Remarkable Image of 'Quantum Droplets' That Bounce Perpetually Wins Science Photography Competition

A "remarkable" image that shows three droplets perpetually bouncing on a vibrating pool of silicone oil has been named the overall winner of the Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition. The image helps provide experimental proof of the "pilot-wave theory," which was first proposed over 90 years ago.

The image—Quantum Droplets—by physicist and photographer Aleks Labuda, shows three silicone oil droplets in a petri dish placed on top of a loudspeaker. This allowed Labuda to capture the wave-particle effects.

"This photograph represents experimental proof of the theoretical work in the field of hydrodynamic quantum analogs," he said in a statement. "These silicone oil droplets are bouncing indefinitely above a vibrating pool of silicone oil at 15 Hz.

"The surface waves generated by the droplets are analogous to quantum mechanical waves that guide the dynamics of quantum particles. While the droplets move like quantum particles, they behave like quantum waves. The droplets' wavefields mediate their interactions with their surroundings, with each other, and even with themselves—similarly to electrons in the double-slit experiment."

quantum droplets
Quantum Droplets by Aleks Labuda has been named overall winner of the Royal Society Publishing Photography Competition. Aleks Labuda

Jon Blundy, Professor of Petrology at the University of Bristol and Royal Society Fellow, was one of the judges for this year's competition. He said the panel picked Labuda's photo because of its aesthetics and what it represents. "Not only is it a remarkable, attention-grabbing image with its black and white moody shades and sharp highlights, but it also has a great scientific back-story in terms of quantum hydrodynamics," he said in a statement. "In the best tradition of great science photos, the viewer is simultaneously bewildered by the image and then astounded by the story behind it."

Labuda's image was selected for the Micro-Imaging category of the competition. The other categories included Ecology and Environmental Science, Earth Science and Climatology, Behavior and Astronomy.

For Astronomy, the winning image was by Mikhail Kapychka and showed an "unusual lunar halo" that forms under certain conditions. He said frosty weather and high humidity can lead to a large number of ice crystals in the air. These refract the light in a certain way, producing the halo effect. The runner-up in the astronomy category was James Orr with his image of New Zealand's Mount Taranaki volcano, with the Milky Way and two dwarf galaxies called "Magellanic Clouds" above it.

The Behavior category was won by Daniel Field for his image of two mudskippers fighting over territory in the Mai Po wetlands of Hong Kong. The runner-up was Eduardo Sampaio for a photograph of a jellyfish-fish association. In the image, a fish is feeding on the jellyfish while also guarding it against other predators. "Given the length and thickness of these tentacles, together with the fact that jellyfish can regenerate its cells at a considerable speed, this interaction can be sustained for several days," he said.

The Earth Science and Climatology category was won by Lauren Marchant for her shot Twister in the Yukon. "A funnel cloud forms when water droplets are drawn in from the surrounding area by a rotating column of wind, making a region of intense low pressure visible to the human eye," she said. "Most tornados begin as funnel clouds. However, this funnel cloud never made contact with the ground and therefore could not be classified as a tornado."

Twister in the Yukon
Twister in the Yukon by Lauren Marchant. The cloud never touched ground so is not considered a tornado. Lauren Marchant

The runner-up in this category was Tom Shlesinger, who captured an image of carbon dioxide fizzing from the seafloor next to coral reefs. These natural volcanic seeps raise the acidity levels of the surrounding water, providing an insight into what could happen in the future under current climate change projections.

fizzing sea
CO2 coming from a vent on the seafloor. This "natural laboratory" allows scientists to study how corals might react to future conditions under future climate change scenarios. Tom Shlesinger

Another coral reef image was selected as the winner of the Ecology and Environmental Science category. In his photograph, Morgan Bennett-Smith captured a young clownfish in the tentacles of a sea anemone that had been bleached. "While reef-building corals may be the most direct victims of coral reef bleaching events, other species can be similarly affected. Some sea anemones, for example, also expel their colorful symbionts during periods of climatic stress," he said.

Abhijeet Bayani's image of the paper wasp Ropalidia marginata was named runner-up in this category. This species, found in southern India, builds its nest in hidden places to avoid Vespa tropica, a species of hornet that preys on the wasp. His image shows a female standing guard. "Having vigilant females on their nests can only alarm other nestmates but they do not impede Vespa from foraging on their brood. I found this out when I took this picture inside a tubelight panel and was stung by several vigilant soldiers," he said.