Don's diary: show-stoppers and stoppers on show

September 19, 2003

June 3 2003
Returning from a conference in the US, I discover that the departmental computer refuses to recognise me. A computer wizard assures me that it is easy to fix, but he rapidly dissolves into incomprehensible technical mumbo and his facial expression does not bode well. Luckily, my paper diary reveals that I have to be up early tomorrow to go to London to be a judge on the panel of the Visions of Science Photographic Awards.

At the station early only to find my train has been cancelled but the one before is running late. Even in my jet-lagged state, I realise this means I am ahead. A red light a mile out of the station destroys this happy thought. At Paddington, I join thousands of hot commuters on the "Bakingloo" line and begin to appreciate that Oxford rush hour is a relatively pleasant experience.

With 605 photos to judge and only seven hours available, we have less than a minute per image - and that's without including time for discussion and voting. To help us see them clearly, the curtains are drawn so the room looks as it would at 4am, which is what my body clock still thinks it is.

We start with 20 images from people aged 16 and under. All are high quality and many are stunning. What will the professional entries be like? We go through them quickly (five seconds each) and if any gets a yes from three or more judges it goes on to the shortlist for further discussions. The panel includes research scientists, professional photographers and picture editors. The perception of what constitutes a prizewinner is varied. Is a picture of a rainbow showing beautiful interference patterns more or less worthy than a subtle rainbow formed by a waterfall? The former will make more visual impact, but the waterfall image is truly novel and has captured some fascinating physical details.

Our timekeeping threatens to match that of my morning train. An urgent reassessment of the schedule ensues. Decide that we have to be ruthless. Even so, we are unable to reduce the next shortlist to fewer than ten. One is an almost abstract image of test tubes, taken from above, with rubber bungs sealing them. This produces the pun of the day: "If you're going to show stoppers, it's not a show-stopper."

Lunch break
A chance to talk with the other judges about what makes a good photograph and to discuss philosophical questions such as: what, given that computers can change coloration and highlights, is the distinction between a photograph and abstract art? Having developed a communal sense of what makes one of a hundred quality images outstanding, we become more efficient in the afternoon.

By the end of the day, we have selected some stunning images with a remarkable degree of unanimity. Some pieces are pure art, inspired by science. Others show the beauty hidden from our senses that is revealed by specialist instruments. Any of these images is worth more than a thousand words. Go and see for yourself.

Frank Close is professor of theoretical physics at Exeter College, Oxford.

The winners of the Visions of Science Photographic Awards will be announced at the Royal Society on September 23 . They will be exhibited nationwide, starting at The Science Museum on October 13.

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