blog post

There’s plenty of room at the bottom… for ART!

What do you need if you want to create an art piece that is not visible to our bare eyes? For ages, visual artists have invented tools for manipulating various materials to shape their reflections of the world into art pieces that we can appreciate with our eyes: paintings, sculptures, and installations arts. Sometimes it requires thousands of workers and tons of materials to create a giant art piece, such as the Statue of Liberty, a world-wide recognized masterpiece of sculpture and a symbol of the United States. But sometimes it only asks for a grain of sand, a pair of hands or a programmed computer, and a cutting-edge microscope.


From left to right: (1) “Chrysanthemum”. Magnification: 75,000X. Huigao Duan, MIT. (2) “There’s plenty of room at the bottom…TO PARTYYY!” Magnification: 100,000X. Joel Yang, MIT. (3) “The Bodhi Tree”. Magnification: 5715X. Mohan Ananth, Carl Zeiss NTS. Reprinted with permission from Zyvex Labs.

“There’s plenty of room at the bottom” — Richard Feynman’s observation is probably the most famous comment on nanotechnology. And now, apparently, there is also plenty of room at the bottom for science and art to meet and to sparkle. There is a universe in a nutshell, and there is a world under a microscope: a blossom of chrysanthemum, a sketch of the sacred tree, and a carnival of happy partiers. The only difference is that they are all small. Teeny-tiny small. If you want to know how small they really are, the chrysanthemum in the image above is about 2 micrometers wide, which is 10,000-fold smaller than the actual flower, and each hilarious guy in the second graph is about 200 nm tall, which is about 10,000,000-fold smaller than a real person. Do count me in for such a party.

These pieces are all created by scientists who are inspired by advances in nanofabrication (or perhaps those whose minds wander during their lab practices). Nanofabrication is a field where technologies are developed and utilized to allow fabrication to happen at a micro- and nano-scale. They work on questions like: how can we make structures with an extremely small size? How do we achieve the precision we need? Unsurprisingly, sculpture and carving art, which requires extraordinary precision, becomes a way for scientists to show off how far they can go with these cutting-edge technologies. These mind-blowing curved patterns above are from the website of EIPBN, an international meeting focusing on micro- and nano-fabrication. Every year since 1995, (very early in the chronicles of nanotechnology), the meeting has held an EIPBN Micrograph Contest. More mind-blowing pieces can be found on their website.

At the intersection of art and science, nano-art features these micro- and nano-scaled artistic pieces, which may be either nano-sculptures that are consciously designed and created by scientists or nano-landscapes of natural structures that are accidentally artistic. Like lots of other forms of art, nano-art grabs the attention and conveys ideas to the public: science is beautiful; science is fun; and science is everywhere, even where you cannot see. Technologies keep changing our lives. Here, it changes the way people create artworks.

For ages, all kinds of tools have been created and employed to suit the needs of artists. Take the Statue of Liberty as an example. Construction of the Statue of Liberty required a thrilling amount of effort. With a height of about 50 meters, it was assembled from pieces: arms, torch, head, shoulders, etc., and it took 20 years and more than 200 tons of metal. Putting the Statue of Liberty on a coin seems easier: molds stamp coin blanks with designs and inscriptions. For sculptures around this scale (from millimeters to meters), artists use knives and other sculpting tools to shape materials like marble or metal into their artworks.


The statue of liberty at different scales. L-R images: “Statue of Liberty 7” by Elcobbola; 2007 Presidential $1 Coin image from the United States Mint; “Nanoart Probation” by Alessandro Scali and Robin Goode

Is this coin-size scale the limitation on manipulating materials? Apparently not. The micro-sculptor Willard Wigan has been creating micro-sculptures in pinheads. Under a high-magnification microscope, he uses his hands to carve grains of sand into micro-sculptures and then mounts the sculptures in pinheads. His Statue of Liberty piece, “Lady Liberty,” is only about 5 micrometers tall, or 5 thousandths of a millimeter. Hold your breath for these micro-sculptures, I mean it.

Still, that’s not the end of story. The figure on the right shows the Statue of Liberty with a height of only 500 nanometers. This nano Statue of Liberty is 100,000,000 times smaller than the actual statue. In other words, it’s 10 times smaller than a pinhead like the one Wigan’s statue sits in. Created by nanoartists Alessandro Scali and Robin Goode, this piece is a part of the exhibition NAN°ART: Seeing the Invisible. I find the title very proper to describe what it is like to see nano-art.

Like all other sculptors, nano-sculptors also need their carving tools. Rather than knives, they use nanolithography, an imprinting technique in nanofabrication. There are various ways of doing nanolithography, but one of the most popular techniques is called focused-ion-beam (FIB) lithography. Helium, neon, or gallium gas is ionized to form a highly focused ion beam. Under a microscope, the ion beam hits the sample surface and displaces a tiny amount of materials on the surface to make a “hole”. How deep and wide the engraving is depends on how strong the ion beam is. A helium ion beam is a more delicate tool that can pattern less than 10 nm, while a gallium ion beam is like a palette knife to remove more massive material. These fancy ion beams are not controlled by hand, but by a programmed machine. Here, computers control ion beams to carve patterns, just like hands handle sculpting knives.

The capability of engraving precise patterns at nano-dimensions has more than artistic implications. In fact, nano-art is more like a side product of nanofabrication technologies. As you may already know from reading earlier blog posts, substances display quite distinct and novel characteristics at the nanometer scale. Capabilities in nanofabrication with such accuracy and precision allow scientists and engineers to discover and employ the novel features of nano-sized materials. These features may be revolutionary in a lot of industry (semiconductors, for example), and thus potentially bring us a better life in the future.

So if someday, you look into a microscope and see beautiful nanomaterials, remember: you are looking into the FUTURE.


One thought on “There’s plenty of room at the bottom… for ART!

  1. Pingback: ¡Hay bastante espacio en el fondo… para el arte! |

Comments are closed.