Giants of the Infinitesimal Exhibition at Magna

5 May - 5 November 2012

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Magna Science Adventure Centre

Sheffield Road



S60 1DX

Phone: 01709 720002


Travel directions: How to find Magna

'SPM Nanowire Video'

The Scanning Probe Microscope, SPM simulation here is set up to make a nanowire from single atoms. When the wire is complete the lights flash across to show the current flowing.

To control the environment within the chamber a vacuum and extremely low temperature is required. After a while the energy level increases as if raising the temperature, indicated by a colour change to red through magenta. This clears the system so that the next user can start again.

For more videos see: Self-Assembly

Tom and Theoinside the crystal chamber

Giants of the Infinitesimal

“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”.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

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.

Auden, ‘The Door’ from The Quest

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

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.

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