Click to launch the photo gallery_

The words “brain cancer” are pretty evocative on their own, connoting fear, surgery, and possible death. But actually seeing a cancerous tumor, watching how its tentacles infiltrate white matter, is another thing entirely. Such deeper understanding is the goal of the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation.

The 2012 winners were announced yesterday, and they include a map of brain cancer; a poster representation of how owls can turn their heads 270 degrees; a video of the electromechanical science of the heart; and much more. They are beautiful and captivating, but have a more profound meaning, said Monica M. Bradford, executive editor of Science: “They also draw you into the complex field of science in a simple and understandable way.” We agree. Click through to the gallery for the winners.

First Place Photograph: Biomineral Crystals

These beautiful structures are the microscopic crystals that make up a sea urchin’s tooth. Each shade of blue, aqua, green, and purple–superimposed on a scanning electron micrograph using Photoshop–highlights an individual crystal of calcite, the abundant carbonate mineral found in limestone, marble, and shells. Instead of flat sides and sharp edges, the sea urchin produces complex, intertwined curved plates and fibers that interlock and fill space in the tooth as they grow, according to the National Science Foundation. Though made of a substance normally as soft as chalk, the teeth are hard enough to grind rock, and sea urchins use them to gnaw holes where they can take shelter from rough seas and predators.

Honorable Mention Photograph: Shell Game

Both these bivalves are alive in this image. At left is a clam, which, thanks to its simple hinge, can snap its shell closed very quickly in the face of a threat. The bivalve is hanging out in the bottom half of its shell. At right is a whelk, whose shell’s spiral construction is astonishingly complex and strong. When the whelk hides in its spiral tunnel, it might as well be in a fortress. But the whelk is better-equipped than the clam. It can drill right through the clam shell, softening it with its own secretions. Then it eats the clam.

Honorable Mention Photograph: Tiny Seeds Up Close

These are fruits with tiny seeds, each no bigger than 3 mm across. To image the seeds’ fine detail, researchers used high-resolution, high-contrast x-rays (left) along with traditional microscopy (right). High-resolution x-rays have never before been applied to the visualization of seeds. It works with a hybrid pixel semiconductor detector, which enables images in the single-photon counting regime–that means images with theoretically unlimited dynamic range.

First Place lllustration: Cognitive Computer Based On A Monkey Brain

IBM has been hard at work developing a “cognitive computer,” which will be able to detect patterns, plan responses and learn from its mistakes. The thinking computer is modeled after a macaque brain, and last fall, the company used the world’s most powerful supercomputer to model 100 trillion synapses, which is based on the number of synapses in the human brain. Emmett McQuinn, a hardware engineer at IBM who designed this image, clustered and colored the nodes in this cognitive computer based on the 77 different functional regions that neuroscientists have identified in the macaque brain. Then he found a circular arrangement that pleased him, according to the National Science Foundation.

Honorable Mention and People’s Choice Illustration: Cerebral Infiltration

This image illustrates the white matter of the brain and its structural connections. The smooth red area is a malignant brain tumor infiltrating the patient’s brain. Red fibers are those that could be affected by surgery, causing the patient to lose vision, perception or motor function. Blue areas are far enough away from the tumor to be unaffected by surgery. The blue and red areas provide a neurosurgeon’s road map, according to the NSF.

First Place Poster: Owl Arteries

Owls can swivel their heads a full 270 degrees. If a human tried that kind of neck contortion, they’d end up having a stroke. To solve the mystery of owl noggin rotation, master’s student Fabian de Kok-Mercado and his team collected 12 frozen owls that had died of natural causes and studied the way the blood vessels worked. Arterial reservoirs, like those pictured, allow owls to rotate their heads without completely pinching off their blood supply. Check out the whole infographic here.

Honorable Mention Game: Velocity Raptor

Learning relativity is all fun and games, right? This whimsical game simulates the physics of moving near the speed of light. Lead a dashing young dino through a series of levels in which space and time (and occasionally color) morph at high velocities. You can play Velocity Raptor here.

First Place And People’s Choice Video: A Computational Heart

The human heart is a mysterious organ, complexly constructed and difficult to study. The Barcelona Supercomputing Center put together Alya Red, a computational cardiac model, and applied it to a rabbit heart. The team calculated the shape and geometry of the organ using MRI technology to construct a realistic electromechanical model. The video describes not only how the model was formed, but also the basic electromechanical science of the heart.

Honorable Mention Video: Fertilization

Fertilization is an epic journey, as this video reminds us. It may not be something to watch on an empty stomach, but the intensely detailed visualization of sperm’s long journey to fertilization (with a mildly Twilight Zone-esque soundtrack) definitely satisfies a certain curiosity. As a bonus, it also involves a British man saying fun words like “vagina” and “mucus” repeatedly.