The Sciences

The History of Science in Pictures

The Crab Nebula, the Earth rise, and more famous images.


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Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1660s, Englishman Robert Hooke built the compound microscope he used to observe and then draw 58 of the 60 pictures in his Micrographia. (His other two drawings feature the moon and the stars.) In his youth, Hooke had apprenticed with an artist, and his art skills allowed him to draw the microscopic world in great detail.

The details, like those in this flea drawing, stirred up theological arguments over whether these tiny creatures had been designed. The debate inspired a young Charles Darwin to study that idea.

Photo Credits: Image: J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Barrow calls Andres Cellarius' 1660 collection of hand-colored engravings "the Sistine Chapel of the map-maker's art." The Dutch-German scientist created this depiction of the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere, with full-color depictions of their Zodiac symbols.

Photo Credits: Image: The Granger Collection

Until Andrea Vesalius came along in the 1500s, knowledge of anatomy came mostly from Galen, who wrote in the 2nd century A.D. But where Galen passed down only words--and often grossly inaccurate ones--Vesalius produced a volume of more than 200 woodcuts of human skeletal structure, brain tissue, and more.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons/Cambridge University Library

The concept is simple: Each number is the sum of the number above it and the number to its left. But Blaise Pascal's 1665 drawing became one of the most influential images in scientific history because it contains more than first meets the eye.

Pascal's triangle is full of mathematical patterns. Each diagonal row represents an important number set. And highlighting only the odd numbers on this chart creates some other fascinating images. Though his name is now attached to the picture, Pascal wasn't the first to notice all this--Chinese mathematicians mapped out the chart 600 years earlier.

Using iron filings to help visualize a magnetic field seems ordinary now; you may have even done a similar experiment when you were in school. But in the mid-1800s, Michael Faraday's simple drawings helped jump-start a revolution in physicists' understanding of magnetism.

Faraday was no mathematician--it took the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell to outline the working of electricity and magnetism in the abstract. But Faraday's drawings and talks helped laymen achieve a better understanding of these powerful but unseen forces.

Photo Credits: Image: M.C. Escher's "Moebius Strip II" (c) 2008 The M.C. Escher Company - the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Art and science often came together in the works of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, known for his prints and woodcuts of "impossible constructions," such as the famous stairway illusion in "Relativity."

The ants in this drawing march around a Mobius strip, the one-sided surface discovered in 1858. More than just an illusion, the shape has practical uses, too: a Mobius strip-shaped conveyor belt lasts longer than a normal one because each part of it gets equal wear.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons/Wolfgang Beyer

French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot lends his name to this image, a geometric space with an infinitely complicated boundary. That is, if you zoom in, it gets more complicated, and if you zoom in again, it gets even more complicated than that, ad infinitum. You can this process here.

Mandelbrot himself had worked at IBM for two decades before setting computer technology to work on the fractal problems that intrigued him. In 1980 he announced the discovery of his "set" to the world.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA

The supernova that created the Crab Nebula was witnessed with the naked eye and recorded by the Chinese in 1054. Europeans discovered the nebula in the 1700s, and it earned its distinctive name from a drawing made around 1844 by the Earl of Rosse.

This famous image is a composite of 26 individual pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope between 1999 and 2000. The blue represents oxygen atoms, the red ions of oxygen, the green sulfur, and the orange stray remnants of the star, mostly hydrogen.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA

From drawings and woodcuts to photographs and abstract digital images, the most important images in the history of science have been gathered together in Cosmic Imagery by John D. Barrow.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronaut William A. Anders snapped this picture, the first picture of the Earth taken from space, from Apollo 8,. It would be another seven months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon's surface.

Photo Credits: Image: NASA/WMAP Science Team

In the 2000s, cosmic imagery went back to the beginning.

The existence of microwave radiation leftover from the Big Bang had been theorized prior to 1950, and Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered it in 1965, a discovery that won them a Nobel Prize. In March 2008, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe team released this image, its five-year results from studying the radiation. Red indicates that the area is slightly hotter than the normal temperature of space, while dark blue is slightly cooler.

This oval itself may seem difficult to interpret, but its importance is clear: The cosmic microwave background supports the Big Bang as the model for our universe's creation.

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