The tiniest sandcastle you will ever see

Wow! An artist and scientist create striking works of microscopic art etched onto single grains of sand.

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This castle etched into a grain of sand redefines the very idea of a sandcastle. Vic Muniz/Marcelo Coelho

Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz has created massive works of art carved into the earth and visible in their entirety only from the air. Now, he's taken his work in the opposite direction, engraving teeny tiny castles onto grains of sand using both antique and modern methods.

While working on the massive earth carvings in the early part of the last decade, he began to wonder how small he could make his art so "it could only be imagined, not seen."

So Muniz linked up with artist and MIT research affiliate Marcelo Coelho to figure out how to engrave artistic renderings of castles onto grains of sand.

Why castles? "I rely on images that are simple, that you've seen a million times...you think you know it but then you have to know it again," Muniz said in the below video from The Creators Project.

Plus, it's just plain cool to redefine the idea of what a sandcastle is.

The first step was to create drawings of castles. Muniz did this by using technology invented in 1807 -- the camera lucida, which has a lens the user looks through to see something in the real world projected onto a piece of paper that can then be traced.

Muniz then gave the tracings to Coelho, who had the difficult job of finding out what kind of tech could be used to transfer them to the sides of sand grains. When approached with the proposal by Muniz, "the sheer impossibility of it is what excited me," Coelho told The Creators Project.

After four years of testing techniques like laser inscription, which destroyed some grains and wasn't strong enough to etch others, he settled on using a Focused Ion Beam (FIB) device and a scanning electron microscope. The FIB machine, usually used to etch the surface of microchips, turned out to be just right, although there's still a lot of trial and error involved with finding just the right grains to hold the images.

The FIB uses one screen to depict the electrons needed to see grains less than half a millimeter long and another to display the ions that etch the grain, resulting in a crisp image of a castle.

Once the pair produces an image they're happy with, Muniz turns it into a 4-foot-wide print. Some of these debuted on March 27 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as part of a retrospective of Muniz's work transforming unexpected materials into new photographic images.

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Vic Muniz/Marcelo Coelho

When it comes to projects that connect scientists and artists, "I think it comes down to the point that we're always looking for the same thing. You know, we're always trying to understand the world around us," Muniz said.

For his part, Coelho -- whose work combines ordinary materials and electronics -- said he likes that the outlines of mountains appearing in the sand drawings behind the castles match the natural lines of the sand grains themselves. "So, there's this really interesting symmetry where the mountain looks like the grain of sand and they're in entirely different scales," he said in the video below.

"There's a whole new kind of photography emerging now," he added. "A lot of it is happening because of this combination between computers and cameras, and storytelling and narratives can emerge as a result."

About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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