Marvel at the most beautiful scientific images of the year

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When scientists stumble upon something beautiful in the course of their research, it often takes the form of a more abstract sort of beauty: the elegant simplicity of a unifying theory, or the intricate feedback loops of an intracellular signaling pathway.

But the annual Art of Science Contest at Princeton University recognizes those instances where extraordinary imagery overlaps with extraordinary science. The winners of this year's competition were announced last Friday. Here are some of our favorites.


The image up top is the first-prize winner of this year's competition. It's entitled Chaos and Geomagnetic Reversals, and was submitted by physicist Cristophe Gissinger. The image reveals the pattern created by a simple model of geomagnetic reversal — the process by which the Earth's magnetic fields, and the positions of magnetic north and magnetic south, are flipped.


Fireworks by Yunlai Zha

Arsenic sulphide dissolved in a solution displays colorful random patterns after being spin-coated and baked on a chrome-evaporated glass slide.


Close Relative? by Mac Haas

This is a photograph of the right paw print of a Bioko drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus poensis) taken during primate census at the Gran Caldera, Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

Bushmeat hunting for drills and their consequent evasion of humans means the endangered, baboon-like drills are seldom seen in the wild, and even more rarely photographed. Instead, ephemeral evidence such as this damp, hand-like paw print – left just a minute or two before it was photographed – is the only trace of a near encounter between photographer and primate. The photograph begs the question "who is watching whom?"


Patterning the embryo by Yoosik Kim and Stanislav Shvartsman

These images are vertical cross-sectional images of embryos of Drosophila melanogaster — otherwise known as the common fruit fly. The images, obtained using a confocal microscope, are of embryos stained with antibodies in order to visualize molecules that subdivide the embryo into three tissue types: muscle, nervous system, and skin.

Obtaining such images is an engineering challenge since it requires upright positioning of a tiny embryo, which is ellipsoid in shape and only a half-millimeter long.

In collaboration with Lu lab at Georgia Tech, we have developed a microfluidic device to trap and orient a large number of embryos vertically. This technique can be used to quantify spatial profiles of signaling molecules, which can be used to develop mathematical models and eventually to understand the processes that drive the development of the embryo.


Crystal Rainbow by Jessica Saylors, Anna Hiszpanski, and Lynn Loo

Crystals of contorted hexabenzocoronene (HBC), a semiconducting small molecule, form when the amorphous film is thermally annealed at 240 degrees Celsius. The resulting crystals assume various morphologies in films of different thickness.

This photograph captures a range of film thicknesses in one optical micrograph - from 0nm to 130nm thick - and shows how crystal morphology changes from rods in thin films to spherulites in thicker ones, with a secondary morphology that appears in the thickest films. The colors are the result of thin film interference effects. The underlying substrate is purple, and the thinnest portion of the film is blue, which then fades through the rainbow as the HBC film thickness grows. The thickness gradient that led to this photograph was created by a shadowing effect from a small magnet during thermal sublimation of HBC to form the film.


The Orange and the Black by Henry S. Horn

At top is a simulated compound-eye view showing how a Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly sees another Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly from different distances. Eye-to-subject distances are: extreme upper left and barely visible 4.3 meters' distance, then 2.1 meters, 1.2 meters, 71 centimeters, 38 centimeters, and finally the largest image you see on the top right, at only 18 centimeters' distance.

Below is a simulated view at 7 centimeters (left), compared to the original photograph (right). At 18 centimeters a striking phenomenon occurs: if the "eye" or the subject moves slightly, large portions of the field of view seem to flash between all orange and all black.

It may be more than coincidence that 18 centimeters is about the typical courtship distance for this species. So the regularity of the compound-eye may act as a cross-correlation filter for the regularity of the spotted wing design.


See the rest of this year's exhibition at Princeton's Art of Science 2011 Gallery