by Antonino Napoleone, Giuseppe Scarlata | April 10, 2021.

This year began on the one hand with a dazzling succession of events and extraordinary scientific discoveries, but on the other hand, it did not leave behind the complicated health situation caused by the pandemic. Last March was at the centre of worldwide media attention for various reasons, both positive and negative at the same time, which arrived in real time on our screens without filters. The contact and direct effect of social networks have amplified the resonance and accessibility of information and news, which have now reached a coverage that extends to all geographical areas of the planet at the speed of a click. This effect was particularly tangible last month, which not only marked the start of spring but also saw a series of unprecedented scientific and/or natural international events. For this reason, the renowned scientific journal Nature decided to publish a collection of extraordinary photos, from the brain cell bouquet to the first shots from Mars. Nature’s photo team was certainly full of choices, but looking at the images in the gallery, some thoughts flash to mind almost immediately. How fast is scientific and technological innovation moving? The microscopic and macroscopic universe are two sides of the same coin that still have much to reveal and whose fascination will never cease to motivate and feed the desire for study and discovery. How far will we push the human boundaries of knowledge and exploration?
ScienceRely featured prominently Scientific photography in previous articles (read also: Etna, geology and beauty of Europe’s highest volcano), underlining the importance of scientific communication through illustrations and contents that are not confined only to laboratories but can be enjoyed by everyone. So let’s enjoy the most beautiful scientific snapshots of March 2021.

1. The brain cell bouquet

This image was captured using confocal microscopy by Sumana Shrestha, PhD in Paediatric Tumour Biology, at the Cancer Institute of London. This shot was one of the favourites among the supporters of the annual science and medical imaging competition of the ICR (Institute of Cancer Research, UK). The image shows embryonic stem cells that are destined to become brain cells. The cells are arranged in flower-like rings or ‘neural rosettes’ – with columns projecting outwards. In a developing embryo, these structures eventually generate the brain and spinal cord. Rosettes are involved in the development of some brain tumours, and understanding them could pave the way for the development of new drugs to treat brain cancer.

Credit: Sumana Shrestha
2. Big bird

This stunning shot was captured by James Crombie, a well-known sports photographer in the UK with a passion for nature photography. In the image, hundreds of starlings have gathered above Lough Ennell in County Westmeath, Ireland, in a spectacular murmur that photographer James Crombie captured on 3 March. The birds are nesting in the reeds around the lake, and take flight every four or five days around sunset. Crombie took hundreds of photographs to capture this “perfect” shot, a moment when the flock in flight took the form of a giant bird in motion.

Credit: INPHO/James Crombie

3. Rocket stacking

The title of the photo is “rocket stacking” and shows NASA engineers in action as they assemble twin booster rockets for the massive Space Launch System (SLS), the first deep-space rocket since the Saturn V, which sent the first astronauts to the moon. Since November, workers have been using a huge crane to vertically stack the booster segments at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (pictured). The boosters will eventually be attached to the 65-metre-long central stage of the rocket, which is being tested at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St Louis in Mississippi. NASA is developing the SLS as part of its Artemis space programme, which aims to land the first woman, and the next man, on the Moon by 2024.

Credit: NASA

4. Stuck in the mud

This image is familiar to everyone, showing a huge container ship that blocked one of the world’s busiest trade routes for several weeks when it got stuck diagonally across the Suez Canal. The 400-metre-long Ever Given container ship belonging to the Evergreen Marine fleet is among the largest ships in the world. It ran aground on the 23rd of March amid strong winds and a sandstorm that complicated the crew’s operations. Efforts to free the 200,000-tonne ship lasted days and involved several tugs pushing and pulling the vessel, while dredgers worked to extract sand from under the bow and stern. Hundreds of other ships, including more than 20 oil tankers, were delayed by the blockade of the Suez Canal. Its effects on global shipping are difficult to estimate, especially economically, and could take several months to be resolved.

Credit: Maxar Technologies/Getty
5. Ghost town

On the 11th of March, Japan marked the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which caused the notorious Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster. In this photo taken by James Whitlow Delano, weeds are seen surrounding an abandoned van in Futaba, the town closest to the nuclear meltdown site in Fukushima prefecture. The entire population of the town was evacuated after the disaster, and most of the affected area has remained uninhabitable since then, giving the impression of being in a ghost town. Clean-up efforts are underway, and the Japanese government hopes that some areas will be liveable again by 2022. It is a thought-provoking photo that brings back memories of the terrible nuclear disaster, classified as level 7 according to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES, a scale whose levels range from 0, a deviation or anomaly, to 7, indicating a major nuclear accident), whose effects are still visible today.

Credit: James Wh​itlow Delano/New York Times/Redux/eyevine.
6. Martian panorama

This historic image reveals the landscape of the red planet, Mars. NASA has released the first 360-degree panorama taken by the navigation cameras of the Perseverance Mars rover. The rover is equipped with the Mastcam-Z instrument, an advanced dual-camera system that allows zooming, focusing and high-resolution video, as well as colour panoramic photos and 3D images of the Martian surface. This image is the result of a series of 142 images that were combined to create the panoramic shot. Several features of the Martian landscape can be seen, including the edge of Jezero crater, where Perseverance landed on the 18th of February. Over the coming months and years, the rover will travel many kilometres, drilling into different rock types and collecting samples. Future missions are planned to retrieve these samples and bring them back to Earth. In the meantime, the images taken by Perseverance Mars will help scientists assess the geological history and atmospheric conditions on the red planet, in anticipation of new space missions in the future.

Credit: NASA
7. Underwater physics

This is literally underwater physics. Scientists have submerged a neutrino detector in the crystal-clear waters of the world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal in Russia. The Baikal-Gigaton Volume Detector is submerged about one kilometre below the surface, looking for elusive high-energy neutrinos emitted by distant cosmic events. It consists of clusters of spherical glass and stainless steel modules, which hang like strings of pearls and sense the light emitted when neutrinos hit the water. It is a system of 288 modules occupying a space of 500 cubic metres, making it the largest telescope in the northern hemisphere.

Credit: Alexei Kushnirenko/TASS/Getty
8. Bat catchers

This photo shows bat catchers at work. Ecologists Phillip Alviola and Edison Cosico wait beside a net they set up near a bat roost on Mount Makiling in Los Banos, Laguna province in the Philippines. The work is part of a research project that aims to study and help avert potential future pandemics by identifying bat coronaviruses. The researchers wear protective suits in case the bats they study are already carrying diseases that can be transmitted to humans. The aim is to capture thousands of bats over the next three years, taking oral swabs that can be analysed for viral genetic material. The researchers are trying to examine whether this animal species carries other strains of coronavirus that can make a possible species jump and infect humans. Knowing more about the virus itself, and tracing its origin, could help to better understand its biological characteristics and isolate it geographically.

Wider Image: By catching bats, these 'virus hunters' hope to stop the next  pandemic | Reuters
Credit: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Shots like these leave incredible memories and are a unique way of bringing scientific research to a wider audience through illustrations of moments in the laboratory, in the field or even in space. In fact, modern science and research fields range from cells only visible through a microscope, to the most complex living beings, to the study of the universe and planets. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the collection published by Nature, these are not always favourable and positive events, but also catastrophic events, accidents and diseases. In both categories, the ability of photography is to give a unique fascination behind each immortalised event, bringing out unique messages and insights that almost make us identify with the person who took the photo or the subject of the photo. You can also observe and learn a lot from different points of view.

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