Ripples in a sea that's only a nanometer deep

This blue sea isn't made of water, and it's only a nanometer deep. It's one of several amazing works of science art that just won a contest sponsored by Science magazine and the National Science Foundation. We've got a few of the coolest images, plus the weird story behind this shimmering blue vision from the world beyond what our eyes can see.

This image won first place in the photography category went to Seth Darling and Steven Sibener, for this incredible picture of nanometer-deep ripples created when molecules arrange themselves on a gold surface. The NSF explains:

The ripples Seth Darling of Argonne National Laboratory and Steven Sibener of the University of Chicago, both in Illinois, captured with an atomic force microscope may look like the surface of an ocean, but they are a mere nanometer deep, and there's not a drop of water in sight.

The rich shades of turquoise and indigo are artificial, but the choppy waves are real. They are formed by millions of molecules arranging themselves on a gold surface. These "self-assembled monolayers" come with a head that clings to the surface and a tail that sticks out into the environment. Darling compares it to dumping a bowl of wet spaghetti on the floor and "all of a sudden it stands up as if it were uncooked spaghetti on end. That's kind of a weird thing to happen."

You can read more about the contest, and see more winners via NSF. Click the images in our gallery to find out more about each one.

Ripples in a sea that's only a nanometer deep

Here's a bigger picture of the nanosea.

Ripples in a sea that's only a nanometer deep

You are looking at a tomato seed, roughly 2mm by 3mm, covered in hairs called trichomes. This photograph of ultra-tiny fur by Robert Rock Belliveau won honorable mention in the photography category. The NSF explains: These trichomes secrete an insect-repelling, flavor-inducing mucus that helps give tomatoes their signature taste while acting as a natural bug spray . . .The color contrast comes from the polarizing microscope he uses, which has both transmitted and reflected light capabilities. The thinner parts at the edge of the seed (purple) are viewed with transmitted light while the trichomes on the top of the seed (red) are viewed with reflected light.

Ripples in a sea that's only a nanometer deep

Jonathan Heras, of Equinox Graphics Ltd., took honorable mention in the illustration category for this depiction of a virus injecting its DNA payload into a cell. Here's what the NSF says:

One judge compared this illustration of a virus attacking an Escherichia coli bacterium to something out of a 1950s science-fiction film. That's not too far from the creator's view, either. Before creating it, chemical engineer Jonathan Heras says he knew almost nothing about viruses. When he first saw a depiction of one in a textbook, he admits not believing it, until he looked at microscopic images: "It really did have these spindly legs and this really alien, weird appearance."

Ripples in a sea that's only a nanometer deepS

Kandis Elliott, a senior artist with the Botany Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, won first place in the poster category for her incredible "Introduction to Fungi" poster. An artist who has dabbled in science fiction, and created a Martian calendar in the late 1990s, Elliott has an incredible gallery of her other botany posters here.