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Natural Science

Sea urchin teeth, trippy clamshell snag science art awards

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    Connectivity of a Cognitive Computer Based on the Macaque BrainInspired by the neural architecture of a macaque brain, this ghostly neon swirl is the wiring diagram for a new kind of computer that, by some definitions, may soon be able to think. Over the past 2 years, IBM's cognitive computing group in San Jose, Calif., has made great strides toward designing a computer that can detect patterns, plan responses, and learn from its mistakes, says Emmett McQuinn, a hardware engineer at IBM who designed the image. (Emmett McQuinn, Theodore M. Wong, Pallab Datta, Myron D. Flickner, Raghavendra Singh, Steven K. Esser, Rathinakumar Appuswamy, W)

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    Biomineral Single CrystalsThese fantastical structures are the microscopic crystals that make up a sea urchin's tooth. Each shade of blue, aqua, green, and purple--superimposed with Photoshop on a scanning electron micrograph (SEM)--highlights an individual crystal of calcite, the abundant carbonate mineral found in limestone, marble, and shells.The curved surfaces of the crystals look nothing like normal calcite crystal faces. Instead of flat sides and sharp edges, the sea urchin produces "incredibly complex, intertwined" curved plates and fibers that interlock and fill space in the tooth as they grow. Though made of a substance normally as soft as chalk, the teeth are hard enough to grind rock, gnawing holes where the sea urchins take shelter from rough seas and predators. (Pupa U. P. A. Gilbert and Christopher E. Killian; University of Wisconsin, Madison)

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    Observing the Coral SymbiomeNo dyes or digital software produced the brilliant color of these corals--the glory is all their own. Fluorescent molecules, innate to the corals and to the red algae that live inside and nourish them, shine under different wavelengths of light emitted by a confocal microscope. In the video, which compiles the images into three-dimensional, time-lapse animations, corals extend and retract their glowing tentacles. Tiny creatures crawl over the corals, all part of a complex and threatened ecosystem. In the future, coral biologist Ruth Gates says, it might be possible to use confocal microscopy to classify different coral species or diagnose coral disease by their fluorescent patterns. (Christine E. Farrar, Zac H. Forsman, Ruth D. Gates , Jo-Ann C. Leong, and Robert J. Toonen, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology,)

From a surrealist view of a sea urchin's tooth to a trippy clamshell, the world's most stunning science images of the year have been released.

The natural world is filled with gorgeous creatures, strange processes and mysterious structures hidden to the naked eye. The winners of the 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, announced Thursday, make that beauty visible in stunning imagery revealed in photographs, interactive videos, simulations and even computer games.

The winning illustration, a gorgeous depiction in blue, magenta and orange of the neural connections in a macaque monkey's brain, was an inspiration for IBM Almaden Research Center, where researchers wanted to create a brainlike neural network using computer chips. The stunning visual will be featured on the Feb. 1issue of the journal Science, which co-sponsors the competition along with the National Science Foundation.

This year's photography winner is a surrealist vision of a sea urchin's tooth. Using a scanning electron microscope, the winner, Pupa Gilbert of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her colleagues revealed the calcite crystals that form the sea-dweller's teeth. But unlike the hard planes of a normal crystal, the sea urchin's teeth are made of an intricate, interlocking web of dazzling blue, green and purple sections of the mineral. [See the Winning Visualization Images]

Another amazing depiction of a clamshell and whelk shell, taken by radiologist Kai-hung Fung at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong, used a CT scanner to capture the self-defense tool in a trippy rainbow of colors. While the clam's shell is designed to snap shut rapidly to fend off a potential attacker, the whelk, which is also protected in a shelled fortress, can drill through the clam's shell to snag a juicy meal.

The contest, now in its 10th year, had 215 entries from eight countries. Judges rated the photos on how much impact, originality and effective communication the photos displayed. The public also weighed in for People's Choice Awards with 3,155 votes via social media.

"These winners continue to amaze me every year with their remarkable talent and drive to engage the public," said Monica M. Bradford, executive editor of the journal Science, in a statement. "The visuals are not only novel and captivating, but they also draw you into the complex field of science in a simple and understandable way."

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