See the Best Science Graphics of 2023

Some of our favorite stories this year are best told visually

Five pictures cropped into circles show a selection of imagery from Scientific American graphics.

Studio Terp (top left); Violet Isabelle Frances for Bryan Christie Design (top middle); Matteo Farinella (top right); Sébastien Philippe, Svitlana Lavrenchuk and Ivan Stepanov (bottom left); Amanda Montañez (bottom right)

This year has been filled with fascinating science stories, and my colleagues and I on the Scientific American graphics team have been excited to help tell many of them through charts, illustrations, maps and diagrams. We have developed information-rich visuals to cover a wide range of subjects from math to anthropology that convey themes as grim as nuclear fallout and as inspiring as becoming a hero in your own life’s journey. Here are a few of our favorites.

Mapping Nuclear Fallout

As part of the special report “The New Nuclear Age,” published in December, Princeton University researcher Sébastien Philippe, cartographer Svitlana Lavrenchuk and simulation engineer Ivan Stepanov generated a series of maps highlighting the locations of U.S. missile silos and showing the potential trajectories of fallout if those silos were targeted in a nuclear attack. These images are astonishing not just for the extent of deadly radiation they reveal but also for the wild variability in those radiation levels, depending on how the wind happens to be blowing on a particular day. The featured maps show what fallout might look like over a four-day period based on weather data from nine different days in 2021.

Maps show predicted fallout after hypothetical attacks on nuclear missile silos in the American West and Midwest. The simulation of cumulative radiation exposure plays out across North America in a four-day period for a sampling of nine different days in 2021, showing how prevailing winds impact the location and intensity of exposure.
Credit: Sébastien Philippe, Svitlana Lavrenchuk and Ivan Stepanov

A Planet in Peril

Speaking of ways the world could end, a study published in September found that we have already crossed six of Earth’s nine so-called planetary boundaries, constraints that are needed to maintain an environment akin to that of preindustrial times. While this is not great news, staff writer Meghan Bartels’s story covering the research highlights how scientists are directing their energy toward not just naming but also solving the problems outlined in the graphic below.

Bar chart shows how far above or below nine planetary boundaries Earth currently is and highlights measures for which we have surpassed the high end of the zone of increasing risk, where scientists believe the probability of losing Holocene-like conditions increases.
Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Earth Beyond Six of Nine Planetary Boundaries,” by Katherine Richardson et al., in Science Advances, Vol. 9, No. 37; September 15, 2023

How to Be a Hero

If thoughts of nuclear annihilation or environmental doom are weighing on you, this next story might be worth a read. In a delightfully optimistic opinion piece, researchers Ben Rogers, Kurt Gray and Mike Christian describe the psychological benefits of viewing your own life as a “hero’s journey.” And this equally delightful graphic by Matteo Farinella sums up how the classic hero’s journey epitomized in epic tales such as The Lord of the Rings can be reimagined for the regular, modern human.

Comic-style illustrations show classic and modern interpretations of the seven key elements of the hero’s journey: protagonist, shift, quest, allies, challenge, transformation and legacy.
Credit: Matteo Farinella; Source: Reference figure by Kevin House in “Seeing Your Life Story as a Hero’s Journey Increases Meaning in Life,” by Benjamin A. Rogers et al., in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 125, No. 4; October 2023

A New Way to Count

For more modern-day heroism, look no further than the Inuit middle schoolers who, in the 1990s, developed an ingeniously intuitive number system. In a fascinating story, Amory Tillinghast-Raby explains how the “Kaktovik numerals” crafted by the Indigenous students made their way from a remote Arctic classroom to Silicon Valley success: the numerals were adopted into the latest update of Unicode for widespread digital use. The graphic below breaks down how the numerals, which were built on a base 20 system, use different combinations of simple marks to reveal their value visually.

Graphic shows Kaktovik numerals representing values from 0 through 19 and a few examples of larger numbers to show how the base 20 system works.
Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Unicode Request for Kaktovik Numerals,” by Eduardo Marín Silva and Catherine Strand. Submitted to Unicode Technical Committee Document Registry March 16, 2021 (reference)

Visualizing the Power of Women

In one of our most compelling feature articles of 2023, scientists Cara Ocobock and Sarah Lacy flip the old theory of “man the hunter” on its head, positing that women are actually better suited than men to endurance activities and likely hunted in prehistoric times. As they lay out the evidence, gorgeous graphics such as the one below, by Violet Isabelle Frances of Bryan Christie Design, lend visual support to the case by highlighting features that confer endurance and power activity advantages.

Illustration shows a female figure carrying an animal she has hunted and a male figure tending a fire with an infant on his back. Various organs superimposed in color on the monochromatic figures highlight body parts and physiological processes associated with the female endurance activity advantage and the male power activity advantage.
Credit: Violet Isabelle Frances for Bryan Christie Design

24 Hours of Life in One Chart

Most people probably have a general sense of how they divide up their time on a daily basis. But what does the human day look like on a global scale? Scientists dug into the data to try to answer that question, and we dug into their study to visualize the answer. The resulting graphic, by Studio Terp, uses an intuitive circular format with concentric layers of information to distill the data and their associated context into a clear, colorful and enlightening visual guide.

Chart shows how an average “global human day” is spent: 9.1 hours are dedicated to sleep, and 14.9 hours are dedicated to activities. Activities are further divided into three groups, eight categories and 21 subcategories.
Credit: Studio Terp; Source: “The Global Human Day,” by William Fajzel et al., in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 120; June 2023 (data)