updated 11/30/2011 12:18:53 PM ET 2011-11-30T17:18:53

They aren't the kinds of images the phrase "intelligent design" brings to mind: fluid, rainbow-like loops illustrating reversals of the polarity of Earth's magnetic field; a photo of a tree divided into smaller pieces by an algorithm that respects its natural structure; white-crested waves representing an early stage in planet formation.

When choosing the winners from this year's Art of Science competition at Princeton University, the organizers sought to reframe that phrase.

"In recent years, the phrase ' intelligent design ' has taken on a polarizing meaning," said Art of Science co-organizer Andrew Zwicker, head of science education at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program. "But in the broadest sense, beautiful objects, both natural and the manufactured, have an intelligence to their form, their function, and thus, their design."

"We wanted to celebrate the idea that both nature and the rearranging of the natural world have inherent beauty," said Art of Science co-organizer Adam Finkelstein, a professor of computer science at Princeton.

The 56 works chosen for this year's exhibition, as in other years, were not created just for art's sake, but rather they came to life during the course of scientific research. [ See photos of the works of art ]

For instance, first prize went to Christophe Gissinger, a postdoctoral researcher in astrophysics also with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for his "Chaos and geomagnetic reversals," which shows a computer model that illustrates the reversals of Earth's magnetic field.

Second prize went to Zhen James Xiang, a graduate student in electrical engineering for "Tree." Xiang developed an algorithm that automatically cut the image into rectangular shapes in a way that kept the image's natural structure. Third prize went to Xuening Bai, a graduate student in astrophysics, and James M. Stone, a professor in astrophysics, for their "Dust to Dust, to Planets ?" The image reveals how clumps of dust in a protoplanetary disk become planetesimals, the building blocks of planets.

The winners received the following cash prizes: $250 for first place, $154.51 for second, and $95.49 for third. These amounts are derived according to the golden ratio, a mathematical proportion found in aesthetically pleasing designs, from seashells to ancient Greek temples, according to the organizers.

The images are on display in the gallery of the Friend Center on the Princeton campus in New Jersey.

You can followLiveSciencesenior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter@Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter@livescience and onFacebook.

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