The National Science Foundation has announced the winners of its 2009 "Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge," and there are some seriously gorgeous, weird pictures in the mix. Check out some of our favorites.

All text comes from NSF. See more about the NSF contest, more winners, and how you can enter next year, here.

First Place in Photography: Save Our Earth. Let's Go Green
Credit: Sung Hoon Kang, Joanna Aizenberg, and Boaz Pokroy, Harvard University


Noodlelike fibers stretch to latch onto a green sphere. Alone each fiber is powerless, but together they grip and support the orb, embodying cooperation at a microscopic scale. This electron microscope photograph catches self-assembling polymers in action, but it could also represent people's cooperative efforts to save Earth, says materials scientist Joanna Aizenberg of Harvard University. "Each hair represents a person or an organization," she says. "It shows our collaborative effort to hold up the planet and keep it running."

Aizenberg and her colleagues design self-assembling polymers in hopes of creating energy-efficient materials. They have snapped many similar photos of micrometer-scale cooperation. This image shows hairlike fibers of epoxy resin assembling around a polystyrene sphere, which is about 2 micrometers in diameter.


Honorable Mention In Photography: Microbe vs. Mineral - A Life and Death Struggle in the Desert
Credit: Michael P. Zach, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Although the bursts of rainbow colors in this photograph are mesmerizing, microbes fight for their lives in the background. Chemist Michael P. Zach of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, snapped this image of a salt sample he collected in a hot, arid valley near Death Valley National Park in California. He crushed the salt, placed it under a microscope slide, and added a drop of water. Suddenly a slew of microbes came to life as the salt crystals dissolved. Then when the water started evaporating, he took the picture. (The colors come from light passing through the growing crystals, which act like prisms.)

Honorable Mention In Photography: Self-fertilization
Credit: Dr. Heiti Paves and Birger Ilau, Tallinn University of Technology

Within its tiny white flowers, thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) does what most plants avoid: It fertilizes itself. Heiti Paves of Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia took this photograph of the flower with its pollen grains and ovaries stained blue to show the process in action. From the six pollen heads, the grains grow thin tubes toward the bean-shaped ovaries in the flower's stigma to fertilize them. Because of the microscope technique used, polarized light turns the normally white flower yellow and the background blue. Scientists have used A. thaliana in many genetic studies because its self-fertilization makes experiments clearer. Gregor Mendel used a self-fertilizer, the pea, to build his genetic theories, Paves notes.

First Place (Tie) In Illustrations: Kuen's Surface: A Meditation on Euclid, Lobachevsky and Quantum Fields
Credit: Richard Palais and Luc Benard, University of California at Irvine

Sketch a line and then draw a point off it. How many lines parallel to the first line can you draw through that point? The Greek mathematician Euclid said just one, but for more than 2,000 years after his death, mathematicians struggled to prove that he was right based on his other geometric rules. Then the 19th century Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky showed that you couldn't: In some circumstances, you can sketch an infinite number of lines through that point and not violate any of Euclid's other axioms. Mathematician Dick Palais of the University of California, Irvine, and digital artist Luc Benard wanted to convey the history of Lobachevsky's solution to this mathematical puzzle with their illustration.

In this illustration, a sheet of paper shows sketches of one of these surfaces, called Kuen's surface, and the expression, called a soliton, that describes it. "We wanted to talk about these equations in a way that nonmathematicians could understand," Palais says. "So we took a symbolic approach: The surface itself stands as a symbol for that equation."

Honorable Mention in Illustration: Back to the Future
Credit: Mario De Stefano, Antonia Auletta, and Carla Langella, The 2nd University of Naples

Nature has been building microscopic cellular solar panels for almost 200 million years. So let's follow her lead, says marine biologist Mario De Stefano of the Second University of Naples in Italy. De Stefano and his collaborators have been studying diatoms, microscopic algae, and they believe the organisms' cellular structures could inspire the design of solar panels. This illustration demonstrates the principles of biomimeticism, which involves looking "to natural organisms to see our future," De Stefano says. In the foreground, a scanning electron microscope image shows the blue fans of diatom colonies from the species Licmophora flabellata that have attached themselves to a sand grain with a long, gelatinous anchor, called a peduncle. Each cell is a flat wedge with a glasslike wall shaped to maximize its surface area and absorb sunlight more efficiently for photosynthesis. Behind the sand grain, the team presents computer drawings of their bio-inspired solar panels, which would stand 3 meters tall with a span of 50 meters. De Stefano and his collaborators have started building these panels and believe that they could be used to create solar-powered street lamps.