Stunning pictures - the best BBC Focus Eye Openers from 2017

Stunning pictures – the best BBC Focus Eye Openers from 2017

In every issue of BBC Focus magazine we pick out some of the most amazing images from around the planet - here are some of our favourites from 2017.

This year has a been a visually vibrant year in science, and I feel we have been able to communicate that through our Eye Opener section. We all have a great time here in Focus Towers going through images to ensure that we use the best and most interesting pictures for our readers. My personal stand-out favourite is of the prototype neutrino detector at CERN, but we’d love to know what yours are – let us know by tweeting us @sciencefocus. Have a merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year – here’s to 2018!


She’s having a bubble!

© Caters News
Kedah, Malaysia 

This is a social wasp belonging to the genus Ropalidia, which is commonly found across southeast Asia. Most insects belonging to this genus produce nests by swarming, in a manner similar to honeybees – an unusual behaviour for wasps. However, in this particular species, a single mated female starts a nest in much the same way that wasps in the UK do.

“In this photo, the female has constructed a paper nest from wood fibres and water – natural papier maché – and in the cells you can see developing larvae. These will turn into adult females that look exactly like their mother queen, but instead of laying eggs, they will become workers, expanding and defending the nest and tending to the eggs and larvae,” said entomologist and BBC presenter Adam Hart. “She has removed water from the open nest using her mouth. Wasps, like their relatives the bees and ants, are scrupulous in keeping conditions in their nests just right for rearing the young.”

Unlike worker wasps in the UK, which remain more or less sterile throughout their lives, Ropalidia workers have the capacity to become breeding females that can replace the mother queen if she is lost.

It takes two to tango

© Roborace
© Roborace

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Painted in the colours of the Argentine capital’s two most famous football teams – River Plate in red and white, and Boca Juniors in yellow and blue – DevBot 1 and 2 race through the city’s streets.

The driverless electric cars, developed by Roborace, need to communicate with each other and continually scan their environment to avoid collision. “It is so exciting to see these vehicles taking appropriate actions in order to guide themselves around the track,” says Roborace CEO Denis Sverdlov.

Roborace hosts the first global championship for driverless cars, and this race on 18 February, watched by cheering crowds, was the first ever display of two autonomous cars on a race course at the same time. Unfortunately, an unexpected living competitor swerved DevBot 1 and 2 off their course: a dog caught up in the excitement broke through the barriers, which ended one car’s race with a crash. Thankfully the cars’ systems were advanced enough to avoid the canine intruder completely.

Tunnel vision

© Shao Feng/Li Xiang Architect
© Shao Feng/Li Xiang Architect

Zhen Yuan, China

This seemingly infinite corridor of books leads to the entrance of the Yangzhou Zhongshuge bookshop in Zhen Yuan, southern China. The avant-garde architecture is the creation of designer Li Xiang of Shanghai-based architects XL-MUSE, and takes inspiration from the nearby Qiantang river.

Black tiles made from polished stone line the floor, which is intended to represent the reflective surface of the water. Meanwhile, the specially designed curved floor-to-ceiling bookshelves represent the many bridges that span the river.

“Yangzhou Zhongshuge is located in Zhen Yuan, which is next to the waterside and in front of the trees,” says a spokesperson for XL-MUSE. “We added the arched bridge, an indispensable element of this historical and cultural ancient city, in our design concept as it used to be the guiding factor of culture and commerce. It represents that the bookstore is the bond between humans and books.”

Strange things are afoot

© Steve Gschmeissner/RPS
© Steve Gschmeissner/RPS

This alien-like appendage is the foot, or tarsus, of a mosquito. While mozzies’ legs may not look like much to the naked eye, this scanning electron micrograph image was taken at 800 times magnification to reveal the tarsus’ intricate microstructure. Incredibly, each of the bizarre-looking formations serves a particular purpose.

“The two tarsal claws that are clearly visible allow the mosquito to grip onto most surfaces, like walls, plants or your leg. The surrounding structures, the ‘socks’, act as buffers, allowing the mosquito to land gently and accurately on all manner of surfaces,” says BBC presenter and entomologist Prof Adam Hart. “It isn’t just about physical prowess – the hairs on the feet also act as sensory structures, effectively allowing them to taste with their feet!”

The image is one of the top 100 selected to tour the UK as part of the Royal Photographic Society’s International Images for Science. Visit for more details.

Slippery customer

© Alamy
© Alamy

Namib Desert, Namibia

If you find yourself wandering through the vast deserts of Namibia, watch where you put your feet! The Peringuey adder, also known as Bitis peringueyi, spends much of its time buried under the sand. As an ambush predator, the snake needs to remain unseen, and the sand provides the perfect camouflage.

Dr Brian Crother from Southeastern Louisiana University says: “The desert adder burrows into the sand, leaving its eyes, that sit on top of his head, and its black-tipped tail exposed. The black tail tip is gently waved about and used as a lure to bring lizards [its prey] within striking distance.”

As a desert-dweller, the snake has a number of adaptations to survive in the harsh environment. First, it can travel using a form of locomotion called ‘sidewinding’, where just two points of its body are in contact with the sand at a time. This allows it to move quickly across loose terrain, and reduces contact with the hot sand. Second, water from morning fog condenses on its body, which it then drinks.

Robo rugrat

© The Museum of Science and Industry
© The Museum of Science and Industry

London, UK

If you visited this year’s Robots exhibition at London’s Science Museum and you would have been greeted by this little whippersnapper. The realistic, wall-mounted robot baby was built by UK animatronics company John Nolan Studio, and is based on the puppet babies they make for use on film sets. The puppets are usually operated remotely, but this one’s been automated so that it runs through a routine of movements and expressions throughout the day – which is what the cables sticking out of the back are for.

Creepy near-realism aside, then, the baby is actually a low-tech affair. But that’s the point: it’s the first thing you see on a journey through 500 years of robot history, while the last thing you see will be an all-singing, all-dancing, high-tech AI robot toddler – symbolising both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go in the world of robotics.

“The exhibition is really about the human form as mechanism,” says head curator Ben Russell. “So we wanted something that would capture people’s attention and bring them into that headspace, before plunging them back to the 1500s to see automaton monks.”

Martian snow


Northern hemisphere, Mars

We’re dreaming of a white Christmas… on Mars. These sand dunes in the planet’s northern hemisphere have been dusted with an unusual kind of snow, formed not from water but from carbon dioxide (CO2). Better known as dry ice, it appears during the Martian winter when temperatures drop and atmospheric CO2 freezes, forming ice on the planet’s surface or falling from the clouds as snow.

As the Sun reappears in spring, the pristine covering begins to crack, releasing gaseous carbon dioxide that carries dark sand up from the ground below. The result is these beautiful patterns, captured last May by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Frozen CO2 is common on Mars,” explains Dr Candice Hansen, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. “A seasonal polar cap made of dry ice forms each year at the north and south poles, and we even get patchy deposits close to the equator.”

We won’t be getting any here on Earth, though. CO2 requires temperatures of -78.5°C to freeze, so keep your fingers crossed for normal snow instead.

Future farm

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Noli, Liguria, Italy

Plunge into the waters off the coast of Noli in northwestern Italy, and you might just come across some bubble-like pods lying 6-10m beneath the waves.

These biospheres are the brainchild of scuba diver Sergio Gamberini of Ocean Reef Group, who wanted to find a viable new way of producing food. The open-bottomed biospheres, dubbed ‘Nemo’s Garden’, provide a self-contained environment for plants to grow, and contain crops such as red cabbage, basil, garlic and strawberries.

There’s no need for expensive heating and watering systems, because the ocean offers protection from temperature fluctuations, while the plants are hydrated by seawater that condenses on the internal surfaces, as seen in this image. The biospheres receive plenty of sunlight, and are protected from pests and fungi that can wipe out crops on the land.

In 2016 the biospheres were rigged up with cameras, fans, intercoms and Wi-Fi, and this year the team aims to establish the feasibility of the project.

Robot riders

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Liwa, Abu Dhabi

One group of workers that we suspect won’t be grumbling about robots taking their jobs are the jockeys in Middle Eastern camel races. Camel racing dates back thousands of years, but the sport has a dark side. The camels were traditionally ridden by boy jockeys as young as four years old, many of whom were bought and sold as slaves, and kept deliberately malnourished.

Accordingly, since 2004 the use of child jockeys has been outlawed in Qatar and the UAE, and the camels are ridden by robot jockeys instead. Early versions of the robots were quite ‘mechanical’ in appearance, but now more human-like robots are used as this appears to be less distressing for the camels.

Hunting machines

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Mont-de-Marsan, France

A golden eagle grapples with a drone in an aerial battle above an airbase in southwestern France.

Four golden eagles have been trained by the French military to tear invading drones from the sky. D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis (named after characters from The Three Musketeers) were hatched out and fed on top of drones, to create an association between food and the flying bots. It takes around eight months to train the eagles, with a chunk of meat given as a reward after each successful capture.

The unusual technique has been adopted amid worries about rogue drones being used to spy or launch attacks on French soil, after drones flew over the Élysée Palace in Paris and a restricted military site in Brittany in 2015.

Like the wind

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Vars, France

Yes, that is someone cycling. Down the side of a mountain. This is Eric Barone, also known as Le Baron Rouge, setting a new world speed record for mountain biking on 18 March 2017. He reached a speed of 227.7km/h (141.5mph) while bombing it down the snow track at Vars ski resort in France.

“The only thing propelling the bike was gravity,” explains Marc Amerigo, lead engineer of the project, “so Eric’s bike, helmet and latex suit were all designed to minimise air resistance. We made a 3D scan of the bike with Eric sitting on it, and then added external ‘fairings’ to the frame to get an optimal airflow. He also has pieces of foam under his suit to make him as aerodynamic as possible.”

Eric Barone has a taste for speed. As well as working as a stunt double for actors like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, the 56-year-old Frenchman also holds the world record speed for bicycle on gravel – an equally impressive 172km/h (107mph).

Natural born killer

Harlequin shrimp © Aldo Costa
Harlequin shrimp © Aldo Costa

Lembeh, Indonesia

This blue and white harlequin shrimp was snapped by photographer Aldo Costa, who spotted it while diving in the waters off Lembeh, Indonesia.

The little crustaceans can grow to about five centimetres in length, and they live together as couples, with one male and one female. However, their beautiful appearance belies predatory habits that would make Bonnie and Clyde blush. The pair of shrimp go hunting for starfish, their main food source. Once they’ve found one, they’ll work together to overpower it and flip it on its back. They’ll then start consuming its tube feet, which are structures that the starfish uses for locomotion. Sometimes, they carry the unfortunate animal back to their lair, to continue eating it alive over a period of days or weeks. Incredibly, the shrimp have been recorded bringing food to the starfish, to keep it alive for even longer.

The starfish underneath the shrimp in this image had better make its escape – quickly!

A nifty little mover

© Thyssenkrupp
© Thyssenkrupp

Rottweil, Germany

Looking like something out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, this image from ThyssenKrupp’s testing tower shows the world’s first ‘ropeless’ elevator. Thanks to its cable-free design, the MULTI elevator can move both vertically and horizontally, with exchanger mechanisms controlling direction, much like points on a railway line.

Very tall buildings require multiple lift shafts, as having a single, central shaft can undermine their structural integrity. But as Markus Jetter, ThyssenKrupp’s head of project development, explains: “With MULTI lifts, architects are no longer restricted in their designs by concerns about elevator shaft height and vertical alignment. Traditional shafts can occupy 40 per cent of the floor space in a typical tall building; MULTI halves that, leaving more room for offices and apartments.”

The first MULTI elevator is due to be installed in the new East Side Tower in Berlin in 2020.

Going for gold


Geneva, Switzerland

Neutrinos may be the shyest things in the Universe – trillions of the subatomic, near massless particles hurtle straight through the Earth every second but they barely react with anything. This makes it a problem for researchers wanting to study them. Enter this gleaming metallic lattice, which is a prototype neutrino detector currently under construction at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

Each detector measures 10 x 10 x 10m and will be filled with 800 tonnes of liquid argon, making them the largest of their type ever made. The idea is that neutrinos colliding with the argon atoms send out electrons that can be picked up by highly sensitive instruments placed on the detectors’ fringes.

Once completed, the detectors will be installed 1,500m beneath the Earth in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota in the middle of the next decade.

“Studying neutrinos could provide answers to some major mysteries in physics, such as why is the Universe made entirely of matter and not antimatter,” says CERN researcher Filippo Resnati. “We need a powerful neutrino beam and huge detectors if we want to measure and understand their properties.”

Swell snap

© Caters News
© Caters News

Hawaii, USA

Photographer Sash Fitzsimmons claims he risked his life to take this incredible image. And physicist and oceanographer Dr Helen Czerski agrees that it’s a dangerous business.

“The energy of a barrel wave like this one ultimately comes from the wind pushing the ocean surface into ripples and then up into bigger and bigger waves,” she says. “As the water gets shallower, that energy is concentrated and the waves steepen until they break in these beautiful long barrels. One cubic metre of water weighs a tonne, so the rapid movement of this much water represents a huge amount of kinetic energy. Both the surfer and the photographers need superb judgment – and a bit of luck – to stay safe.”

To take the picture, Fitzsimmons used a GoPro camera with a fisheye lens. It was fitted with a dome to push water away from the camera, allowing him to capture the action above and below the surface.

Bird’s-eye view

© Audun Rikardsen
© Audun Rikardsen

Meråker, Norway

This golden eagle was snapped from the inside of its prey in Norway’s frozen mountains.

The prey in question was a red fox – a common food source for golden eagles in this region. “I got the dead fox from a scientist friend,” says photographer Audun Rikardsen, who works as a biologist at the University of Tromsø. “I had to freeze it so that I could take it on the plane with me to the mountains. They wouldn’t allow it in hand luggage.”

When Audun arrived, he cut a hole in the melting animal and placed his camera inside, its lens pointing out. It was then just a matter of waiting, with Audun triggering the camera via a remote control from his hide, 20m away.


“I finally struck gold at the end of the day,” he says. “By the time this photo was taken, the eagle had already been eating for 20 minutes. You could see the fox’s guts and bits of bones sticking out, and then the eagle looked straight at the camera.”

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