The 8 best science images, videos, and visualizations of the year

These are the 2018 winners of the Vizzies Challenge.
Many circular lines on a black background
Gravity, as portrayed by a funnel and hundreds of painted marbles. By Arjun Lev Pillai Hausner
NSF logo

PopSci editors are dedicated to sharing how exciting science can be, from cutting-edge technology to fundamental principles that explain how our universe works. But science isn’t just exciting; it’s also beautiful. To celebrate that beauty, Popular Science and the National Science Foundation team up each year to seek out the best science visualizations. This year’s Vizzies awards feature a fresh (and colorful) illustration of how gravity works and a video of the human brain in motion. You’ll also get up close and personal with mosquito mouthparts and watch the shattering conclusion of a physics experiment dreamed up centuries ago. These and four other winners were chosen from among hundreds of entries by a panel of scientists, graphic artists, and other experts. To make the final cut, a video or illustration had to be visually striking and convey scientific concepts in a way that was both clear and compelling. Read on, and discover what the judges saw in this year’s collection of beautiful science. Visualizing Scissors Congruence Experts’ Choice Winner

A set of geometric shapes on a white background
A geometric delight. By Dmitriy Smirnov, Ziv Epstein, Satyan L. Devadoss

Several years ago Dmitriy Smirnov was sitting in an advanced college math class when he learned a principle that cried out to be shared with a wider audience. “If you have two polygons—two shapes—that are of an equal area, you can cut one up into a finite number of pieces and then paste them back together to make the other shape,” Smirnov, now a PhD candidate in computer science at MIT, explains.

This idea is known as the Wallace-Bolyai-Gerwien theorem. It’s a basic principle of computational geometry, a field used in architecture, robotics, and molecular biology. Smirnov and his collaborators created an interactive that “allows anyone to prove the theorem for themselves” by breaking down and reassembling the shapes before your eyes. “We saw that this particular theorem was something that could be understood and appreciated by anyone,” Smirnov says. “You hear the phrase ‘math is beautiful’ being thrown around a lot, and actually seeing a particular visual instance of this is something I think is pretty cool.”

Check out the interactive, here.

Earth Day 1970 – 2018: Sea Changes

Experts’ Choice Winner

By Vivian Trakinski, Executive Producer; Laura Moustakerski, Writer/Producer; Shay Krasinski, Animator; Jason Morfoot, Sound Design; Jeremy Jackson and Ana Porzecanski, Scientific Advisors

The world’s seas are so deep and vast that they can seem like a world of their own, but few of even their most remote waters have remained untouched by our human civilizations. This video, created by the American Museum of Natural History in honor of Earth Day, is a sobering look at how the ocean has changed since the holiday was first celebrated in 1970.

“We’ve tended to treat it like a dumping ground, and because people don’t live in the ocean they don’t necessarily see what we’re doing to it,” says Laura Moustakerski, a writer and producer at the museum who worked on the video.

Over the past few decades, the ocean has absorbed most of the excess heat from our greenhouse gas emissions, along with 150 million tons of plastic. Sea levels have begun to rise, while corals disappear and overfishing threatens our supply of seafood. But there’s still hope. “There are definitely things we can do to help the oceans,” Moustakerski says. The video highlights a few of these success stories and suggests how each of us can contribute to a better future.

Pascal’s Blaising Barrel

Experts’ Choice Winner

By Katerina Visnjic, Lance Herrington, Omelan Stryzak, Rick Soden, Julio Lopez, William Dix, Dan Quiyu, Lisa Jackson, Janine Nunes

Legend has it that nearly 400 years ago mathematician Blaise Pascal performed an explosive experiment: standing atop a building, he poured water down a thin tube into a wooden barrel already full of water until it burst. This tale illustrates Pascal’s law, which states that the amount of pressure in a fluid depends on the height of the fluid, but not its overall weight.

Yet when Princeton University physicist Katerina Visnjic decided to recreate the barrel-busting experiment, she couldn’t find evidence that anyone (including Pascal himself) actually performed it. So she and her colleagues filmed their own version, featuring a 50-liter glass jug and a 155-foot straw. The jug shattered after the team poured just 1 liter of water down the tube. “It’s very possible that we are the first group in all of history to do this experiment,” Visnjic says. “It’s such a beautiful, counterintuitive demonstration of how fluids behave in nature.”

It might seem bizarre that such a tiny amount of liquid could destroy such a big vessel. But the pressure at the bottom of the straw was the same crushing force you’d encounter if you dove 155 feet deep into the ocean.

Anatomy of the Bite

Experts’ Choice Winner

a poster covered in text and images about mosquitoes
A deadly threat explained. By Rebecca Konte

Mosquitoes are among the world’s deadliest animals, responsible for millions of deaths every year according to the World Health Organization. In “Anatomy of the Bite,” Rebecca Konte illustrates how they pierce your skin and transmit dangerous diseases.

Hours of peering at mosquitoes under the microscope led to a few surprises for the San Francisco-based biological artist. “Mosquitoes have very strange anatomy,” Konte says. “It’s very complex when you get up close, and compact because they’re small, so it’s all smooshed together.”

In fact, a mosquito can actually squeeze extra fluids out of her abdomen to make room for more blood while she feeds on you. Konte also learned that the proboscis mosquitoes use to pierce your skin is made of not just one but six needles. “They have different jobs,” Konte says. “Some needles poke and search, other needles saw through your skin, and it’s all kept under a sheath that kind of pulls back when they’re biting into your skin.”

In Search of Earth’s Secrets

Experts’ Choice Winner

By (Saskia Madlener, Dan Brinkhuis, Dick Peterse, and Ageeth Rademaker), the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, International Ocean Discovery Program, and Columbia University (U.S. Science Support Program—Sharon Cooper)

Buried deep within the seafloor is a record of our planet’s history written in rock and mud. The long, thin sediment cores extracted from drilling into the seafloor hold remnants of long-gone eras and clues to past calamities, such as ash resulting from the asteroid strike that ended the dinosaurs’ reign 66 million years ago.

“To just think about the vast amount of information that exists so deep in the seafloor, that’s mind boggling,” says Saskia Madlener, a director and writer at ScienceMedia, a Netherlands-based company that specializes in videos that communicate science to the public.

Madlener and her team created “In Search of Earth’s Secrets” as part of a traveling exhibit on scientific ocean drilling run by several institutions, including the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. As the video plays, animated sediment cores slide into view to share a glimpse of what scientists see when they peer into the Earth’s past. Madlener says she hopes the video will inspire people to support research in Earth sciences. “There’s still so much more to discover.”

Gravity Visualized

People’s Choice Winner

In “Gravity Visualized 1 and 2,” high school student Arjun Hausner used marbles to illustrate a force we run across every day. Gravity is caused by mass warping the space around it, a phenomenon Albert Einstein described in his famous theory of general relativity. Devices called gravity wells can mimic this curvature and are often found in science museums. Typically, you drop a penny into the funnel and watch it spin round and round before finally dropping into the center.

Hausner takes this concept one step further by using painted marbles and elastic fabric stretched across a trampoline frame with weights in the middle. As each marble spirals around and around, it paints a unique path. These tracks become dense close to the weight, to “capture the pattern of gravity” Hausner says.

Playing around with scientific ideas in art class made them easier to understand, says Hausner, now a student at Cornell University. “Science and art are very similar in a lot of ways because both involve a process where you’re observing the natural world and then transcribing that into some other format that delivers that information.”

Correction: previous versions mistakenly reported a third People’s Choice awardee.

Coupled motions of the brain and blood flow

People’s Choice Winner

By Kambiz Nael (Mount Sinai), Itamar Terem (Stanford), Mehmet Kurt (Stevens), Samantha Holdsworth (U of Auckland), and John Martinez (Stevens)

Your brain is constantly pulsing with motion. As your heart pumps, the blood vessels in your noggin expand and contract, gently pushing on the brain tissue around them. These movements are too subtle for you to feel. In fact, only recently have scientists been able to observe them in action.

To create the above video, researchers used a computer algorithm that exaggerates brain movements on MRI scans until they are visible to the naked eye. For the first time, they also synced the brain tissue motions with those of veins and arteries (also exaggerated).

The researchers hope the new imaging method could reveal whether aneurysms—weak spots in blood vessels that bulge and sometimes burst—are growing and even predict if they’re likely to rupture. “We want to be able to track these tiny motions and hopefully get an idea about how the stability of aneurysms are changing over time,” says Mehmet Kurt, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. He and his team will present the technique this month at the Biomedical Engineering Society Meeting in Atlanta.