The Best of the Year’s Otherworldly Science Images
The best thing science writers can do sometimes is to sit back and let the pictures do all the work. The year’s best science images don’t really need any words as ornament—they’re terrifying and gorgeous and confounding on their own.
All of the views are otherworldly—literally so when we’re talking about the surface of Pluto and Mars. Back on Earth, we’ll peek at an Antarctic research station, blue lava, an orange river, and of course, that dress.
Animas River. In what was supposed to be a routine inspection, EPA officials released three million gallons of wastewater into one of Colorado’s most scenic rivers. The wastewater—tainted with arsenic, cadmium, lead, and other metals—turned the Animas River sickly orange for days. The toxins still haven’t completely dissipated, and the river’s worst affected tributary is a Superfund candidate. (PHOTO: JERRY MCBRIDE/PA WIRE/ZUMA PRESS)
Pluto Closeup. You may have seen Pluto in this gallery already, but have you seen Pluto? I mean really stared into the ripples of the dwarf planet’s Sputnik Planum? In December, NASA released the highest resolution photos New Horizons could take of Pluto. This photo is but one in an entire 50 mile-wide strip that zooms way in to Pluto’s surface. (Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)
Blue Lava. If you ever visit the Kawah Ijen crater on the island of Java, don’t stand too close. That’s because what looks like molten rock is actually sulfuric gas—which means it smells like rotten eggs. Which also explains why the stuff is blue and glowing. And if you do make that trip, pack a flashlight and a jacket, because you can only see the show at night. (PHOTO: RUEBEN WU)
Wildfires. El Niño is here, so it’s a little hard to remember what it was like earlier this year: Hot, dry, burning. Nationwide, wildfires consumed over seven billion acres of land. This image is from the Way Fire, which burned over 4000 acres near the town of Wofford Heights, in the Lower Sierra Nevada Mountains. (PHOTO: STUART PALLEY
Mars. These Martian mountains sure are pretty. They also show evidence that the red planet has running water. Draw your eyes to those dark, narrow streaks. Those reappear every summer, and disappear in the winter. It’s not much water, pretty much just a dribble, and tainted with salt. So calm down, Mark Watney, that place is nowhere near ready to colonize. (PHOTO: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIV. OF ARIZONA)
The Dress. Internet memes can do lot of things, but they rarely reduce us to existential spasms and make us confront the subjectiveness of our perceived realities. But then the dress came along and yeah, you remember. How can you not. For a refresher on the science of why this dress is both blue/black and gold/white, we’ve got you covered, too. (PHOTO: SWIKED)
Pluto. Remember when Pluto was a vaguely blue icy ball in textbooks? That’s so 2014. NASA has been releasing stunning photos of Pluto every few weeks since New Horizon’s flyby in July, but one of the most iconic is one of the first: a full-on view of Pluto in all its glory, with its craters and mountains and that massive heart-shaped plain. Icy blue ball no more. (PHOTO: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)
Antarctica Research Station. The continent of Antarctica is not exactly for know its architecture. It is known for snow, cold, ice, and did we mention snow? But Britain’s Halley VI research station, which looks like a candy-colored six-legged creature, is designed for both charm and Antarctica’s harsh environment. The station sits on hydraulic stilts that lifts the the scientists above accumulating snow. And the stilts themselves are on giant skis, so the station can move around on Antarctica’s ice shelf. (PHOTO: BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY)