Pitted chasms turn out to be vinyl records, chaotic piles of rubble are actually snowflakes and a tangled forest of fibers is humble denim. Everyday objects and creatures can take on an entirely different perspective when they’re magnified by factors in the hundreds. Read on to see how many of these 40 images you can decipher…
So who has been hard at work doing some spinning? The answer is a spider, and this is a much-magnified image of the silken strands of a cobweb. A scanning electron microscope has created this photograph. It presents a surprisingly chaotic picture given the neat precision of most spiders’ webs when viewed at full size.
These elegant curlicues are the flower stigmas of a dandelion, dusted with tiny flecks of pollen. Fun fact: the word dandelion derives from the Old French dent-de-lioun meaning “lion’s tooth.” Think about the spiky yellow flowers that dandelions sport and perhaps you can see a lion’s tooth. Although, come to think of it, perhaps not.
Much as this looks like a pile of broken-up builders’ waste, in fact you’re looking at a massively magnified snowflake. Of course, a snowflake is nothing more than frozen water, which makes this image all the more astonishing. Next time you’re out when it’s snowing just think of what exactly is falling on you. Fortunately snowflakes are very light – unlike rubble.
This might look like a large array of little pink tongues, but that’s not what it is. Actually, it’s a single tongue, one that belongs to a cat. All the same, if you have a pet kitty, we very strongly recommend that you don’t try to closely inspect its tongue. Despite domestication, cats are still carnivores and predators. As such, they’re capable of biting hard.
These irregular pebble-like shapes are what you see if you put corn starch under a powerful electron microscope. A versatile additive, it is used for everything from thickening various foodstuffs to making wallpaper paste. Cast your mind back to the gravy served at the high school canteen and wallpaper paste may make a lot of sense.
35. Seed pod
Karin Jones posted this extraordinary photograph on Flickr in 2007. It looks for all the world like some kind of ghostly fish head. But it’s not; it’s an image of a snapdragon seed pod captured via an electron microscope. Obviously, snapdragons have nothing to do with fish heads. But funnily enough, they’re said to get their name from the resemblance of their flowers to dragons’ heads.
Here we have something that comes from outer space – a meteorite fragment no less. And who would have guessed that a rock from millions of miles away would appear thus in close-up? The rainbow palette of colors creates a stunningly vivid picture. You might think it looks like an abstract version of a stained glass window in a church.
Rosemary, a delicious herb that goes beautifully with a joint of roast lamb. But if you cut through the stem and photograph it with the aid of a strong microscope, this is what you see. The magnification means you can easily make out the actual cellular structure of the plant. Will this everyday herb ever taste the same again?
If the bottom of your car or boat looks like this, you’re in trouble. Because what we’re seeing here is a close-up of metal fatigue. Specifically, it’s metal that’s been attacked by iron oxide or, as it’s more commonly known, rust. This is actually an image of a rusting machine spring. It must have been exposed to water, the bane of all unprotected metal.
After a dandelion has produced its yellow bloom – annoyingly if it’s in the middle of your pristine lawn – its spores develop. The round puffball that appears is made up of hundreds of little seeds with tails and these are the plant’s spores. And yes, this is what one looks like if you give it some extreme magnification.
You’d probably be hard-pressed to guess the identity of this alien-looking beast from the image alone. But we’re here to tell you that you’re actually looking at an ant’s head. It’s much magnified thanks to the use of an electron microscope: this clever piece of kit has enlarged the tiny critter’s head by a factor of 140 to turn it into a fearsome monster.
This motley collection of spiky balls, various football-shaped objects and assorted thingamabobs is… what? Surprisingly, displayed here is a collection of pollen from different plants. Among the species shown are castor oil plant, morning glory, evening primrose and sunflower. All common enough garden plants, but seen in a quite different light here.
28. Giant ball
Of course it’s not a giant ball at all, it’s a tiny one ferociously magnified. And it sits at the end of something that you probably have in your pocket or on your desk, a ballpoint pen. These commonplace objects were first sold in Gimbels department store in New York City in 1945. After that they quickly replaced old-fashioned fountain pens as the favored writing tools of millions around the world.
27. Our daily bread
Actually you’d truly hope that this was not a representation of your daily bread. That’s because what’s displayed here, magnified 1,000 times, is the black mold that can grow all too easily on a neglected loaf. The mold’s scientific name is Rhizopus and there are around ten different species of this notorious food spoiler, which is actually a fungus.
Rather gruesomely this attractively colored image is actually a slice of a section of an unfortunate mouse’s brain. It’s been stained with cresyl violet to better show the detailing in the tiny slice of cerebellum. That latter is the part of the brain that lies to the rear of the main section, at the top of the spine. It’s responsible for maintaining balance.
This gloriously purple image shows a carnation petal as magnified 80 times with a scanning electron microscope. The level of detail is such that you can actually identify the petal’s every individual cell. Scanning electron microscopes generate these miraculous images by running a beam of electrons across a surface to create readable information.
How are these strangely flat-topped mini-ravines related to music? Because the image here is a highly magnified shot of the surface of an old-fashioned vinyl record. Miraculously, when you run a needle across these grooves, music appears as if by magic. We can thank prolific inventor Thomas Edison for the refinement of the grooved record back in 1878. Although the first of them were made of aluminum foil rather than plastic.
This is a picture of a fungus. Its scientific name is quite a mouthful: Trichophyton mentagrophytes. And it’s a life form that causes a condition with which many of us are all too familiar: the dreaded athlete’s foot. Okay, it’s hardly fatal, but it’s surely one of the most irritating – and itchy – minor ailments out there.
It’s Popeye the Sailor Man’s favorite vegetable but he’s probably never seen it looking anything like this. Here we have a slice of a spinach stem magnified ten times. Dubbed by modern nutritionists as a superfood, the leafy green plant is packed with all the right stuff including iron, minerals and vitamins. And if it was good enough for Popeye, it’s good enough for us.
Each one of this pleasing collection of 12 crystalline shapes in this image from 1935 is actually from a snowflake. We don’t mean the easily offended kind, but the actual globules of frozen water that fall from the sky when it’s cold enough. Famously, no single snowflake crystal is ever the same as another. Sadly that turns out to be something of a myth according to a 2014 article in Smithsonian magazine.
Unlikely as it might seem, this is an eyelash, plucked from the eyelid of a human being. It looks more like the hideously pitted skin of some horrific monster lizard. But somebody’s eyelash it is. Why do we even have them? According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s website, “They operate as dust-catchers, protecting the eye from debris that can obstruct vision or cause infection or injury.” Good to know.
19. Scary critter
“A face only a mother could love” was the phrase with which this image was originally captioned. And we could hardly do better than that. With its multi-faceted eyes, bizarrely hairy antennae and grisly mouth parts, this is a true horror to behold. Just what is it? Well, it’s actually the head of one of nature’s least popular creations, the mosquito.
18. Poppy seed
Who doesn’t like a bagel topped with poppy seeds? Precious few, we’d vouch. But after you’ve seen this ten-times magnified close-up of just such a seed, it’s possible that you might revise your opinion. They look rather like some sort of alien egg from which some monstrous beast might hatch at any moment.
This is an image from a creature that lives in the Tubbatah Reefs, a World Heritage marine reserve in the Sulu Sea. The location is just off the coast of the Philippines island of Palawan. And we’re looking at the strangely graceful tentacles of a sea anemone. Scientists know this particular species as Entacmaea quadricolor, the rest of us call it the bubble-tip anemone.
Why, you might well ask, would someone want to use their microscope to take a photo of one of those dishwashing sponges with an added abrasive surface? It’s a fair question. But actually, when you take a look at this image it has an undeniable fascination, even a weird kind of elegance. Until you remember you’re viewing what the original photo description called a “urethane abrasive sponge.”
15. Compound eye
Okay, it’s fairly obvious that this is the compound eye of an insect. But which one? It’s a common wasp, not a creature that many people love thanks to its stinging habit. Yet there’s no doubt that compound eyes are fascinating organs. They’re made up of a large number of individual units which are hexagonal and properly called ommatidia.
You’d be hard-pressed to work out exactly what fabric is shown in this image. So we’ll tell you: it’s Harris Tweed. It can only legitimately be called Harris Tweed if it’s made in the Scottish islands of the Outer Hebrides. In the U.K. it’s the woolen cloth favored by posh folk who shoot at grouse or pheasants, or bigger game such as red deer. But it’s not just the reserve of the aristocracy – a jacket tailored from Harris Tweed is especially hard-wearing and worn by people of all classes.
Of course, it’s not a jewel as in a precious stone. It’s a jewel beetle, every bit as amazing as a diamond with its startlingly iridescent hues. Scientists call this multicolored beetle Polybothris sumptuosa gema, and the part of the creature we’re looking at in this shot is the pronotum. That’s the section of the beetle’s back just behind its head.
12. Star sand
Obviously, these are not the stars you can see in the heavens at night. Actually, to see these stars you’ll need to travel to a particular beach in Japan. It’s Hoshizuna no Hama, or Star Sand Beach, on the island of Iriomote. The grains are tiny fossils left by an ancient group of single-celled creatures called Foraminifera.
It looks very much like a series of eggs laid in otherworldly scarlet nests. But what you’re actually looking at in extreme close-up is a strawberry. The “eggs” are the fruit’s miniscule seeds which lie embedded on its surface. It’s a popular fruit. The Statista website reports that in 2019 American farmers grew well over 1 million tons of strawberries. Save some for us!
You might already have used one today at the dining table – but it didn’t look much like this. At least, not to the naked eye. But if you take a common or garden table napkin and stick it under a microscope, this is what you’ll see. It’s a strange landscape pocked with interconnected caverns. It could easily be a scene from a low-budget sci-fi film.
9. Sea squirt
These tiny little critters are light bulb sea squirts. They’re cavorting in the Mediterranean Sea near the French city of La Ciotat. And each Clavelina lepadiformis, to give its scientific name, grows to just about three-quarters of an inch in length. These transparent creatures are common around British shores and they’re present from southern Norway right down to the Mediterranean.
8. A wing
And whose gorgeous wing is this? It belongs to Attacus atlas, the Atlas moth. It’s a giant among its kind, with a wingspan that stretches to almost 11 inches. The caterpillars aren’t exactly tiny either – they can grow to a length of nearly five inches. These fluttering behemoths live in Asia, with their habitat stretching from India to Indonesia.
7. Hazelnut blossom
This pretty photograph is the result of an imaging technology called autofluorescence microscopy. What we’re looking at is the blossom of a hazelnut tree. The American hazelnut, Corylus americana, also sometimes called the filbert, can grow to a height of 16 feet. The nuts are good to eat but hungry squirrels and birds will be grateful if you leave them in the wild.
Jeans, where would we be without them? They’re the casual dress chosen every day by millions of Americans and people all around the world. But this view of denim casts the ubiquitous fabric in an entirely different light. Under the microscope, the cloth reveals its tangled forest of fibers. According to CNN, the good folks of the U.S. splash out on around 450 million pairs of jeans each year.
5. Butterfly wing
This is a highly magnified image of a butterfly’s wing. The species is Papilio ulysses, the Ulysses butterfly, also known as the blue emperor. These delightful creatures feature bright blue, almost turquoise, wings with a broad border of black. They’re found in the tropical forests of Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia, although they sometimes turn up in domestic gardens.
This photograph of what looks like a weird alien forest is actually a close-up of flowering moss. Except that those pink stems with hanging green globules are not actually flowers, they’re sporophytes. They’re kind of the moss equivalent of blossoms, although it gets a lot more complicated than that. In simple terms, the sporophytes will produce spores, allowing the moss to propagate.
3. A foot
This is the foot of a species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, magnified by a factor of 700. The bug is found in various locations including the European country of Georgia, the Spanish island of Madeira in the Atlantic, and southern Russia. The bad news is that it can transmit a variety of unpleasant diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever and Zika virus.
2. Foxtail grass
Here is another image created with a scanning electron microscope. This time we’re looking at a much-magnified piece of a foxtail grass stem enlarged to 300 times life size. Foxtail grasses come in a number of different varieties; generally they’re defined by the fact that they have wispy spikes of flowers.
1. Sodium chloride
There can hardly be a home in America – or elsewhere – that doesn’t have some sodium chloride in the kitchen. It is of course simply salt, a substance that’s been a central part of human life for at least 8,000 years. But who thought it could look so incredible under the microscope’s lens? This multicolored image has been achieved by a technique called polarization microscopy.