A sense of scale: the best microscopy of 2016

This spectacular bit of hardware is the foot of a diving beetle, specialized to propel it through the water.
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Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born while Galileo was still alive, and he ended up developing a similar skill in lens making to that of Galileo. Galileo turned his results to the heavens and began a revolution in how we understand our place in the Universe. van Leeuwenhoek looked inward and became the first to recognize that our own world is teeming with life that's too small to see without a microscope.

The revolution he spawned is still changing our understanding about where we fit in right here on Earth.

Microscopy remains a mixture of science and art. All sorts of biology and chemistry are involved in sample preparation, and choosing the optics to bring out what you need to see can involve an understanding of physics. But to turn the options you have into a thing of beauty requires a sense of aesthetics. The people behind the gallery below, who have submitted their images to the Nikon Small World microscopy competition, clearly have that.

If you're a fan of any of the images or want to see others that don't appear below, stop by the competition's website. Not only will you be able to see all the images, you'll have the chance to vote for your favorites in a competition for the popular vote.

  • The first of two entries by the UAE's Yousef Al Habshi, this images is a closeup of one of the features that gave the red speckled jewel beetle its name.
  • Here's looking at you! A few of the eyes of a jumping spider are ready for their closeup.
  • Dictyostelium, known as a slime mold, spends much of its life as a single cell. But stress the cells sufficiently, and they gather together and specialize to form structures like these, which release spores to seed populations elsewhere.
  • Haris Antonopoulos captured this closeup of the interference pattern generated by light reflecting off a soapy bubble.
  • Drugs and precious metals make for a good combination in this photo. These are oxycodone crystals stained using platonic bromide.
  • One becomes two as cells divide. The yellow is the cells' DNA, blue represents internal structural fibers, and red is a protein that pulls the cells apart.
  • A closeup of the fin of a zebrafish. The color is created by individual pigment cells that migrated from the developing spinal cord, while the bamboo-like structures underneath are the bones of the fin rays.
  • We don't tend to think of metals as being crystals, but they can be. Here's a clear example of copper crystals.
  • Each year, there are photos of the iridescent scales of insects, which are structured to refract light of different wavelengths. Each year, I find them equally beautiful.
  • Even with some sense of the scale, it's hard to tell what might be gripping this bit of plant. The answer in this case is a caterpillar.
  • An orange ladybird pokes its head out from under its carapace.
  • Karl Gaff is in the school of physics, but he clearly has an eye for biology. Here, he's captured the sexual parts of a flower.
  • Believe it or not, the dark region in the center is a starfish larva. The white lines track the currents it generates as it filter-feeds.
  • Tequila! That's the liquid in question here, where the bubbles-in-bubble effect is created by trapped air.
  • No, you didn't have too much tequila. And no, this is not an abstract painting. It's what happens when you send polarized light through a mixture of two crystals.
  • If you did have too much tequila, you might want some of this. It's the crystals that are left behind if you allow espresso to evaporate.
  • With apologies to Salvador Dali, this is the real persistence of memory. They're cells from the dentate gyrus of the mouse, a brain structure that helps store memories.
  • Another cell, this time with the DNA in blue and the mitochondria in yellow. This particular cell is specialized for lining the walls of blood vessels.
  • You'll be relieved to know that this nightmarish looking creature (a water mite) is so small that this image had to be magnified 100x.
  • Pond scum rarely looked better. This is actually a single-celled green algae, but a fluorescent image captures the glow of some of the chemicals it holds.
  • What looks like a bag of random colored dots is actually a single-celled predator called Frontonia, which has ingested some colorful prey.
  • This is one of the images that I'd never have identified. It's the gill of an insect, specifically the larval form of a dragonfly.
  • Another trippy-looking crystal. This one is from the compound in birch bark that we later modified to create aspirin.
  • You may think this is cute, but you won't like it when it gets older. That's because it's a mosquito larva.
  • This is a cross-section of a composite material reinforced with carbon-fiber. This image was taken in order to look for potential failures in the composite.
  • While your eye is probably drawn to this insects' compound eyes, it's the mouth parts below them that got this species its name: the assassin fly.
  • Another closeup of the business end of a flower, species unidentified.
  • This spectacular bit of hardware is the foot of a diving beetle, specialized to propel it through the water.
  • A second insect closeup from Igor Siwanowicz, this time showing the geared hind legs of a planthopper. The gears keep the hind legs synchronized during the animal's energetic leaps.
  • A bit more of memory. This image shows neurons expressing fluorescent proteins in the hippocampus, a key site of memory formation and storage.
  • This is a closeup of a plant called a scarlet firethorn. The plant here is suffering from an infection by a filamentous fungus.
  • This butterfly has a proboscis to match the flowers it feeds on.
  • While not as famous for their venom as, say, spiders, there are venomous centipedes. Walter Piorkowski captured an image of the fangs they use to inject their venom.

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