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The best sights in science

Andrea Ottesen / University of Maryland
A mass of seaweed known as Irish moss was spread

out and dried in preparation for this picture showing

the plant's delicate structure.

Can you find beauty by looking up someone's nose, or inspecting a slimy mass of seaweed, or following the flight of a bat? Scientsts can, and the proof is found in this year's annual competition for the coolest images in science and engineering.

This is the fifth year for the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science. The winners are featured in this week's in-print issue of Science - but the beauties are best experienced through interactive exhibits on Science's Web site and at NSF.

Science's editors said more than 200 entries came in from 34 states and 23 countries, representing every continent except Antarctica. The winners were selected not only for their scientific impact, but also for their artistic flair.

"The impact of these winning entries is far greater than can be achieved by written descriptions alone," Monica Bradford, Science's executive editor, said in today's news release. "We applaud the winners and encourage other scientists to follow their lead."

The winners produced not only pretty pictures, but also sharp informational graphics that make complex concepts such as ultra-cold atom condensates and mathematical Möbius transformations more understandable. Check out this list of the winners, and be sure to see the graphics in their full glory:


Kai-hung Fung / Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital
A color-coded picture shows the sinus air envelopes

of a 33-year-old patient, mapped by a CT scan. This

view looks up into (and behind) the patient's nostrils.

Two entries tied for first place: Andrea Ottesen, a botanist and molecular ecologist at the University of Maryland at College Park, snagged a bunch of the seaweed known as Irish moss from the Nova Scotia coast - then stretched it out, dried it and snapped a beautiful picture showing the plant's complex structure.

Kai-hung Fung, a radiologist at the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong, took imagery from a CT scan of a thyroid cancer patient - then processed the data to produce a color-coded rainbow image of the 33-year-old woman's beautiful sinuses, as seen from below.

Adam Siegel, Douglas Weibel, Derek Bruzewicz and George Whitesides of Harvard University earned honorable mention for a picture showing a 200-micrometer-wide microcircuit, poured into clear silicon and then tied in a knot to demonstrate the circuit's flexibility.

David Willis, Mykhaylo Kostandov et al. / Brown / MIT
This detail from a poster titled "Modeling the Flight of a Bat" shows a computer

simulation of the aerodynamics behind a short-nosed fruit bat's wings.

Informational graphics:

Brown University's Mykhaylo Kostandov and David Willis, who has a joint academic appointment at Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won first place for a poster showing a computer simulation of the flight of a short-nosed fruit bat. The graphic explains the complex flight dynamics, captured by a sophisticated multicamera motion-tracking system. Other contributors include Kenneth Breuer, Daniel Riskin, Jaime Peraire, David Laidlaw and Sharon Swartz, all of Brown University.

An honorable mention went to Mark McGowan, Pat Murphy, David Goodsell and Leana Rosetti at San Francisco's Exploratorium for a poster showing how muscles work, right down to the molecular level.

Non-interactive multimedia:

Donna DeSmet, Jason Guerrero et al. / Hurd Studios
"Nicotine: The Physiologic Mechanism of Tobacco

Dependence" focuses on the chemical effects on the

brain's neurons, shown in this screen shot.

First place went to Jane Hurd, Donna DeSmet, Jason Guerrero and Donald Tolentino of New York-based Hurd Studios for a video showing how nicotine molecules mess with your brain's pleasure-inducing systems. The video's title, "Nicotine: The Physiologic Mechanism of Tobacco Dependence," might not make it onto the marquee at the multiplex, but the Pfizer pharmaceutical company (which makes a smoking cessation drug) liked it well enough to distribute it to physicians worldwide.

Two other videos earned honorable mentions, and are available via YouTube as well as the contest galleries: "Towers in the Tempest," an explanation of tropical storm patterns from Gregory Shirah and Lori Perkins at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; and "Möbius Transformations Revealed," a display demonstrating new twists on the mathematical concept from Douglas Arnold and Jonathan Rogness at the University of Minnesota.

Other contributors to "Towers in the Tempest," all from NASA Goddard, include Horace Mitchell, Scott Braun, Stuart Snodgrass, Kevin Mahoney, Mike Velle, Michael Starobin, James Williams, Marte Newcombe, Randall Jones, B. Alex Kekesi, Tom Bridgman, Cindy Starr, Helen-Nicole Kostis and Joycelyn Jones. 

Interactive multimedia:

Here's one category where still imagery really doesn't do justice to the graphic effect. Carl Wieman won first place for a collection of 65 computer simulations produced for the Physics Education Technology project, or PhET. Wieman started the project when he was at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but is now based at the University of British Columbia. Among the subjects covered: projectile motion, supercold Bose-Einstein condensates and quantum tunneling.

PhET's other contributors include Sarah McKagan, Kathy Perkins, Wendy Adams, Michael Dubson, Noah Finkelstein, Linda Koch, Patricia Loeblein, Chris Keller, Danielle Harlow, Noah Podolefsky, Sam Reid, Chris Malley, John de Goes, Ron LeMaster, Mindy Gratny and Linda Wellmann.

"Breast Cancer Virtual Anatomy," a graphic (but tasteful) explanation of the disease and its effects, won an honorable mention for Cathryn Tune and Samantha Belmont of New York-based CCG Metamedia. Other contributors include Steve Rothman, Nicola Landucci and Joseph Speiser.

No awards were given this year for illustrations - but that should just encourage illustrators and other science-oriented visualizers to get their masterpieces ready for next year's challenge. Check out the NSF's Web site for entry deadlines, instructions and forms.