Every year since 1974, Nikon has herded a gaggle of nerds into a room for an impossible task: Pore over thousands of microscope images and pick the very best ones.
I was lucky enough to join the judge’s circle this summer for Nikon Small World 2014—the 40th year of the microscopy competition. Our small group had to peruse more than 1,200 entries from 79 countries.
It wasn’t easy. Many of the images had just the right mix of contrast and color to make them nearly leap off the screen. But our judging criteria went beyond visual allure; a gorgeous-looking image can be surprisingly commonplace while a mysterious-looking shot is borderline revelatory. So, we selected the finest shots based not only on appearance but also creativity, informational content, and technical execution.
The 20 images you’re about to see (including Mr. Jeepers Creepers jumping spider eyes, above) really are the best. There’s everything from psychedelic-looking algae and frighteningly detailed caterpillar feet to hyperrealistic rotifers and rainbow-colored worm babies.
One more thing before you dive in: If you find yourself curious about the techniques used to make these award-winning images, I’d recommend a visit to Molecular Expressions and MicroscopyU. These sites aren’t exactly light reading, but they do host countless interactive visuals—including this animation, which demystifies the complex, Nobel Prize-winning superresolution microscopy method—that go a long way in helping you understand how the techniques work.
Click an image below to start blowing your mind.
Crawling Bone Cancer (20th Place)
Acorn Worm Larva (19th Place)
Scarlet Pimpernel (18th Place)
Micro Algae (17th Place)
Transgenic Kidneys (16th Place)
Jewel Beetle (15th Place)
Mouse Brain (14th Place)
Feeding Rotifers (13th Place)
Agate Mineral (12th Place)
Cricket Tongue (11th Place)
Infected Daisy (10th Place)
Parsley Ovary (9th Place)
Brine Shrimp Appendages (8th Place)
DVD Player Circuitry (7th Place)
Coral Polyp Flow (6th Place)
Cow Artery Cells (5th Place)
Caterpillar Foot (4th Place)
Jumping Spider Eyes (3rd Place)
Calcite Crystal (2nd Place)
Swimming Rotifer (1st Place)