World's Tiniest Snowman

Skimming through a "geek" publication, I happened across a picture and a short "blurb" about the world's tiniest snowman. From the picture, he was an adorable little guy with a button shaped nose and a friendly looking smile. The text indicated that his size was only 10 µm across (about one-fifth the width of a human hair or too small to really see with the naked eye.

It turns out that the cute little fellow is the creation of David Cox, a scientist at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, who is an expert in nanofabrication techniques. He's not really made of snow. Instead, the body and head are tin beads that are normally used for calibration of electron microscopes. A platinum deposition process was used to weld the two beads together. It's eyes and smile were etched into the bead used for the snowman's head with a focused ion beam. The nose is platinum that was deposited on the snowman's face by the focused ion beam.

According to the NPL webpage about this (, however, when not just having fun and being festive, researchers utilize the nano techniques used to make this little guy to:
  • make and fine tune Atomic Force Microscope cantilevers for measuring surface topography;
  • manufacture nano scale SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) for a wide range of future metrological applications including spintronics, single particle detection, NEMS and quantum information processing; and
  • measure magnetic properties of very small magnetic systems using quantum hall probes.

I'm not entirely sure what all of that means, but from seeing the snowman, I can easily appreciate their ability to precisely manipulate and work with materials on a very small scale in order to fabricate things with dimensions measured in micrometers (millionths of a meter). There is an NPL video posted on YouTube that was put together about this tiny snowman. It does a good job of putting its small size into perspective.

Apparently, however, the results obtained are not particularly significant, record-breaking, or extraordinary. I found an
article published on Cornell University's website showing the world's smallest guitar, made out of crystalline silicon, about 10 micrometers long (about the size of a single cell). It had six strings that were each only about 50 nanometers (100 atoms) wide. The story explains how the guitar was made to demonstrate a new technology enabling the fabrication of a new generation of electromechanical devices. Incredibly, this article was dated July 22, 1997.

Russian scientists have published a paper describing their work on an atom pinhole camera. This technique could be used to replicate micro-sized objects as nano-sized ones by using a nano-lithography technique. Experimentally, they have shown the capability to achieve size reductions up of 10,000 times and dimensions down to 30 nm.

It's one thing when scientists are pushing the edge of comprehension with what might be possible in the realm of incredibly small structures. Willard Wigan is a British "micro sculptor" who developed his own tools and techniques to create artwork that can only be appreciated with the help of a telescope. In a BBC article he explains how he has learning disabilities and struggled as a kid in school. He started by making houses, furniture, see-saws, swings, etc. for ants. It broadened into a miniature world that he could escape into and make things for. Most of his works fit within the eye of a needle. They are so incredibly tiny that, if not handled carefully, they would be easy to accidentally inhale. Wignan uses hairs from dead flies as paint brushes. If you are interested in further information on Wignan, his website is a good place to start. There is also a short video on YouTube about this artist and his work.

Scientific advances at the micro and nano scales will no doubt advance technology and hopefully better our lives in the process. I have true awe and amazement for the pioneers in these fields who not only conceptualize, but actually implement at unbelievably small sizes. It is equally inspiring, however, that artists can also be found working in these miniature dimensions.