NPR logo Time For Your Close-Up: Science Meets Art In Photomicrography

Daily Picture Show

Time For Your Close-Up: Science Meets Art In Photomicrography

Today we will be looking at pictures of fleas, rat eyes, cancer and soy sauce. And believe it or not, they are beautiful — at least, they are once they're stained with fluorescent dyes and magnified a few dozen times.

The top 20 winners of the 2010 Nikon Small World photomicrography contest were recently announced. Yes, photomicrography, or pictures of small things, taken through a microscope. The photographic equipment ranges from eBay microscopes to million-dollar high-tech imaging machines at research institutions. And not all contestants were scientists. The image-maker behind the fourth-place photo of a wasp nest is an Italian lawyer.

Dr. Alison North, who runs the Bio-Imaging Resource Center at Rockefeller University, was one of the judges who whittled a pool of 2,000 entries down to 20. She says the discussion over the images became quite lively during the process, and that there was often a debate between the two scientists and the two journalists who made up the judging panel. "We couldn't help being biased knowing which images were technically very difficult to make," she says.

North likes the first-place photo of a mosquito heart because of the image quality and technical sophistication — but also because it is geometrically striking and almost looks like it could be the Brooklyn Bridge.

That said, some photos were appealing for very simple reasons. Take a look at the fifth-place winning photo of a seed, one of North's favorites. "How do you look at that and not burst out laughing?" she says. "It looks like a potato head with a carrot-top hairdo!"

And the reasons the judges liked the 10th-place winning image of crystallized soy sauce had very little to do with technique. North says they were taken with "how Chinese it was.": the colors of the flag and how the crystallization patterns echo the forms of Chinese characters. She was amused to discover later that the photomicographer, Yanping Wang, chose this particular image not for those reasons but because it looked like a smiley face.

To look at more tiny things under microscopes, check out the bee's knees.