Engineering’s unexpected and microscopical beauty

We know that engineering is functional, useful, and even innovative. The engineering photographic competition that we hold every year gives us the opportunity to explore beyond its practical aspect and find beauty, humor, and even humanism to find unexpected resonance and poetic connections.

As a judge, I am looking for images that have a sense of depth, richness, and the ability to trigger an array of ideas. This year, a few photos had an unplanned theme of underwater photography.

The winner appeared to be an echinoderm (above). A column was covered with corals and barnacles, possibly from a pier.

Concrete Crack Bridge for self-Healing. Tanvir Qureshi, winner of the electron microscopy award. Cambridge UniversityCC BY-NC-SA

There was also a ghost fish that looked like it could be found in Challenger Deep.

Web of Science I, by Christian Hoecker. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

The images were not of the things they claimed to be: they were of graphene and carbon nanotubes, but they are similar in appearance to other forms found in nature.

The winning picture shows a beautiful pentagonal shape. I teach geometry, and I ask my audience: “When was the last time you saw a pentagon?” These shapes are quite rare. You can find them in passionfruit blossoms or on one of the world’s most famous buildings. Pentagons are a rare sight in nature, and this is a beautiful example.

Extrapolated Art II by Yarin gal, winner of the second prize. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

The second prize was awarded to a reimagining of van Gogh’s painting as he might have painted it if he had used a larger canvas. A computer algorithm uses mathematics to analyze a pattern or style and then extrapolates that to cover a larger space. This video demonstrates how machine learning is affecting our daily lives. From deleting spam emails to recommending products or content on websites, this new science has become a part of our everyday life.

Anthony Rubinstein Baylis, Francis the Engineer. Third prize winner. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

Francis, the Engineer, won the third prize for his image, which represented the human side of engineering. Children’s smiles show not only happiness but also relief that their basic need for drinking water has been met. It’s not just about nanotubes, jet engines and smartphones.

James Griffith, Fractured Rainbows – Mode II Cracks In Glass I. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

Glass shear patterns are striking. They look like flowing lava or molten sweets. There are even hints of rainbows in the rich red.

Stretch and Swirl, by Dhiren mistry. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

Fluid dynamics’ similar image of swirling and stretching flames reminds me how much I enjoy watching bonfires flicker. But, it is frozen so that you can see their inner structures. paisley patterns are found inside an engine chamber.

Carbon Nanotube Clover Field by Michael De Volder. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

Two images of graphene revealed symmetrical designs of flowers and clover. Four-leaf clovers are a sign of good luck, and these fields look like an architect’s design for futuristic building blocks.

Graphene Flowers II by Mari Ijas. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

The red flowers are six-fold symmetrical, and while we don’t usually give awards to computer images (it’s so much easier to create pretty virtual shapes rather than build them at the microscale), this one impressed us with its interconnecting forms, which represent the flow of electricity across a lattice made from graphene.

Natural Engineer in The Field II by Audrey Hon. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

The photo is of an old bridge that crosses the River Cam behind the Engineering Department in Cambridge. It’s supported by two beams, which are known as “truss beams”. This vertical face between the handrail and the deck is called the “web”. The photo also captures a spider’s web that shares similar structural principles. The flow of tension in the silk is the same as the diagonal steel bars. I think biomimetics can be accompanied with overblown rhetoric. But the simplicity of this image appealed to me.

Calum Williams’s contrasting landscape. Yunuen Montolongo and Jaime Tenorio Pearl. Cambridge UniversityCC BY

The image at nano-scale is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, despite the title. Maybe it’s the place where they dry planets before releasing them into space. It’s interesting how an image so small can easily conjure up the idea of something vast. Maybe we’ve got the microscope in the wrong direction.

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