Scientific images: beautiful, important, and/or iconic (add and vote):

Over at Quora, you can see about eighty of what the authors consider the “most important, iconic, and/or beautiful scientific images,” and vote for your favorites.  You can even add your own favorite images, and see how they fare.

It’s hard to choose, but I suppose mine would be this one: the very first phylogenetic tree of organisms, sketched by Darwin in one of his famous notebooks (this page was on display at the traveling Darwin exhibit several years ago):

I love the “I think” note at the upper left.  This is really the very first branching diagram ever made, suggesting that all of life might be interrelated, and so it’s of enormous importance in the history of thought.

But there are many others, and among those it’s hard to choose. Here are a few more.  Go over and vote!

Amazingly, fractals happen in nature as well. Romanesco Broccoli is famous for its natural occurring fractal pattern, and it’s actually edible!

Here are some of the images that aren’t necessarily the most beautiful, but they’re ones I find most moving.

A solar eclipse, seen from behind Saturn by the Cassini probe:

One of Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction patterns, which showed to the trained eye that DNA was a double helix:

Humans on the moon.  I remember the first moonwalk on July 21, 1969.  I was going over to a friend’s house to see it on television, and I was late. I rushed through the door just at the moment when Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of Apollo 11 and, for the first time in our history, a human foot touched another planet.  Armstrong, of course, said these famous lines: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  We’ve now become so jaded about these things that it’s hard to envision the bone-shaking thrill that we all experienced then.  The photo below is, of course, from a later moonwalk:


And this one I like because it’s so cool: it’s a jet at the moment of breaking the sound barrier:

They also show this image of a “Solvay conference” in physics, which is one of my favorite pictures of scientists.  The participants aren’t identified, but Iconic Images tells you who they are (see below photo).  Perhaps no other photograph contains so much human brainpower! (Click to enlarge).

In 1911, Ernest Solvay, the Belgian chemist and industrialist founded Conseil Solvay, the world’s first physics conference. Initially aimed at solving problems in physics and chemistry, the conferences are held every three years.

The above group photo was taken at the end of the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference. The tensions were high: Einstein sparred with Heisenberg over the latter’s Uncertainty Principle. The attendees disagreed on the Copenhagen interpretation of atom, was promoted by a faction led by Niels Bohr, and opposed by more conservative faction lead by Albert Einstein. By the end of the conference, Bohr’s faction had prevailed.

First Row (l to r): Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Pierre Langevin, Charles Eugene Guye, C. T. R. Wilson, Owen W. Richardson

Second Row (l to r): Peter Debye, Martin Knudson, W. Lawrence Bragg, Hans Kramer, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr

Third Row (l to r): Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Edouard Herzen,Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrodinger, Jules-Emile Vershaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Leon Brillouin.

Seventeen of the twenty-nine attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners.


  1. litchik
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    The Earthrise photo was taken by Bill Anders in 1968 – the first manned orbit of the moon. Anders, by the way, is god free, as is Armstrong.

    • Rieux
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Every time I see the title, though, it occurs to me: the same side of the moon is always facing the earth. As a result, from any given point on the moon, the earth appears stationary; it will never “rise.” The title is a fallacy.

      (I suppose if one of the astronauts was driving a moon rover and drove a significant distance, the earth could appear to “rise” from that moving perspective… but (a) did the astronauts ever actually drive that far? and (b) surely that’s not what was going on in the picture. Or if the picture had been taken from a lunar orbiter….)

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        It was taken from the orbiter. The perspective is clearly far above the lunar surface.

      • Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        In addition to what Gregory writes…

        It is possible to experience Earthrise from a fixed position on the Moon surface if you are patient ! The Moon oscillates slightly, which causes the Earth to draw a figure on the sky inside a rectangle size 8ED wide & 6ED high (ED = Earth Diameter seen from the Moon). Earthrises are visible over about 20 % of the lunar surface. From the moment the Earth disc first appears on the lunar horizon It takes about 48 hours for the full Earth disc to appear.

  2. Matt G
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    What a great collection of awe inspiring images. And it really hits home how empty theology is. I remember once seeing a website with photos of some really cool science-related tattoos which I highly recommend.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      I don’t know about websites, but at least there is a blog: Zimmer’s “The Loom”. He ran, or runs, such a series.

      [Sorry it is vague but I’m not up to these things. I have seen tattoos for years, and as opposed to body paintings I haven’t seen any beautiful ones until the other week.

      – Yes, it was on a girl. Why do you ask? =D]

  3. nonsense
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    If we’re going by all three, beautiful, important and iconic, then it would be hard to beat Earthrise. The Darwin tree simply isn’t iconic, and it’s only beautiful in a vague, knowledge-is-beautiful kind of way.

    Earthrise is one of the most iconic images of anything ever, and especially of science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Darwin’s tree is iconic biologically and historically, as the article notes. You can’t take that away by just claiming otherwise.

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      The Darwin tree simply isn’t iconic


      It is in some circles, I can assure you!

      • Dominic
        Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Plus ONE!

        • Kevin
          Posted August 21, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink


          • Marvol19
            Posted August 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink


            I have the longsleeve tee from the National History Museum in London with this drawing on it. It never fails to draw attention, even from non-scientists.

      • TrineBM
        Posted August 22, 2011 at 4:54 am | Permalink

        Of course it’s iconic! I’m wearing it around my neck right now, beautifully done in ceramics. Love my piece of Darwin-jewellery. (Bought at the RDF-shop, where they can be seen. I have my eyes on the trilobit-pendant now)

  4. Kevin Anthoney
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised the Blue Marble didn’t make the list.

    • Nom de Plume
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      I believe the photos are user-submitted, so feel free.

    • ChasCPeterson
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      The first whole-earth photo is better for the historic and iconic (anyone else remember the Catalogs?) criteria, and not too shabby aesthetically either.

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    1927 Solvay: what an amazing grouping!

    I like this one: – George Beadle and Barbara McClintock as they were, as grad students.

    Charles Burnham, if he’s known at all, is known for his instrumental role, as an Emeritus Professor, in founding the American Chestnut Foundation, which is making excellent progress toward returning Castanea dentata to its native range. In that effort he had full support and interest from his student, Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 essentially as the father of the Green Revolution.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Wot no Rutherford?

  6. Eddie Janssen
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    May I suggest Hubble’s famous picture of the Eagle Nebula?

    The jet at the moment of breaking the sound barrier looks like science fiction, coming out of a wormhole.

  7. MKray
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    In Solvay picture: `Kramers’, not `Kramer’

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I’m really partial to particle photos, since atomic theory was so long coming. So the bubble chamber photograph surely, but also TEM or AFM images that resolves atom positions.

    But foremost the awesome image of the lone ion suspended in an optical trap that when stimulated emits photons all around. (I can’t find it, but here is a similar of a small linear ion crystal; unfortunately 8 ions overwhelms our autonomous counting ability, so becomes “many” and doesn’t give the full impact.)

    Also of special interest would be images of black body spectra, since it ushered in statistical physics and quantum mechanics earlier and now standard cosmology. It is today the iconic image of the cosmic microwave background spectra.

    But the iconic image for all of science would be Newton’s crystals splitting light; it’s in the competition. He was the first to both experiment and theorize in the modern meaning, I think.

    Of course Darwin’s image is iconic too, but more for understanding of ourselves in relation to nature.

  9. llwddythlw
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Of the given photographs, I would go for the Hubble Deep Field shots. They’re the non-lethal version of Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      I see your Hubble Deep Field and raise you one Hubble ULTRA Deep Field!

      • Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        Meh. Wake me up when we get to the MEGA Deep Field.


    • Marvol19
      Posted August 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I would second that. Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field shows – IMO even more graphically – our insignificance and the vastness of space.

  10. Matthew Dickinson
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you for an injection of ‘wow’ into my Sunday afternoon.

  11. Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    The Hubble deep field photo is one of my favorites for the perspective it gives. The pale blue dot is another.

    If the list is going to include a photo of an airplane, it ought to include the one John Daniels took of the first flight of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

  12. Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Is Schrodinger holding a cat ?

    I know, I know, Perhaps.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink


    • Posted August 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      Don’t you mean “Yes and No”?

  13. Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I know it’s not the prettiest of the lot, but I gotta go for the Pale Blue Dot.



  14. Steve Smith
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Beautiful. But too much icky physics and ickier biology. I added Euler’s iconic equation exp(iπ) + 1 = 0 and the beautifully symmetric expression for Riemann curvature, which admittedly isn’t iconic, but should be: R(X,Y) = ∇XY – ∇YX – ∇[X,Y].

    And the beautiful representation for the Lie Group E8.

    • Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      As for Euler’s identity, consider the taurine alternative:

      eiτ = 1

      An Internet mathematician explains it better than I could….



      • Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        HTML fail…make that, “e^(iτ) = 1.”


      • Steve Smith
        Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        As Knuth points out, Euler’s equation expresses the relationship between the five most fundamental mathematical constants—it’s tough to improve on that.

        Perhaps the mysterious fact from quadratic field theory that Ramanujan’s constant exp(π√163) equals an integer.

        • Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          Read the link; Hartl addresses the “five constants” argument. And, whether or not you agree with him, I think you’ll find the article entertaining.

          …and Ramanujan’s constant isn’t quite an integer — though it still is remarkable!



          • Steve Smith
            Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

            Ben, read the wiki-link:

            “Mathematical Games” columnist Martin Gardner made the (hoax) claim that the number was in fact an integer, and that the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan had predicted it—hence its name.

            The τ article is fun, but the author should have chosen to express the five constants as exp(iτ) – 1 = 0, not using the tautology 1 +0 = 0.

          • Steve Smith
            Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            Because this is a post on beauty, I’m obligated to point out the aesthetic wrong-headedness of using “τ” = 2π rather than π. There are many problems with this approach, but I’ll use just one: the volume of the unit hypersphere, whose formula as a function of dimension d is,

            V_d = π^(d/2)/Γ(1+d/2)

            where Γ(z) is the Gamma function.

            Replacing π with π = τ/2 would complicate this simple, beautiful formula with unnecessary powers of two. You could change the definition of the Gamma function, but then you’d lose the Gamma function’s beautiful recurrence definition. Replacing π with something else would mess up a lot of beautiful relationships in just about every special function.

            The moral of the story is the be extraordinarily careful before second-guessing Euler.

  15. Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    I love this sketch by Darwin and after having had it on my fridge for years, I decided last June to make a screen wallpaper with it. Now I’m staring at it every day.

    If anyone’s interested, it’s here, following Ubuntu’s default colour scheme:

  16. davidb
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Darwin’s by a country mile.The most important piece of thinking by a human accompanied by the most simplistic diagram = evolution is true!

    • Marella
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Cough, please note that “simplistic” is not merely a fancier way of saying simple. It means to oversimplify and is generally derogatory.

  17. Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    While I’m very enamored of the Hubble Space Telescopes Ultra Deep Field images, especially the 3D animated one, the one I find more iconic is Edwin Hubble’s M31 “var!” plate. Seen on this page in negative, it’s where Hubble identified a Cepheid Variable star in Andromeda, which allowed us to determine distance. Before this occurred, we actually believed everything we saw in the sky was within the Milky Way galaxy – with that image, the universe abruptly became millions of times more vast in our eyes.

    Also notable, Cepheid Variables were pinned down to specific luminosity relationships, which is what made them useful in this case, over a hundred years ago by a female astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Hang onto that one for the next “famous female scientist” quiz.

    • Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      “Seen on this page in negative”. Dammit, I hate html tags – they’re totally clumsy, and I even looked at this one to be sure I didn’t do that.

      (mumbling) Not the first to say we need a comment preview function on this site…

  18. Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    it’s a jet at the moment of breaking the sound barrier

    Just nit-picking here, but not necessarily at the moment of breaking the sound barrier – this can be demonstrated in the right conditions throughout transsonic flight.

    Also, it doesn’t even have to be transsonic. Sudden drops in pressure will cause momentary clouds of vapor (note the small one behind the canopy bulge) which can occur at subsonic speeds. Though I’m fairly certain this pic still qualifies.

  19. Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    The sketches by Galileo of Saturn. “I have observed the highest planet to be tripled-bodied. This is to say that to my very great amazement Saturn was seen to me to be not a single star, but three together, which almost touch each other”

  20. Jim Baerg
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    For the saturn picture see this version:

    and look for the dot that should be labelled “you are here”.

  21. BillyJoe
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    “I remember the first moonwalk on July 21, 1969.”

    Actually, it was July 20, 1969
    (I know because my daughter was born on July 20 nineteen years later)

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted August 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Armstrong on lunar surface
      hr:min:sec – Date

      02:56:15 – 21 July 69
      Greenwich Mean Time
      (UTC or Zulu or Z)

      21:56:15 – 20 July 69
      Eastern Standard Time
      (e.g. Washington DC)

      20:56:15 – 20 July 69
      Central Standard Time
      (e.g. Houston)

      So most Americans saw the first moonwalk “July 20th” (while at the same time, the mission used GMT as a reference to keep everyone supporting the mission around the world from constantly adding and subtracting hours and dates when talking to each other).

  22. Marvol19
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    And another one I would like to put forward – also from the space sciences – is the ‘pulsar’ image as used by Joy Division for their album cover Unknown Pleasures.

    Consecutive pulses from the first pulsar ever discovered, PSR B1919+21. Beautiful in its simplicity and its importance.

  23. Dave Ricks
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878)

    I bet most readers here would recognize this sequence of photographs as “the first movie” (iconic enough), but I see it it as a scientific milestone. Today it’s common knowledge that: A) All four feet are off the ground at one point, and B) When all four feet are off the ground, the legs point in toward each other (not all pointing backwards, as some people believed). It blows me away to realize that at the time, people could look directly at a horse run and not know those two points, until this apparatus was built to check.

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