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Images so cool, you'll want to learn more

Images so cool, you'll want to learn more


Nowhere may the fine line between art and science be slimmer than through a scanning electron microscope.

That’s the instrument UW-Madison scientist Ricardo Kriebel used to photograph a flower of Miconia friedmaniorum, known to grow only in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. The image is delicate, otherworldly — and more informative than you might know.

Kriebel’s work is one of 12 selected winners in the 2014 Cool Science Images contest.

Around since 2011, the Cool Science Images contest is run by The Why Files, UW-Madison’s pioneering website that looks at science behind the news. The contest is open to UW-Madison faculty, students and staff, and this year drew 94 entries from researchers across campus.

The winning images — remarkable for their beauty, intrigue and scientific wonder — are online at and the subject of a new gallery show at the McPherson Eye Research Institute. The McPherson ERI’s Vision Gallery will feature the images, printed on metal plates, through Dec. 11.

During the Wisconsin Science Festival, coming up Oct. 16-19, this year’s contest entries, which include short videos, also will be shown on the video wall of the Town Center of the Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard St.

“Science imaging is going through a revolution,” said Terry Devitt, editor of The Why Files.

“From amazing new space telescopes (to) microscopy, there’s all kinds of new technologies that are giving scientists tools to image things that we couldn’t see before — and to see things in new ways,” he said.

The Why Files originally launched a Cool Science Images page on its site, drawing scientific images from all over the world. A contest for images generated by talents on the UW-Madison campus came some years later.

The contest serves not only to showcase the “really interesting images that scientists are gathering now, but it’s also a way to show people on campus that their work is appreciated,” Devitt said. “Our winners have included undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff and faculty. We’ve had a really good cross-section of the campus community as well as a really good disciplinary cross-section.”

A panel of judges, made up of scientists and artists, has the task of choosing the winners based on their aesthetic and informational qualities, Devitt said.

“We have these very smart and knowledgeable people — and that’s really valuable because when you have people who know the technology of how an image is gathered, they can say, ‘Yes, that’s a great picture, but it’s easy to get. Now this one is really hard, a tour de force in terms of the technical feat it represents.’

“But it’s subjective at the end of the day, like any contest.”

Ahna Skop, a professor of genetics at UW-Madison and a longtime judge for the Cool Science Images contest, said the competition came out of a desire to share with the public “the beauty that we work with, and where their tax money is going,” she said.

For geneticist Skop, who has an art degree, science and art are inextricably linked.

“Nature in general is very beautiful,” she said. “In its complexity, in its core, there is beauty.”

“I don’t think people understand how much is involved” in the overlap between science and art — “because from a very early age in school, we’re taught that art and science are very different,” she said.

“For me to get into science, I had to find the visual,” said Skop, who grew up in a family of artists. “I do microscopy — that is just one of the techniques I do to do my science. It’s very visual. I certainly wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t see it.”

The source of images from the contest range from a rat brain cortex to “World’s Ugliest Model” (the oyster toadfish).

From their look at cellulose nano-fibers marked with a fluorescent stain, Max Salick and Thomas Ellingham captured their cool science image titled “NANO-FIBERS.”

The cellulose comes from industrial waste byproducts of energy production; the incredibly strong fibers are being studied for use in automotive and aerospace applications, the scientists explained in their contest entry.

But the fibers, when dry, also create crystallized patterns that in the case of “NANO-FIBERS” resemble “a surreal, microscopic city skyline.”

“I think that open access to such images is a great way to draw the public into the science,” explained Salick, a postdoctoral researcher who works at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

When they see these images, “Many people transition from a ‘Huh, that’s a cool image!’ mentality to an ‘I wonder why that is shaped the way it is?’ or ‘How did they even take this image?’ mentality,” he said.

“It’s easy to take that first step, and once people start asking those questions, they’ll start to appreciate and take part in the science behind the images.”

Kriebel, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Botany, agrees.

“There is no big difference between parts of science and art. We are trying to communicate our science with art all the time,” he said.

In botany, many traditional images are made by pencil, based on plants that have been pressed and dried.

“So you’re having a couple of steps, at least, where you’re losing some of the reality of that organism,” Kriebel said.

By contrast, “I go to the field and collect these flowers, and do these micrographs, which I think really show you the morphology as it is in nature,” he said.

“These plants really don’t get much recognition. It’s nice that they’re getting these five minutes of fame” on a gallery wall.

“Some of them are really rare, and nobody’s ever seen that flower alive — which I think is an interesting concept,” Kriebel said of his Cool Science image.

“I think it’s fair to say that one, two or three people have ever seen this flower in its native habitat. So from there — that plant made it to Wisconsin to an art gallery. That’s pretty neat, I would say.”

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