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Stunning Visuals From the Edge of Science and Engineering

Sometimes when words just aren’t sufficient, adding an image can spark understanding and inspiration. Welcome to the National Science Foundation’s International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge 2012, a competition that rewards creative communication of scientific concepts by way of images, videos, charts, and even games.

We’ve included a few of our favorite visualizations below, and you can find more visualizations, including all prior years since 2003, here.

Evolution’s feats of engineering over the last few billion years are truly awe-inspiring and none more so than the brain and the heart. First up, we have two supercomputer-based illustrations of these mind-numbingly complex organs.

Working with DARPA on the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project in 2012, IBM successfully simulated 100 trillion synapses on Sequoia, the world’s second most powerful supercomputer. The below image is a visual map of IBM’s cognitive computing network wiring, inspired by the connections in a macaque brain.

Credit: Emmett McQuinn, Theodore M. Wong, Pallab Datta, Myron D. Flickner, Raghavendra Singh, Steven K. Esser, Rathinakumar Appuswamy, William P. Risk, and Dharmendra S. Modha

The Barcelona Supercomputing Center’s Alya Red project is using MRI data to stitch together a working simulation of the human heart. The simulated heart is a mesh of computational muscles that, when stimulated by an electrical pulse, undergo a cascade of contraction closely resembling a human heartbeat.

Credit: Guillermo Marin, Fernando M. Cucchietti, Mariano Vázquez, Carlos Tripiana, Guillaume Houzeaux, Ruth Arís, Pierre Lafortune, and Jazmin Aguado-Sierra, Barcelona Supercomputing Center 

This year’s first place winner in photography is reminiscent of another of our favorite scientific imaging contests, the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition. Here we’re introduced to the unexpected microscopic look of a sea urchin’s calcite tooth. The image was taken with a scanning electron microscope and colored in Photoshop to highlight each discrete, surprisingly curved crystal.

Credit: Pupa U. P. A. Gilbert and Christopher E. Killian; University of Wisconsin, Madison

The Honorable Mention and People’s Choice award for illustration went to the below 3D MRI image of a brain tumor and the surrounding functional neural connections. The links are coded red for connections that if severed could impair function and blue for connections unlikely to come into play during surgery. The resulting color-coded 3D map helps brain surgeons strategize upcoming operations.

Credit: Maxime Chamberland, David Fortin, and Maxime Descoteaux, Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab

And finally, the artful use of a CT scanner in rainbow below reveals the self-defense mechanisms of a clam and whelk. The clam snaps shut its hinged bivalve shell to ward off predators; the whelk blocks attackers with its labyrinthine spirals. The image is composed of CT-scanned layers stacked and colored to reveal each animal in 3D.

Credit: Kai-hung Fung, Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong

Credit: Kai-hung Fung, Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong

Image Credit: Banner image is X-ray micro-radiography and microscopy of seeds by Viktor Sykora, Charles University; Jan Zemlicka, Frantisek Krejci, and Jan Jakubek, Czech Technical University. Rotated to fit. 

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