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Vizzie’ Awards Cross the Line Between Science and Art

Image: Seahorses and neurons
One of the most prominent structures in the brain, the hippocampus plays an important role in acquiring memory for certain everyday facts and for holding onto autobiographical memories. It also looks a lot like a seahorse. (Hippocampus means "horse sea-monster" in Greek.) Robert Clark, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, played up the resemblance in this image. Clark digitally added images of real hippocampal neurons to a pair of gold seahorses. The seahorses are oriented as the hippocampus would be in the human brain. Robert Clark / UCSD

What do you get when you cross neurons with seahorses? The punch line for that inside joke can be seen in one of the winners of this year's "Vizzies."

The annual Vizzie awards recognize visualizations of scientific phenomena in the form of photography, illustrations, posters, graphics, videos and apps. In past years, the contest was known as the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, but now that the National Science Foundation has partnered with Popular Science, the contest has been given a snappier name.

This year, the judges had to sort through 300 entries from a dozen countries to come up with the winners, including a poster that blends a picture of seahorses with a motif inspired by the neurons of the brain's hippocampus. The poster — created by Robert Clark, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego — is a visual joke because the hippocampus actually looks a lot like a seahorse. In fact, the word "hippocampus" is Greek for "horse sea-monster."

Image: X-ray turtle
When Ted Kinsman picked up this specimen on the side of the road one spring morning, he was hoping to get a good X-ray image of a snapping turtle. But after he placed the turtle in the X-ray machine, Kinsman was surprised to see it had about 30 eggs hidden inside. He added false color to the image to accentuate them. A professor of photographic sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Kinsman has been capturing images of local wildlife for the past decade - sometimes living creatures, but more often dead ones, like this expired turtle. Ted Kinsman / RIT

Other Vizzie winners include a colorized X-ray image of a snapping turtle with a clutch of eggs inside; a brain-cell forest that was one of the illustrations for a graphic novel called Neurocomic; a neuroscience app called Glassbrain; and a video showing how origami has inspired spacecraft designs.

To check out all the winners, take a look at the galleries at the National Science Foundation website and at Popular Science.

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— Alan Boyle