Guest post from Tom Branson

Last month’s Nobel prizes gave the world some new chemical heroes, but have also given me an opportunity to delve into the art of how to become a winner. Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner shared the prize in chemistry for ‘the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’, which sounds, and indeed is, a very photogenic area of chemistry.

Through my exhaustive research of the prize winners’ websites, I found a handy list of journal covers on the Moerner group site. The other prize winners show off impressive lists of publications, but no helpful collection of cover art for me to plunder. So my apologies to Betzig and Hell: you may have Nobel prizes, but that doesn’t quite cut it here. Instead, let’s concentrate on Moerner and see what journal cover art can teach us about becoming a champion of science.

Moerner’s website shows nine journal covers, although it is not clear if this is an exhaustive list of the group’s artistic career. From this list, we can see that Moerner has a rough average of one journal cover per 38 articles published. Just for comparison, I’ve published a whopping three articles and had one featured on a journal cover, a much better conversion rate than Moerner. So does this totally non-scientific analysis suggest that I might be a dark horse for next year’s prize?

The most recent cover shown on Moerner’s website is from an article published last year in Nano Letters. A rather powerful magnifying glass is shown looking down at some fluorescing molecules and a large shaking arrow. A simple image that illustrates the crux of the work very nicely. There is more to see here than just pretty colours: the paper stresses the importance of analysing the oscillating behaviour of the molecules in order to achieve the best resolution with your magnifying glass microscope.

Another image from the Moerner group made it to the front of Nature Chemistry in 2010. Now this one, I really like. A pile of film rolls is shown with proteins captured in a new position on each frame, firing off bright reds and yellows. This is pretty much exactly what actually happens in the experiments. The camera-friendly proteins are very elegantly portrayed here on old Kodak film roll, probably because this is somewhat easier to imagine and more iconic than the digital storage relied upon in today’s techniques. The specific protein shown is allophycocyanin, a photosynthetic antenna protein that the group tracked, monitoring changes in florescence by using an anti-Brownian electrokinetic trap.

That same issue of Nature Chemistry features an editorial all about cover art. The editorial gave some tips as to what makes an attractive image and are open enough to admit that what really matters ‘is that you impress the editorial and production teams, who all get to have their say – and, in particular, the art editor.’ So just like the Nobel prizes themselves, where everyone has their own opinion, what counts in the end is to impress the judges.

The Nature Chemistry masterpiece wasn’t Moerner’s first high impact cover. Research from his group featured on the front of Science back in 1999 where some less-than-groundbreaking graphics, were used to highlight some definitely-groundbreaking research. His work has also featured on the covers of Nature Structural Biology and the Biophysical journal.

As for my own Nobel prize aspirations, I should aim to see my work on the front of a few more journals, for which I think I’ll need to publish a few more articles. I also assume the Nobel selection committee are not as easily dazzled by pretty pictures as I am. The road to Nobel prizedom may not be paved with covers, but showing off your artwork surely helps along the way.

If you come across some cover art that you believe to be prize winning material, or are simply seeking shameless self-promotion, then please get in touch with me in the comments or on Twitter (@TRBranson).

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How to win a Nobel Prize, cover by cover, 8.8 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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