These works of art are too tiny to see (but trust us, they're there)

A Cornell Ph.D. student in applied physics etches famous works of art -- Escher, Magritte, Matisse -- onto silicon wafers used in modern digital devices.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

Robert Hovden has plagiarized famous works of art at the nanoscale and hung them for public display. Mike Blaney

You're looking at a reproduction of an M.C. Escher drawing, but you'd never know it. It's inscribed onto the surface of a silicon crystal wafer at a scale 500 times smaller than the eye can see.

Robert Hovden etched the Escher tessellations using focused high-speed ions. Why? Because he's a nanoscientist who spends his days studying objects with electron microscopes. And because maybe no one will notice he's copying famous works of art if the reproductions are so tiny.

The width of an eyebrow in this tiny replica of a Creative Commons-licensed painting matches the wavelegth of light. Robert Hovden

But don't call the intellectual-property cops just yet. Hovden has copied famous works of art deliberately and openly for his exhibit "When Art Exceeds Perception," an exploration of plagiarism in the age of bits and bytes.

"To take a piece of art, copy it and share it with the world without the original artists' permission is traditionally viewed as wrong and, in most cases, violates copyright laws...However, in a digital era where information is encrypted and stored in the atomic bits of nanoscale devices, answers to philosophical, moral and legal questions surrounding copyright become muddled," reads Hovden's statement for the exhibit, part of the Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial "Intimate Cosmologies: The Aesthetics of Scale in an Age of Nanotechnology."

For the campus-wide show, which runs through December 22, artists and scientists "explore the cultural and human consequences of seeing the world at the micro and macro levels, through nanoscience and networked communications." Participants have done things like render the microscopic textures of a sheet of paper as a 3D inhabitable landscape and create wearable sensors to detect methane and poisonous gases.

Hovden, a Cornell Ph.D. student in applied physics, etched works of art onto the atomically smooth, flat surfaces of silicon wafers used in modern digital devices. He chose works "where copyright is relevant to the discussion" -- pieces by Escher, Magritte, Matisse and contemporary artist Joy Garnett, who releases work under a Creative Commons license.

He rendered all of his microscopic replicas as tangible works rather than bits, but they're essentially just as invisible to the eye as digital data would be. Hovden does not include any magnification tools in the exhibit, saying that would defeat the point of the work.

"Works of art are copied and reduced in size -- without permission," Hovden tells Crave. "But this has been taken to an absurd extreme. Each made so small they are beyond human perception. Not only can the human eye not see the copied work, but visible light itself is too big to observe the replicas."

So if the human eye even can't see the work, do the same rules around plagiarism apply?

"This is precisely the question this work raises," Hovden tells Crave. "Originality, ownership, control and expression of ideas is something that I tediously contemplate."

The work is highly conceptual, but any statements on copyright infringement aside, it's still a fascinating entrant to the field of microscopic art, which has recently seen the likes of beautiful crystal flowers formed in a beaker and teeny tiny sandcastles etched onto single grains of sand.

The focused ion beam used to create the works: a bit more complex than a pencil and paper. Robert Hovden