Giants of the Infinitesimal
By Peter Forbes
“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic”.
Nabokov's idea has great artistic resonance. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard divined a quality of “intimate immensity” in Baudelaire and many poets have created a numinous depth in their poems by this technique of magnifying and minifying:
By happening to be open once, it made
Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.
The very small fascinated some poets long before anyone could see that there was a realm of intricate detail in nature way below the threshold of vision. The Roman poet Lucretius was fascinated by the hidden small-scale world and wrote brilliantly on effects which we now know to be nano phenomena: the iridescence of a peacock’s tail, for instance, which he correctly divined to be a purely structural effect, not involving coloured pigments.
Here is Richard Leigh (1649-1728):
Nature, who with like state, and equal pride,
Her great works does in height and distance hide, And shuts up her minuter bodies all
In curious frames, imperceptibly small.
But nanotechnology proper is conventionally reckoned to have begun with Richard Feynman’s talk ’Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ in 1959. Feynman drew attention to the vast gulf in scale between chemical molecules, whose workings were known precisely for millions of complex chemicals substances and structures invisible through even the strongest, electron microscope. Unlike the atom, with its tiny nucleus rattling around in a largely empty atom, the biological scale gap is not empty. As Feynman said that is where nature does its most interesting work: the large molecules such as DNA and proteins and the larger assemblies built from them. Feynman suggested that technology could also operate in that vast terra incognita
Since then progress has been dramatic both from the top down in creating smaller and smaller structures on silicon chips and from the bottom up, inducing matter to assemble into nano structures with properties unknown at smaller or larger scales.
Now, in Giants of the Infinitesimal, Tom Grimsey and Theo Kaccoufa have taken the idea of magnifying the nanoworld literally. The idea is to create kinetic sculptures on a large scale, abundantly visible to the eye, that mimic some of the astonishing things that happen in the nanoworld. Although a key thing to grasp about the nanoworld is that they do things differently down there (gravity for instance which weighs so heavily on us, has no bearing, whereas viscosity, the drag of fluids, and the incessant restless motion of atoms, are all important), in fact much of the restless energy and creativity of that world can be recreated on a large scale. Much of the fascination of the project stems from wrestling with magnets, electric currents and turbulent water to create a balance of forces similar to that in the nanoworld and hence to make visible the astonishing creativity of matter that can self-assemble under its own tug of attractions and repulsions.
Peter Forbes is a writer, journalist and editor with a longstanding interest in the relationship between science and art. He was awarded the Warwick prize in 2011.
Giants of the Infinitesimal
By Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey, 2014
In NanoScience: Giants of the Infinitesimal, award-winning science writer Peter Forbes and sculptor Tom Grimsey explore the amazing possibilities that nanotechnology offers us, from clean harvesting solar energy and finding cost-effective methods to desalinate sea water, to the production of smart materials that alter their shape, texture or other properties when coming into contact with electric or magnetic fields. NanoScience shows the astonishing beauty of the nanoworld, the iridescense of butterfly wings or peacock feathers that is produced not by pigments but by structures invisible to the naked eye. Science looks out into deep space in wonder but our actual presence there will always be limited. We look deep into the heart of the atom but can only understand its structure by breaking it. Between these two ends of the spectrum is nanoscience, the fastest growing and most significant area of scientific exploration of our time.
Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey
Papadakis 2014 | 192pp | £24.99