The most exciting areas of science often can’t be seen with the naked eye because the phenomena are too big or too small, too slow or too fast. That’s why we believe it’s worth honoring those who use novel techniques — or create exceptional examples of traditional ones — to present scientific ideas visually. So, for the second year, Popular Science has teamed up with the National Science Foundation to bring you exemplars of information made beautiful. Congratulations to the winners!
Credit: Daniel M. Harris and John W.M. BushQuantum physics measures movements of the tiniest particles in the universe, which not only happen incredibly quickly and on very small scales, but also defy physicists’ intuition. Analogies from the macroscopic world can help scientists visualize quantum-like phenomena more easily. Daniel Harris, then a doctoral student at MIT, turned to a quirky relationship between liquid droplets and a vibrating bath.
The vibration stops the droplet from assimilating into the bath, and it bounces across the surface instead. The droplet and the waves it creates mimic some of the statistical behaviors of quantum particles — except they’re visible to the naked eye. The photo is one of several hundred Harris took for his doctorate, all snapped with an off-the-shelf camera.
Credit: Jesica Waller, Halley McVeigh and Noah Oppenheim
As a master’s student in marine biology at the University of Maine, Jesica Waller spent the summer taking pictures of baby lobsters. Increasingly warm and acidic oceans affect many marine species, and so Waller raised thousands of lobsters in the lab — no easy task, since young lobsters tend to eat one another — to see how different climate-change scenarios alter their development.
This image of a live three-week-old specimen was one of thousands Waller took. It captures the distinct, delicate hairs on the legs. Since lobsters have very poor vision, they rely on their leg hairs for sensory tasks such as finding food. Adults have them too, meaning baby and grown-up lobsters alike taste with their feet.
Credit: Stephanie Rozzo
During her time volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, freelance science illustrator Stephanie Rozzo helped clean the seahorse exhibit. Over time, she found herself enchanted by their colors and movements. Rozzo knew she had her next illustration subject when one male began carrying eggs (as males of the species do).
She rendered an expectant pair of seadragons — native Australian fish closely related to seahorses — in acrylic paint with their seaweed habitat in graphite. The work depicts the species’ life stages from embryonic fry through adulthood.
Credit: Jennifer E. Fairman
When her colleague Jie Xiao approached her to make an illustration for a journal article, Jennifer Fairman didn’t know just how challenging the assignment would be. Xiao was studying E. coli bacteria. Her team had revealed the arrangement of proteins, including one called FtsZ, at the site where E. coli bacterium divides.
Though she was working for a scientific audience, Fairman says she hopes the layperson can appreciate the complexity of the microscopic world in the image. Harold Erickson, a cell biologist at Duke University who has studied FtsZ but wasn’t involved in the research, called the model “quite an achievement.”
Credit: Wai-Man Chan
The common bladderwort is a diminutive aquatic plant with fetching yellow flowers that lives on ponds and lakes in Asia and Europe. But under the surface, it hides a carnivorous secret: 1-inch chambers — or bladders — along its branches that suck in unsus¬pecting prey.
Wai-Man Chan, a graduate student in biomedical visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago, saw a plastic model of a bladderwort at the Field Museum in Chicago, and says she was intrigued that the tiny, bulbous bladder could contain such a powerful trap.
Her poster captures the dramatic moment just before the green monster ensnares a passing water flea, presenting the organism’s anatomy in exquisite — and appropriately creepy — detail.
Credit: Skye Moret
Even after nine trips to Antarctica as a marine-science technician, Skye Moret is still awed by the sea life that surrounds the icy continent. The waters brim with yellow sea stars, pink sea cucumbers, and delicate purple octopuses. To show off the vibrancy of the sub-marine environment, Moret compared 50 land and seascapes from above the surface with 50 shallow-water shots from below. She sampled the pixels from each image, and ordered them by hue and value.
The resulting visualization hints at the color and diversity in the Southern Ocean. Moret wants to awe viewers but also remind them of climate change’s reach. “Life underneath the surface is warming also — it’s threatened and vulnerable, and it’s typically neglected in the dialogue,” she says.
A year in the life of Earth’s CO2
Credit: Bernhard Jenny, Bojan Šavric, Johannes Liem, William M. Putman, Kayvon Sharghi, Aaron E. Lepsch and Patrick Lynch
While a professor at Oregon State, cartographer Bernhard Jenny made this visualization, which shows how carbon dioxide travels around the globe.
The work builds on research by NASA meteorologist Bill Putman, whose team modeled atmospheric CO2 flows and created a video of the result. Jenny integrated the video with an interface that allows users to reposition the globe and explore the data themselves.
“We wanted to make this video as engaging as possible to illustrate how humans change our planet,” Jenny says.
A visual introduction to machine learning
Credit: Stephanie Yee and Tony Chu
As an employee of a company that provides digital security through machine learning, Stephanie Yee spent a lot of time familiarizing clients with the secret sauce behind her product. So she and her colleague, designer Tony Chu, set out to create an interactive graphic that would do the explaining for them.
The pair chose a topic they thought would be intuitive to most people — real estate prices — and created an interactive environment that builds in complexity as the user scrolls. In the first 30 days, the site got 250,000 page views worldwide. Feedback showed Chu and Yee that experts in many fields could use their interactives. The duo is collaborating with academics to tailor their next set of explanatory machine-learning visualizations to different disciplines.
VIDEO (SCREEN SHOTS)
Experts’ Choice and People’s Choice
Coral bleaching: A breakdown of symbiosis
Credit: Fabian de Kok-Mercado, Satoshi Amagai, Mark Nielsen, Dennis Liu and Steve Palumbi
Corals are a quirky species — they’re invertebrate animals built out of genetically identical polyps, which collect together into massive underwater reef structures. For food, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with algae, which make sugar and nutrients through photosynthesis.
This video, created by a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, envisions a reef seen from miles above the planet. Then, it zooms in to the microscopic structures where the algae live.
The animation details how rising ocean temperatures can prompt coral to eject the algae — a process known as coral bleaching. Without their symbiotic partners, bleached coral slowly die.
Credit: Eric Keller
Engineers use origami principles to design spacecraft solar panels and other devices that flex or unfurl, as in this video by a lab at Brigham Young University. Larry Howell, the team leader, says the work is just plain fun.
“There’s so much potential for applications. These things can really make a difference.”