

This image, “Polymer Micro-Structure Self-Assembly,” won the People’s Choice award for photography.

Anna Pyayt and Howard Kaplan, researchers from the University of South Florida, used a camera mounted on top of a microscope to demonstrate the formation of micro-structures in polymers that self-assemble into different shapes.

Photo Credits: Lorrie Faith Cranor/Carnegie Mellon University

"Security Blanket" is a digitally printed image on a cotton-fabric quilt with layers of color-coded passwords. The words are displayed in a size reflective of their frequency, and thus the artwork illustrates how many people choose identical passwords.

The artist, Lorrie Faith Cranor from Carnegie Mellon University, formed a research group to find ways of improving password policies by analyzing stolen passwords. The resulting quilt includes the 1000 most popular passwords from the RockYou password breach in December 2009.

Cranor writes on her blog:

Besides the obvious lazy password password, and also PASSWORD, password1, and password2, some more clever (but nonetheless unoriginal) variations included secret and letmein. And I love that the 84th most popular password is whatever.

Photo Credits: Greg Dunn, Brian Edwards/Greg Dunn Design; Marty Saggese/SfN; Tracy Bale/UPenn; Rick Huganir/Johns Hopkins University.

"Cortex in Metallic Pastels" is a first-place painting by Greg Dunn in which the layered structure of the cerebral cortex is depicted in a forest-like landscape.

The stylized painting, derived from Asian principles, uses gold leaf, aluminum, acrylic dye and other materials to uncover the beauty of microscopic cells in the brain.

Dunn explains that “the neurons are painted by a technique wherein pigments are blown across the canvas using jets of air, a technique that closely emulates the spontaneous, random branching patterns of actual neurons.” 

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