Going with the Glow

Photo by Xiaohan Wang Note: This image has been digitally enhanced to make the colors more vibrant.

Xiaoham Wang first noticed the impressive central band of the Milky Way Galaxy. Stopping to take the photograph shown above, he noticed the image also had airglow bands,which were quite prominent spanning the entire sky.

What is airglow? Airglow is a layer of nighttime light emissions caused by chemical reactions high in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is caused by a variety of reactions involving oxygen, sodium and OH molecules (oxygen bonded to hydrogen).

Airglow is an example of chemiluminescence – the production of light in a chemical reaction.

Unlike Auroras airglows happen all of the time anywhere in the world, but they are usually hard to see. A disturbance — like an approaching storm — may cause noticeable rippling in the Earth’s atmosphere. The bands and patches of an airglow can shift and vary over minutes.

Green light from excited oxygen atoms dominates the glow. Another airglow component is the familiar yellow light from sodium atom.  Excited OH molecules emit red light.

Here are some other beautiful examples:

Airglow fan near Milky Way Galaxy above lake next to Bryce Canyon in Utah Photo by Dave Lane
Airglow in Loveland Pass Colorado by Bryce Bradford/fFlickr.com
Airglow in the skies over Tibet. Photo by Jeff Dai following some powerful



A Single Atom of Strontium

If you paid attention in science class you know that atoms make up everything. They’re the smallest unit of matter and everything you’ve ever touched, felt, or breathed is made up of matter, include your own body. They’re so small, in fact, that actually seeing an individual atom is pretty much impossible without the use of high-powered microscopes. I say “pretty much,” because there is apparently an exception to that rule and a truly remarkable photo showing a single atom captured in space has been awarded first prize in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s annual science photography competition.

The photographer, David Nadlinger, is a quantum physics student at the University of Oxford.

Photo credit: David Nadlinger Univ Oxford EPSRC

In the centre of the picture, a small bright dot is visible – a single positively-charged strontium atom. It is held nearly motionless by electric fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet color, the atom absorbs and re-emits light sufficient for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph.

Here’s a close-up of the single atom. Credit: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford/EPSRC

For a sense of scale the two electrodes on each side of the tiny dot are only two millimeters apart. The photograph was captured in a device called an ion trap.   To prevent the atom from zooming off, the trap employs an ultra-high vacuum chamber.

Pretty amazing. David Nadlinger has shattered the boundary between our reality, and the nanoscopic matter that shapes it.


A Rare Find in Tasmania

The spotted handfish is one of the world’s most endangered marine fish, having undergone a massive decline in recent decades.

Handfish grow up to 5” long, and have skin covered with tooth-like scakes, giving them the alternate name warty anglers. They get their name from the way they used their pectoral (side) fins like hands to grip the bottom. They rarely swim – they prefer to walk along the bottom on their fins feeding on small invertebrates.

Once relatively common, red handfish have become scarce in recent years, probably due to habitat loss and changing sea conditions.

Divers in Tasmania have discovered a new population of red handfish. The newly discovered colony could double their total population to 80 individuals.

This very rare red handfish has two color morphs – one a brilliant red with bluish and white fin margins, the other mottled pink with reddish spots and patches on the body and fins.

Photo by Rick Stuart/Reef Live Survey

Threats to red handfish include poaching for use as pets.  Also its low reproductive rate and low dispersal rate have raised fears of extinction.

Hopefully, the discovery of this second population means the red handfish has an alternative destiny ahead of it.

Here’s a short video by Michael Baron of two red handfish on the move:

A Tribute to Audubon

Nineteenth-century naturalist, ornithologist, and artist John James Audubon lived the later years of his life in northern Manhattan, in what is now the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem. Audubon is best known for his comprehensive book, The Birds of America, which was accompanied by beautiful, detailed illustrations of many of the birds.

Illustrated page from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Photo by Susie Cushner

Today, visitors to Hamilton Heights will discover a series of amazing murals that honor Audubon while bringing attention to the effects of climate change on North America’s bird populations. Known as the Audubon Mural Project, the murals are a collaborative effort of the National Audubon Society and Gitler & ______Gallery (yes, that’s the gallery’s actual name – there is an underlined blank space).

This spray-painted menagerie graces roll-down gates and barren walls with permission of willing property owners. Here are a few examples:

Bay breasted warbler semipalmated plover by Fifty/FFTY Photo by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Western Bluebird at 1614 Amsterdam, NYC Artist: Shawn Bullen Photo: Hillary Eggers/Audubon
Anhinga at 3458 Broadway, NYC Artist: Lexi Bella Photo: Hillary Eggers Audubon
Spotted owl at 3841 Broadway, NYC Artist: Paul Nassar Photo: Hillary Eggers/Audubon
Roseate spoonbill at 3541 Broadway, NYC
Artist: Danielle Mastrion Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

Elsewhere, Audubon himself is rendered in flesh tones and with mutton-chop sideburns, staring curiously at a cerulean warbler on his shoulder with neither his rifle nor palette at hand.

John James Audubon contemplating the Cerulean Warbler at 601 W. 149th NYC Artist: Tom Sanford Photo : Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The National Audubon Society’s website has a map showing the location of each mural. The website also serves as an excellent guide for a tour of the murals, as it gives much more information about each one, including an explanation of how the birds are being affected by climate change and some remarks by each artist about their art.


Check out this video of Damien Mitchell creating a mural of a peregrine falcon for the Audubon Mural Project:

Planthopper Fiber Optics Display

Leafhoppers, treehoppers and planthoppers have the most aerodynamic-shaped body in the insect world. All of them are strong jumpers that can move with equal ease forwards, backwards, or sideways like a crab. The crab-like motion distinguishes hoppers from most other insects.

They also come in many shapes and colors with over 12,500 varities worldwide.

Photo by Robert Oelman
A Heranice miltoglupta treehopper Robert Oelman
Treehopper Membracis mexicana Robert Oelman

The beautiful insect shown below is a planthopper nymph. During the span of time after it hatches and before it becomes fully mature, the planthopper nymph secretes a waxy substance from its abdomen that gives its tail the look of a colorful fiber optic display. It serves as a defense from predators who are somewhat hypnotized by the effect.

Night photograph by Melvyn Yeo

As the planthopper gets ready to do its favorite thing — hop around — it moves the waxy threads into a sleek line.

Waxy protrusion on a planthopper nymph Photo by Melvyn Yeo
Photo by Frank Canon
Walking planthopper nymph found in Colombia Photo by Robert Oelman

It moves ever so slowly before making a great leap, and it can fan the threads back out for an extra boost while it’s in the air.

Treehopper Credit: chinKC/Shutterstock

The final effect is like a dazzling fiber options display.

Science Winners

Five gorgeous examples of science photography.

Fluid Mechanics Credit: Stuart Hirth/New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography

The amazing photograph above shows splashes formed from single drops landing in puddles. Captured over several months, they were photographed in darkness using a high-speed flash to preserve their colors and shapes and then brought together in one image.

Liquid Lace Credit: Phred Peterson/New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography.

This winning photograph shows drops of glycerin and water impacting a thin film of ethanol.  The difference in surface tension creates holes in the drop’s surface making it look like lace.

Growth of agaric toadstool mushroom Credit: Phred Petersen/ Royal Photographic Society.

Another image created by Phred Petersen.  This is a time lapse image showing the progress of an agaric toadstool mushroom as it grows.

Phred Petersen is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator Scientific Photography, School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, a global university of technology and design.

Obelia hydroid Credit: Teresa A. Zgoda

This last photo is a confocal image of a marine organism (obelia hydroid) taken with the 10x objective.  It was a winner from the 2016 International Images for Science competition.

Confocal cross section view of a dandelion showing curved stigma with pollen. Credit: Dr. Robert Markus

Just one more – an honorable mention from 2017 Nikon Small World Competition.