Can we make beautiful art at the scale of a bunch of atoms? Nanotechnology is the name given to the science of studying and manipulating materials at this scale. To visualize the scale we are talking about, consider this: the head of a pin is about one million nanometers (nm) across and a human hair is about 60,000 nm wide. A computer fitted with the Intel Core I7 chip uses a 14 nm technology, the number referring to the least distance between transistors of the CPU. The smaller this number, the faster the CPU. Intel has certainly come a long way from the 1,000 nm technology that was the standard in the mid 1980s.
It all started exactly 60 years ago with a grand vision. In 1959, the Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman delivered a famous lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, sharing his vision that physics and engineering will one day create things at a micro scale.
It didn’t take long for Feynman’s vision to materialize. By the 1980s, IBM scientists had invented the world’s first scanning tunnelling microscope that was capable of imaging surfaces at the atomic level. Shortly after came the atomic force microscope which demonstrated resolutions at the fraction of a nanometer. These early succesess kick-started the field of nanotechnology. Subsequent progress rode on ever more powerful computers and visualization tools, enabling scientists to study and fabricate materials at ever shrinking scales.
At the nano scale, the landscape of materials looks strange, but some scientists see beauty in this strangeness, almost like a new kind of art. Examples of this “nano art” are shown below. The works were submitted to a nano photography competition called Nano+art that took place annually from 2005 and 2010. Nano+art is supported by nano4women, a global network that promotes women in nanotechnology. To create these stunning photographs, participants used nano science principles to construct microscopic images, some of which resemble earthly landscapes while others capture surreal worlds that seem to belong to the realm of science fiction.