The year 2020's best science images

The best science photos of 2020

Asteroids, microbes, and of course the coronavirus: These recordings document a year in which science faced unique challenges.

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With a firm yet delicate grip, a robot hand from the Robotics and Biology Laboratory at the Technical University of Berlin grabs a flower with pneumatic fingers. Thanks to recent advances, robots can mimic human skills better than ever.

For countless people, the 2020 pandemic turned life completely upside down. It was also a special challenge for our photographers to go about their work, as they could not travel unhindered and had to observe the necessary safety measures when taking photos in order not to endanger themselves and their subjects.

But for Kurt Mutchler, editor-in-chief of science photography at National Geographic, 2020 was also a unique opportunity: he was able to showcase the extraordinary science photography that National Geographic is known for while telling the story of a global community that defies the harshest conditions and keep reaching for the stars.

As is so often the case in photography, some of Mutchler's favorite images from science this year are results of excellent timing: the seemingly tiny International Space Station passes in front of the giant, glowing disk of the sun. In other outstanding pictures, our sense of proportion is twisted when the gaze falls on inexpressibly small, large, or distant things. Anyone who has ever wondered what the surface of an asteroid, a clownfish embryo, or the microbes in a kiss look like up close, has finally got the answer.

For Mutchler, the most important scientific images of the year revolved around a photo motif only about 120 nanometers wide: SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. The photographers didn't just document the heroic, heartbreaking human reactions to the virus. They were even able to catch the virus itself thanks to a Nobel Prize-winning technology that works with flash-frozen water and electron beams. “That blew me away,” says Mutchler.

2020, more than anything, has reminded us that science is not just a collection of fascinating facts or brand new technology: it is a way to understand the world around us, where advances - and stumbling blocks - move all of our lives. Every image Mutchler has chosen this year also reflects the fundamental humanity in science, he says. “It may seem like science is under threat. But it permeates every single aspect of our life. "

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1. For more than two decades, paleontologist Lawrence Witmer from the University of Ohio has been examining frozen animal carcasses - here a Siamese crocodile - in the CT scanner at Ohio O'Bleness Hospital. These new data helped spark a revolution in understanding extinct dinosaurs.

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2. In an ambitious endeavor, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched the asteroid Bennu on October 20. The probe collected a sample of the material and flew off again just seconds later - in its luggage rocks and dust from the time the solar system was born.

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3. The capsule of the Japanese spaceship Hayabusa2 lies next to its re-entry parachute after landing on December 6 in the Australian outback. Inside the capsule, there were 100 milligrams of rock and dust that Hayabusa2 had collected from the near-Earth asteroid.

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4. In its January 2020 issue, National Geographic examined how the trillions of microbes that live in and on us affect us. This colorful and textured image shows a blooming colony of microbes cultivated from a sample taken from a woman's lips. People who kiss often develop similarities in their oral microbiome.

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5. Some robotics build machines that imitate humans and resemble them in detail. One example of this is Harmony, an expressive talking head with artificial intelligence attached to a sex doll made of silicone and steel.

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6. Thanks to the cryo-EM microscope technology, which was awarded the Nobel Prize, researchers at the UK's MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology were able to image 2D slices of SARS-CoV-2. Computers then combined thousands of these cross-sections into a 3D model of the coronavirus - an important step in making safe vaccines.

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7. A sequence of black dots in front of a glowing disk - this is how the transit of the International Space Station in front of the sun appeared to observers in the US state of Virginia. On November 2, 2020, the ISS celebrated 20 years of continuous human settlement: a milestone in space exploration.

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8. Scientists are still trying to trace the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the greater horseshoe bat is a possible host. This preserved specimen of Rhinolophus ferrumequinum is in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and was collected in Uzbekistan in 1921.

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9. A subject is injected with a chilled COVID-19 vaccine developed at the University of Oxford. The photographer used a thermal imaging camera to make it clear that body temperature could indicate the presence of coronavirus infection. The temperatures are converted into a gradient that ranges from cool blue to warm orange.

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10. The photographer Daniel Knop has placed five pictures of a clownfish embryo next to each other to illustrate the developmental stages of the embryo - from a few hours after fertilization to hours before hatching. The image won second place in Nikon's 46th annual Small World Photomicrography Competition.

Source Credit: National Geographic

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