Art of Science Competition Reveals the Hidden Beauty of the Microcosm

‘Baby Kraken’, a fluorescence microscope image of a squid embryo attached to a yolk sac, by Princeton chemistry professor Celeste Nelson. This embryonic sea creature is smaller than a pea.  Celeste M. Nelson / Princeton University Art of Science Competition

My friend and colleague Teresa Riordan invited me to something truly awesome that she has been working hard to put together over the years. Art of Science is an annual art competition at Princeton University, where students, faculty, and alumni submit artistic works created in the process of doing science. I wandered through the exhibit during the opening reception and found it to be a great draw, bringing people together in sharing their excitement about science. It goes beyond the test tubes, graphs, and equations that are the bread and butter of everyday science, and instead showcases science as a vivid, technicolor, human experience.

One of my favorite pieces (at the top of this post) is a stunning image of a baby squid taken using a fluorescence microscope. Seen from this perspective, the squid embryo looks like an alien inhabitant of the microcosmos. “Even sea monsters start as babies”, writes chemistry professor and microcosmic explorer Celeste Nelson.

Among the entries are some wonderful ‘oops’ moments, where an experiment goes beautifully wrong, revealing art where you might not have expected to see it. Take this piece by Jason Wexler, Ian Jacobi, and Howard Stone. “This beautiful pattern, contrasting the relative order of the structured posts to the apparent chaos of the flowing blobs, would never have been seen had the experiment succeeded”, they write.

“Pillars and puddles” An experiment studying the flow of liquids started dissolving the surface, and went beautifully wrong. Jason Wexler, Ian Jacobi, Howard Stone / Princeton University Art of Science Competition

But most of these submissions aren’t accidents. Many of these pieces reveal form, structure, and beauty hidden at a scale that our eyes can’t perceive. There’s the self-assembled, intricate microscopic sculptures in electron microscope images of lab-grown crystals, or the mesmerizing 12-fold symmetry of quasicrystals, mirroring patterns from Islamic art. There’s the graceful dance of vortices inside a flickering flame, or the cavernous crystalline structures deposited in a dried up drop of (a protein extracted from) cow’s blood. “Watch any liquid – from tap water to the richest coffee – evaporate off a surface and you will see it leave a unique, ghostly mark”, write Hyoungsoo Kim, François Boulogne, and Howard Stone.

You can gaze at infinity inside the crystalline recesses of a dried up drop.  Hyoungsoo Kim, François Boulogne, Howard A. Stone / Princeton University Art of Science Competition

These works highlight that beauty doesn’t just exist at the human-sized scale that we encounter everyday, but is also hiding out of sight, from the scale of the universe to inside a drop of blood. It’s waiting for us to discover it, if only we can sharpen our instruments and take a closer look. And through these works, we see that science is very much a human experience, brimming with beauty in every drop.

For more, either head to the image and video gallery at Art of Science, drop by the Friend Center Gallery (free and open to the public) on the Princeton University campus, or catch their highlights on display in the New York Hall of Science.