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.

By Michael Greshko
Published 7 Dec 2020, 10:38 GMT
Scientists are still trying to track down the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the greater horseshoe bat, ...

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.

Photograph by Craig Cutler, National Geographic

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, whilst 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 favourite 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 facts, or whizz-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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