Strange alien looking worlds exist all around us in startling shapes and textures, but we so rarely get to see them. Since 2010, the FEI Electron Microscope Company has held an annual competition to judge the best scanning electron microscope (SEM), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), DualBeam and focused ion beam (FIB) images taken using their equipment. The resulting submissions are diverse – from plant anatomy and synthetically manufactured minerals, to the kind of bacteria shots seen here.
This looks like some sort of insect hive wrapped around the branches of a plant, but actually it’s blood caught on the cotton fibers of a gauze dressing. The blood cells – those spiky looking little balls – are partially clotted. Who knew a bit of dried blood could be so beautiful?
This image seems obvious. It’s a flower, of course – and a lovely colorful one at that. Except, it's not really. It’s actually polystyrene. The author of the image, Luca Boarino, describes the image this way: “When dispersed on a solid substrate (in this case silicon) the multiple layers of polystyrene nanospheres can crack during drying, due to capillary forces.”
Red blood vessels, or erythrocytes, are the most common blood cells in your body, but we’re betting this is one of the first times you’ve seen them like this. These cells are making their way through the capillary net of an alveolar – that is, carrying blood loaded with oxygen through the lungs. The way the body works really is amazing, no matter how you look at it!
While we’re on the subject of spectacular colors, here are some more. The description reads: “The zoning shows the radiation induced defects forming in billions of years.” Complex stuff, but it sure looks amazing!
Don’t be scared. This nightmarish looking monster is actually just a tiny caterpillar, or at least the head and two front pairs of legs of one. The detail on the tiny hairs is pretty amazing. You can also (just) make out the six eyes on each side of the head. These are simple eyes and can only detect changes in light, without seeing actual images. They will change into full-blown compound eyes when the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.
We’re cheating a little with this magnified picture of synthetically produced calcium sulphate crystals. They aren’t really pink and green. False color has been added for effect. It’s a good effect though, so we’re sure you won’t mind. Also, it doesn’t take away from the lovely delicate structure of the crystals, which look like tiny flowers.
You’ll never guess what this beautiful blue and pink picture shows. It’s a section of polystyrene insulating foam. Think of the stuff used for building insulation or to keep fragile objects safe inside their packaging. It looks pretty fragile itself from this angle.
Now, this picture definitely looks like something you’d expect to see in an art gallery. An expensive abstract piece, maybe? Really, it shows microscopic nanorods made up of light harvesting molecules. Another great case of art meets science!
At first glance, this stunning image looks like some sort of deep ocean creature – perhaps an exotic variety of sea cucumber? Well, it is a plant, but it’s definitely not of the underwater variety. This is an extreme close up of the head of a daisy. Something to picture next time you're pulling the petals off one.
Sorry, no points for guessing that this nano image is of a man-made object. In fact, it’s a micropillar with lateral contacts, made to generate an in-plane electrical field. It’s pretty amazing that humans can craft something so tiny with so much detail these days, isn’t it? This picture has been artificially colorized.
This beautiful blue and red disc is a North Sea diatom. Diatoms are microscopic unicellular algae. As well as being pretty to look at under the microscope, diatoms are useful to humans as biological indicators of water quality.
These strange clumpy looking structures are ferrite nanoclusters. Ferrite refers to iron or iron alloys, and ferrite nanoparticles are the most studied magnetic nanoparticles to date. The cool colors are the result of backscattered and secondary electrons, which have been mixed.
This could be a shell, or even a sculpture of a shell. But as you’ve probably worked out by now, nothing is quite what it seems under the microscope. This is a fossilized single celled organism from the Barbados Islands. It is very old, and very pretty.
Reaching up and twisting like strange alien organisms, these are the offshoots from the roots of a cactus plant. Cacti react fast and can grow new roots quickly when it rains after long periods of dryness. The roots are also shallow and spread out across a wide area. These are just two ways in which they have adapted to help them survive.
Here’s another wonderful close up look at plant architecture. This time, what we see is the ‘hook’ a seed uses to attach itself to animals or objects (your socks for example) and hitch a ride so it can put down roots of its own somewhere new.
Sometimes it’s not hard to tell what a nano image is of – like this close-up of a bee, for example. What sets the honeybee apart from most bees is its hairy eyeballs. Bee eyes are, of course, compound eyes, made up of thousands of little lenses. They can detect ultraviolet light, which helps them to choose the best flowers in which to find nectar, which is vital to the honey-making process.
This blue rose pattern comes from the magnification of zircon. Zircon is a neosilicate mineral made up of a tetragonal crystal structure. Zircons can be a variety of colors, from pink, yellow, brown and hazel to blue – as this one appears to be.
Here’s an up-close look at the machinery of time: the tiny cogs and wheels of a small timepiece – a watch, perhaps.
In this micro-world, it looks like a glacier is moving out and breaking up into a choppy sea. Of course, such an event couldn’t really be captured with a microscope. What this actually shows is a thin film of CuInSe2, or Copper indium gallium (di)selenide, being grown in an aqueous solution. These films are used as light absorbers for thin-film solar cells.
Here’s an alien looking landscape if ever we saw one. But in reality, the image is of a very terrestrial tomato plant leaf. Those bizarre looking growths are trichomes, which can have various different functions. Some trichomes irritate the palate of animals that might otherwise munch on the leaves. Others keep frost off the cell surface of the plant. And the glandular trichomes of tomato plants produce their distinctive "tomatoey" smell.
Here is yet another beautiful nano image that looks like abstract art. This time we’re looking at a twinned copper nanowire. The spectacular blue color is quite electrifying!
Look at these vibrant colors! This image has a definite psychedelic feel to it. It shows an aluminum template that has been filled with bismuth and lead. Science sure can be groovy!
The colorization of this picture makes it look like some hardy weeds are growing up through the ground. The author has titled this image “Unexpected Crystals.” Fascinating.
We can’t help but think of a bouquet of pink flowers and blue ribbon when we look at this picture. Which is surprising, because, essentially, it’s just a bit of contamination that found its way on to the sample of Daniela Exner, who created the image. You really can find beauty anywhere if you look hard enough.
Fancy a look deeper down this earthy looking tunnel? Incredibly, this seemingly giant hollow channel is actually the vein of a plant! This tiny (despite how it looks here) tube is necessary for the plant to transport the food and water it needs for photosynthesis. A real lifeline, you could say.
Whether organic or man-made, we think you’ll agree that all of these images are fascinating. One thing they all have in common, no matter what they're composed of, is that they surprise and delight us, offering a glimpse into the microscopic worlds around us – worlds that we would be completely unaware of otherwise.