What's the most iconic scientific image?

I love the thread at Quora asking users to post their favorite iconic and/or beautiful scientific images. Why? Because, while the usual suspects are certainly present and accounted for (O hai, NASA archives! I can haz Mandlebrot sets?) there's also plenty of images that are at once striking, beautiful, and not at all what you would have expected people to post.

Take, for instance, this image. Posted by Alicia Zha, it was first published by neuroscientist Wilder Penfield in 1950, as a way of illustrating connections between parts of the brain and the physical movements they seemed to control, like a pictorial atlas of the cerebral cortex. It's called the motor homunculus. And it's definitely iconic, even if it's not the kind of iconic that's liable to turn up on the evening news.

Other high points of the thread: Robert Hooke's illustrations of the cell structure of cork; the chemical structure of benzene; group photos from the first world physics conference; and early visualizations of model storm systems.

What would you add?

Via W Younes



  1. Vitruvian man is a good suggestion.
    I’d add Darwin’s “I think” tree of life sketch and the double helix.

  2. It’s not really iconic, but I’d add an early STM (scanning tunneling microscope) image of graphite, just because of how insanely happy it made me to be able to see a carbon atom after my high school teacher told me that it would never be possible.

  3. Agree with Vitruvian Man, though it’s over-applied to refer to just about anything these days.
    If you want a simple image that conveys a simple, “THIS IS SCIENCE!” message, kinda hard to beat a double helix. (Though this, too, gets applied to all sorts of new age-y BS…

  4. my vote goes to the Hubble Deep Field Image, no wait the Blue Marble image that was the first pic of the whole of the planet from orbit…. yes that one for sure

  5. I don’t really know if it’s eligable, but personally, the top image on the wikipedia article for cluster headaches is one of the most beautiful, grotesque and terrifying illustrations of a medical condition I’ve ever seen. And, from what I understand of the disease, it’s pretty accurate, mild even.


  6. One for the digital age: Output from Conway’s Game Of Life. (More specifically, a portion of oscillating output as generated from random initial states after sufficiently many ticks.)

    Note that the image in this case is not a photo, since it is computer-generated. In fact, two images generated from different initial states will look similar at first glance, even though they are very different pixel-for-pixel.
    The structures (on a small scale, oscillators, and on a large scale, the spacings between oscillators) are instantly recognizable to those who have seen the cellular automaton in action, hence it can be considered iconic.
    It also symbolizes the complexity-from-simplicity concept that can be found in chaos theory, artificial intelligence etc.. In fact, the idea that life can be simulated by a machine is part of the reason why this captured the imagination of the public.

  7. Not an individual image, but the compilation of photos taken by Gary Rosenquist of Mount St. Helens going from a minor media celebrity to outright killer has to be one of the most awe-inspiring things I have ever seen. He might well be the first person ever to see a volcano come apart like that as one side of the mountain slides away and releases the highly pressurised magma underneath.


    If not, then the image shot by Voyager of the limb of Io and the eruption plume that showed there were other geologically active places in the Solar System.

  8. 50 years from now, someone will answer this question with “the Haters Gonna Hate motor protein gif.”

  9. Heh.  Funny anecdote about that image.  In college in my intro to cognitive science course they put that image up on the projector.  A guy raised his hand and the professor called on him.  He asked “what about the ‘naughty bits?'”  The professor turned red and continued with his talk.

    1. There is still some debate about this. Here’s a good reference for the penis:


      From the introduction: The isolated location of the genital of the homunculus previously bothered Penfield’s contemporaries; his scholar J. Kershman, known for his wit, pitied the creature, “His happiness founded on things near his toes; That need not always be numb”

  10. Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion; the story behind it pretty much epitomizes the value of the scientific method. (Unless your definition of “scientific method” includes the attributed sharing of results ;-)

  11. I second Crn Dff’s vote for Darwin’s Tree. I find that image incredibly moving and inspirational, and it summarizes the idea that changed the way we see life. 

  12. I would think one important one is the Gary Larson Far Side with the family of protozoan’s sitting on the couch in their protozoan living room, one shouts “look out, it’s a coverslip” and the next scene is a more classic muddled micrograph.  It neatly conveys the distinction between in vivo and in vitro, as well as a general warning of making sure that your observation of a event or the artifact of the parameters of your experiment do not effect what you think you see in science.

  13. Even though it’s no longer considered accurate, the old image of ape, to hominin, to caveman, to modern human is as iconic as you can get, to the extent that it’s a widely parodied cliché.

  14. One of the bleeding-edge scientific projects of our time, the LHC, produced a bunch of iconic images. Perhaps the most famous is this one, illustrating the result of a high-energy collision.

  15. I did a couple of shows (on MSBpodcast) about the homunculi (there are two, one sensory and one motor control) on the surface of your brain.

    It was basically about how MS and brain lesions screw around with perception (phantom pain or numbness) and control (spasticity).

  16. I’d go with the hubble deep field or this:

    You really need a 52-foot piece of paper to see it properly though…
    The ‘fuzz’ on the outside of the circle is the names of various life forms.
    The number of species represented is approximately the square-root of the number of species thought to exist on Earth(i.e., three thousand out of an estimated nine million species), or about 0.18% of the 1.7 millionspecies that have been formally described and named.
    Image is free for non-commercial educational use, courtesy of David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas

  17. The one hand:
    1.The Enola Gay ‘s last shot on the bombing run.
    2. The first Atomic Tests photos
    3.the Bikini Atoll fusion bomb test
    4.The racial measurement illustrations for various genocides
    5. The first fuzzy photos from Hubble

    The other hand:
    1. Apollo images of the feather and hammer falling together
    2. The electron microscopy of human cells
    3.The Vitruvian man(as mentioned)
    4. The DNA supermolecule chart (as mentioned)
    5. The good Hubble pics of wide angle (as mentioned)
    6. The  representation of Mendel’s peas

  18. As a developmental biologist I would definitively add to this list the “Homunculus” as famously drawn in 1694 in the publication “Essai de dioptrique” by Nicolas Hartsoeker. It illustrates the preformationism theory that gained popularity among scientist after the discovery of the spermatozoids in 1677 by the microscopist Antoni van leeuwenhoek. Preformationists believed that embryos were originating from small preformed animals contained in the eggs (ovism) or the spermatozoids (spermism). They were opposed to the epigenesis theory stating that embryos would in fact progressively gain complexity during their development. Preformation and epigenesis caused huge debates during the XVIII th century.Preformationism was later discarded in favor of the Epigenesis and cellular theory thanks to the discovery of mammalian ovum by Karl Ernst von Baer in 1826 and the first description of the human egg by Allen in 1928.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/HomunculusLarge.pngcould someone add it for me ?or send an invite to join Quora ?CheersFleb

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