In science, a picture may be worth more than a thousand words. Since the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, scientists have used photographic techniques to make many key scientific discoveries. Our eyes only see a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, while many other natural phenomena are simply too fast or too slow for us to perceive. And then there are processes that are hidden from view on a microscopic scale, or in the depths of space. Here are 10 classic images that gave scientists new insights.
10. Hubble Deep Field Image Shows Early Universe
A refurbished Hubble Space Telescope showed off its capabilities in late 1995, as it stared off at an “empty” region of the sky in the constellation Ursa Major for 10 consecutive days. The resulting mosaic of more than 342 images revealed that “empty space” isn’t so empty after all; the image included a sampling of about 3,000 galaxies. The remarkable image gave astronomers a glimpse into the formation of galaxies in the very young universe. The Hubble Deep Field study has been cited in more than 900 scientific papers and is an iconic image in modern astronomy. Several similar images from Hubble were made in the following years, including the Hubble Deep Field South and the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
9. Photo 51: X-Rays Provide Key to Structure of DNA
The discovery of the double helix nature of the DNA molecule marked one of the great revelations of 20th century science. Here was the blueprint of life, a coding hidden within the nucleus of every cell. The photo crucial to the discovery was an X-ray diffraction image taken in May 1952 by Raymond Gosling, working under the supervision of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London. The photo proved key to James Watson and Francis Crick’s landmark DNA discovery a couple of years later. It later became the center of a classic snub in science history, when Watson and Crick were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize, while Franklin was not included.
8. Eclipse Photo Confirms Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
One of the central predictions of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity states that mass distorts the fabric of space-time. A large mass, say that of the Sun, should bend the light of a distant background star. From Earth, the only time it would be possible to test this is in a few brief minutes during a total solar eclipse. Einstein first proposed his theory in 1915. Four years later, British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington led an expedition to the remote Atlantic island of Principe to capture photos of an eclipse. The images confirmed Einstein’s theory, and made headlines around the world; Einstein went from obscure physicist to celebrity status virtually overnight.
7. First X-Ray Image Ushers in New Age of Medicine
X-rays have become such a standard procedure in modern medicine that we take them for granted. But in the late 19th century, the concept of invisible rays that could penetrate the human body amazed the public. Physicist Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally discovered the effect, and took the first X-ray image — showing the bones in his wife’s hand — on Dec. 22, 1895. The discovery was quickly applied to medicine, although the need to limit X-ray exposure was discovered later. The unit of ionizing X-ray radiation still bears Röntgen’s name.
6. Cosmic Background Radiation Image Confirms Big Bang
First predicted in 1948 as a product of the Big Bang origin of the universe, scientists first detected this omni-directional background “hiss” in 1965. A big revelation came in 1992, however, when a research team studying satellite data mapped out tiny fluctuations in temperature in the cosmic microwave background radiation. In effect, researchers had discovered evidence confirming the Big Bang theory of the early universe. Astrophysicist George Smoot, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the project, proclaimed, “if you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”
5. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 Hits Jupiter
In July 1994, the world watched in amazement as fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter. This marked the first time astronomers witnessed such a collision and the event drew so much interest from the public it crashed the very early Internet. Predictions about what would happen varied wildly, from dramatic flashes visible to the naked eye, to nothing at all. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope witnessed the spectacle, revealing a string of angry black scars that persisted for weeks. The episode made many scientists rethink the role of such impacts in shaping the solar system, and even Jupiter’s status as a “cosmic goal-keeper” of sorts in blocking debris from impacting Earth.
4. ‘Horse in Motion’ Photos a Precursor to Early Cinema
Does a horse ever have all four feet off of the ground at a full gallop? Eadweard Muybridge set out to answer that debate in 1878, resulting in the above series of stop-action photos. Viewed in succession, the photos were in essence the first motion picture ever made.
3. ‘Drama of Life Before Birth’ Photos Amaze World
Lennart Nilsson’s 1965 photo essay in LIFE magazine provided a never-before-seen look at life in the womb, with tiny fetuses looking both familiar and alien at the same time. The images in the Drama of Life Before Birth feature amazed the world. What many didn’t realize, however, was that many of the images were of fetuses that were terminated for a variety of reasons.
2. First Atomic Bomb Explosions Produce Awe, Fear
The explosion of the first atomic bomb over Trinity Site in White Sands, N.M., ushered in the atomic age. Images of mushroom clouds from those early atomic tests and the horrific damage inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced both great awe and fear in the scientific community. As Manhattan Project technical director J. Robert Oppenheimer noted years later, watching that Trinity blast reminded him of ancient Hindu scripture involving the god Vishnu: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
1. Early Images of Earth from Space
Possessing more of an artistic appeal rather than true scientific value, the first images of Earth from space snapped by the Apollo astronauts gave us a true vision of our home world and our civilization as one, a colorful oasis hung against a black abyss. Apollo 8 astronauts snapped the now-famous “Earthrise” coming from around the farside of the Moon, and Apollo 17 astronauts snapped the above full-frame image of the Earth on Dec. 7, 1972. This also led to later images of the Earth from afar, most notably Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” image of the Earth taken by Voyager 2 in 1990.