Beetle leg: Spike Walker, a retired biology lecturer based in Penkridge, England, was striving for visual abstraction when he captured a detail of a Dytiscus water beetle's front leg. Walker used a type of darkfield microscopy in which the object is shot against a blue screen. The blue light shines through the orange of the leg's exoskeleton. The view, spanning about 1.8 millimeters in width, shows hair (left and bottom) and a suction cup (large disk on right). The males use these suction cups to hold on to females during mating. The image is patched together from 44 shots, each having a different focal plane. Image: Spike Walker
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Nature looks fundamentally different depending on scale. This diversity is especially striking in the world of biology, where matter assembles itself in constantly renewing configurations, offering our eyes—aided by scientific instruments—limitless perspectives.
Thus, we can find beauty in places we did not suspect—inside a flower from a roadside weed, in the anatomical details of a flea or under a mushroom growing on a dead tree. Some people explore microscopic worlds for scientific reasons; others, such as Laurie Knight, for the sheer adventure. “The reason I do this,” he says, “is that I get to see things that a lot of people can’t really see.”
Fortunately, Knight and many others also like to share some of the vistas they discover. Every year scientists and hobbyists alike submit their microscopy art to the Olympus BioScapes International Digital Imaging Competition. These are images whose purpose is, in the words of another serious hobbyist, Edwin K. Lee, “to capture the combined essence of science and art.” And, in turn, every year we at Scientific American like to share with readers some of our favorite shots from that competition. Enjoy.
This article was originally published with the title Life Unseen.