The best science pictures of 2020

Asteroids, microbes, and, of course, coronavirus: These photographs capture a year in which science has been championed—and challenged—in unprecedented ways.

Photograph by Spencer Lowell, National Geographic
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With a firm yet delicate grip, a robot hand at the Robotics and Biology Laboratory at the Technical University of Berlin uses pneumatic fingers to pick up a flower with human-like dexterity. Recent advances have brought robots closer than ever to mimicking human abilities.

Photograph by Spencer Lowell, National Geographic

The best science pictures of 2020

Asteroids, microbes, and, of course, coronavirus: These photographs capture a year in which science has been championed—and challenged—in unprecedented ways.

Though most lives have been shaken by the global pandemic, documenting the year of COVID-19 has been a particular challenge for photographers, hindering travel and making work more dangerous for them and their subjects.

But for Kurt Mutchler, National Geographic’s head science photo editor, 2020 also presented a unique opportunity: to showcase the extraordinary science photography for which National Geographic is known, while telling the story of a global community that’s facing incredible adversity—yet keeps reaching for the stars.

As is so often the case in photography, some of Mutchler’s favorite science images this year are products of excellent timing: Consider how tiny the International Space Station appears before the enormous, glowing disk of the sun. In other standout images, our sense of proportion is stretched to reveal the inner workings of the impossibly small, large, or distant. Ever wondered what an asteroid’s surface, a clownfish embryo, or the microbes within a kiss look like up close? Wonder no more.

For Mutchler, the most important science images of 2020 revolved around a photographic subject just some 120 nanometers wide: SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to documenting the heroic, heartbreaking human response to the virus, photographers even managed to capture the virus itself, thanks to Nobel Prize-winning technology that relies on flash-frozen water and electron beams. “I’m blown away by that,” Mutchler says.

More than anything, 2020 has reminded us that science isn’t just a collection of intriguing factoids, or whiz-bang technologies to behold: It’s a way of understanding the world around us, where advances—and stumbles—affect us all. Every image that Mutchler has selected this year speaks to science’s fundamental humanity, he says. “It seems that science is under threat. But it permeates through every single thing in our lives.”

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For more than two decades, Ohio University paleontologist Lawrence Witmer has run frozen animal carcasses—here, a Siamese crocodile—through the CT scanners of Ohio’s O’Bleness Hospital. These new data have helped spark a revolution in scientists' understanding of extinct dinosaurs.

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In an ambitious game of galactic tag, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft reached out and touched the asteroid Bennu on October 20. The spacecraft scooped up a bit of material, departing seconds later with rocks and dust that date back to the solar system’s birth.

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The capsule from Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft sits next to its reentry parachute after landing in the Australian outback on December 6. The capsule contains 100 milligrams of rock and dust that Hayabusa2 collected from the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu in July 2019.

 

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On August 2, support teams arrived in the Gulf of Mexico to pick up the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on board. Endeavour is the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to deliver astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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In the January 2020 issue, National Geographic explored how the trillions of microbes living in and on us shape our very nature. This richly-textured image shows a blooming microbial colony cultivated from a woman's lips. People who often kiss each other will develop similarities in their oral microbiomes.

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Some roboticists create machines that imitate and resemble humans in detail. An example is Harmony, an expressive talking head that incorporates artificial intelligence and attaches to a silicone and steel sex doll.

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Thanks to a Nobel Prize-winning microscope technique known as cryo-EM, researchers at England's MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology imaged 2D slices of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. Computers then combined thousands of these slices to yield a 3D model of the virus—an essential step toward making safe vaccines.

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A march of black dots against a glowing disk, the International Space Station transits the sun in this composite image taken from Virginia. On November 2, the ISS celebrated 20 continuous years of human habitation, a milestone of human space exploration.

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The furnaces at SSAB America's steel mill in Montpelier, Iowa, are electric and by 2022, the company says, they'll be heated by renewable energy. The iron and steel industry, which usually relies on coal, currently accounts for about 7 percent of global CO2 emissions.

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During surgery at UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, patient Brent Bauer eases his pain during orthopedic surgery by playing a virtual reality (VR) game called SnowWorld. Bauer, who broke several bones in a three-story fall, had one stabilizing pin removed from his pelvis without VR. “That got very intense,” he said. The other was removed while he was engrossed in the VR game. “It was a very pleasant distraction,” he noted, “and the pain was a lot less.”

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Scientists are still trying to track down the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the greater horseshoe bat, pictured here, has been mentioned as a possible host. This preserved sample of Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, was collected in Uzbekistan in 1921.

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A trial volunteer is injected with a refrigerated COVID-19 vaccine developed at the University of Oxford in England. The photographer used a thermal imaging camera to reflect how body temperature may indicate the presence of coronavirus infection. Temperatures are converted into a gradient of colors, ranging from cool blues to warm oranges.

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Photographer Daniel Knop stacked five images of a clownfish embryo to illustrate stages of its development, from hours after fertilization to hours before hatching. This image won second place in the Nikon 46th annual Small World Photomicrography Competition.

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Physician Gerald Foret dons a protective mask before seeing COVID-19 patients at Our Lady of the Angels Hospital in Bogalusa, Louisiana.

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Vitaly Napadow, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, studies how the brain perceives pain. To do that, he uses electroencephalography to track the brain wave patterns of patients with chronic lower back pain.

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Nestled in a lava field on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, this carbon-negative greenhouse holds up to 130,000 barley plants growing in inert volcanic pumice. Orf Genetics raises the engineered grain to make human growth factors used in such applications as cosmetics to rejuvenate skin. Geothermal energy and heat are supplied by the neighboring Svartsengi Power Station.

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Unable to find a usable vein in his arm, Fernando Irizarry asked an acquaintance to inject a slurry of discarded drugs into his neck. Like many people, Fernando Irizarry’s opioid addiction began with pain medications he took after an accident. He invited photographer David Guttenfelder to observe his life on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of a story on pain in the January issue.

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Five robust woodpeckers (Campephilus robustus) fill a drawer in the collections of the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires. Museums help keep the records of modern biodiversity—and the story they tell is concerning. In 2018, Birdlife International reported a 40-percent decline of the world's 11,000 bird species.