The United States Postal Service (USPS) is celebrating the beauty of microscopic life through a series of new forever stamps that feature images captured using microscopes and specialized photographic techniques.
The “Life Magnified” stamps were released today at a dedication ceremony held in partnership with the American Philatelic Society at the Great American Stamp Show in Cleveland. The 20 stamps feature otherworldly images of some of the smallest components of life.
“Usually, we shrink images to fit on a postage stamp. In this case, we have enlarged the images to postage-stamp size — that doesn’t happen often,” Luke Grossmann, senior vice president of finance and strategy for the Postal Service, says.
“There’s a famous adage, ‘The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.’ As these stamps show, there are worlds to be explored, even at the microscopic level.”
Derry Noyes, an art director for USPS, designed the stamps and the pane using existing photographs that wee captured using a variety of techniques including confocal microscopy and the Köhler illumination technique.
The USPS explains that the process of confocal microscopy scans a specimen to create several optical sections of the subject which are then stacked to provide a broader depth of field to better showcase the subject and can be used for a three-dimensional reconstruction.
“The Köhler illumination technique eliminates uneven lighting in the viewable area of a microscope lens. Fluorescence imaging uses special dyes that are absorbed by a sample to fluoresce color when excited by high intensity lighting, making the sample glow,” the USPS explains.
“By incorporating aesthetic appeal into the ways they present their research, scientists have created images equally suited for a gallery wall as for a scientific journal. Their work reveals the grandeur of life at an infinitesimal scale.”
The new series features photos of red blood cells, the feather of a macaw, a knotted strand of human hair, moss leaves, diatom shells, freshwater protozoans, an acorn barnacle, a moth’s antenna, the front foot of a diving beetle, neurons from a mouse’s brain, bone tissue from a starling, scales on the wing of a Madagascan sunset moth, a juvenile zebrafish, mushroom gills, the tongue of a freshwater snail, a blue button (which is similar to a jellyfish), mold spores, the legs of a barnacle, flame lily pollen, and the surface of a southern live oak leaf.
“For anyone that is not an expert in the field, microscopy images, with all of their alien, sometimes abstract shapes, may cause confusion. Hopefully, this is the good kind of confusion… Good confusion causes a certain degree of discomfort, a mental itch that comes with the recognition of a gap in one’s knowledge. Hopefully, these stamps will promote that itch within the public and inspire individuals to acquire knowledge to explain the nature of the imaged subject,” Dr. Igor Siwanowicz, a research scientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, says.
The images aren’t just beautiful, they are scientifically valuable. The photo of the juvenile zebrafish, captured by Daniel Castranova, reveals the presence of lymphatic vessels within the fish’s skull, which were previously never observed in the skulls of non-mammals. The USPS explains that this groundbreaking discovery may help scientists form a better understanding of human diseases.
The collection includes work form other researchers from the National Institute of Health, including Dr. Tagide deCarvalho, director of the Keith R. Porter Imaging Facility at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who created the photos moss leaves and mold spores images, and Jason Kirk director of the Optical Imaging & Vital Microscopy Core at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston who created the oak leaf and mouse brain neurons photos.
“I am honored to be a part of the Life Magnified stamp issue, which is such a powerful way to communicate the discovery inherent in scientific imaging with the public. Much of the biological world cannot be seen by eye and microscopy reveals the intrinsic beauty of nature as the camera zooms in,” Dr. deCarvalho says.
The Life Magnified series stamps are issued in panes of 20 and are classified as Forever stamps, which means they will always be equal in value to the current First-Class Mail 1‑ounce price. The series can be purchased directly through the USPS online store for $13.20 or at Post Office locations nationwide. The stamps can also be ordered as a framed set for $39.95.
Image credits: United States Postal Service