The electron microscope is a fascinating scientific device — it uses an electron beam to illuminate a specimen, magnifying it up to 10 million times. With it, scientists can look deep into the substance of the world that surrounds us — and find another world, very similar to ours.
This absolutely amazing Tumblr blog — edited by Janelle Shane, a PhD student in electrical engineering at the Ultrafast and Nanoscale Optics Group at University of California San Diego — presents stunning photos of nanoscale scenes, many of them featuring dust specks and nanoscale structures. Amazingly, even at such a micro scale, it’s easy to spot scenes that our eyes interpret as familiar — from mountain landscapes to common moles.
The following collection contains our favourite images from the UCSD’s cleanrooms, each depicting a surprisingly familiar scene. Think of them as microscopic, dust-borne Rorschach tests. (All texts and photos, republished here with permission, are by Janelle Shane.)
A massive cliff
The broken edge of a piece of semiconductor laser material, viewed at 2,402x under an electron microscope. At this magnification, it’s clear that the edge isn’t cleanly broken at all, but has all sorts of furrows and ripples, all invisible to the naked eye, making it look like a massive cliff. In reality, this cliff is microscopic – this entire view covers less than the width of a single human hair.
More strange naturalistic formations in a sample where the plasma etching went really, really wrong. This was supposed to be flat, empty, and perfectly smooth. Actually, it still looks that way under anything but an electron microscope… an ant could step on this and not even notice. It’s plenty, though, to mean disaster for this particular sample.
On a pedestal
A speck of dust sits on a pedestal – this is a smallish piece of dust, only about 1/100 the thickness of an average human hair. The dust made its own pedestal by protecting a small area from the high-energy plasma that I was using to etch away the surface all around it. Apart from the dust (and from that rough area in the background), the surface came out reasonably smooth. I gave this sample an extra clean and zapped it with plasma again – afterwards, all these weird features were gone.
Bridge over troubled water
Nanoscale forces work in non-intuitive ways sometimes. This wall of semiconductor was plasma-etched so thin that the middle was etched entirely away, leaving the wall’s top floating eerily above void. It’s thin and lacy, and only touches the wall’s bottom in a few delicate places, yet it doesn’t fall, even when I shuttle the sample from building and move it in and out of the electron microscope. It’s terrifically small – a single virus could slip through the gap, but a bacterium couldn’t, and a human cell certainly couldn’t. The surrounding area is rough and mountainous because of some kind of crud that was on the sample surface during the first plasma etching. A round of microwave plasma treatment, followed by a bit more plasma etching, smoothed everything down.
The Irish highlands
Made of dark strips of laser-melted areas, interspersed with brighter less-damaged regions. I’m not sure what the mountain is made of – maybe even the melted remains of a dust speck. You’d have to stack a thousand of the mountains on top of each other to equal one millimetre.
Nano Boba Fett?
This is an artifact made of semiconductor laser material, that appeared during a process meant to etch all the laser material away. Probably it was formed by a speck of dust landing in that spot and protecting the material underneath from the etching plasma… the remnants of the dust are likely the domed bit on top. The dark area in front is made of glass. Because glass is more of an electrical insulator than semiconductor, it looks darker under the electron microscope, since it sucks up electrons rather than reflecting them back to the microscope’s detector. All of this is way, way, too small to see by eye… in fact, the top surface looks perfectly smooth, even under a regular microscope. Only under an electron microscope is all this crazy topology revealed.
This is a mole
This is a single speck of dust, viewed at 14,000x under an electron microscope. It’s small enough that it would fit easily inside one of your cells. My lab builds most of our nanostructures in cleanrooms, designed to keep out dust like this… compared to the size of the structures we’re making, like those at the back of the picture, dust is huge. A little bit of dust is hard to avoid, though, and one has to sometimes just hope that the dust doesn’t land somewhere unfortunate.
Canyons and rocks and plateaus
Nature repeats itself on a small scale – These mesas and plateaus are only about 500 nanometers high… if you stacked 2,000 of them on top of each other, they’d just be a millimetre high. How did this happen? The entire landscape is made of laser material, which I was etching away with high-energy plasma. I had protected just a few areas from the plasma by covering them (near the middle of the picture, you can see the long horizontal wall I was trying to make). Unfortunately, when I was putting this sample in the etcher, some oil got onto the surface, and must have spread itself in tiny rivers and droplets, protecting each of those areas from the plasma as well. The result? This tiny and strangely naturalistic landscape.
The Berlin Wall
I have somehow created nanopeople. Their heads are made of laser material and their bodies are made of silicon, which means there’s a remote chance that some of them could be lasers. They’re each so small (300nm high) that a normal bacterium would appear to them like a massive lumbering beast. The wall in the middle is something I actually created on purpose – the little nanopillars just appeared due to something weird that happened during the wall’s formation. It’s a little eerie how they seem to be giving the wall extra space. In fact – not going to lie – it’s also eerie to see them covering the landscape by the thousands. I’m glad the microscope room is brightly-lit.
A pirouetting bison
A speck of dust, viewed under the electron microscope. Looks a bit to me like a pirouetting bison. The dust is definitely microscopic – about 40 of these would fit inside your average skin cell. It’s sitting on the metal holder we use for mounting our samples – all those thin scored lines might be scratches from tweezers.
Gorgoroth and Mount Doom
The Lonely Mountain, home to nanodragons. The surface of this sample is coated with a rough, mountainous substance – likely created when the top layer of my sample (a photoresist) didn’t hold up well to a reactive plasma that I was shooting at the sample. One bit of the rough surface juts up like a mountain above the rest, where it seems to bend space around itself. This phenomenon is known as charging, and happened when the mountain started accumulating enough negative charge from the scanning electron beam that it started repelling the electron beam itself.
Extreme close-up of a single speck of dust. It turns out that dust comes in all shapes and sizes, and this cloud-shaped piece is a rarity – I’ve also found mountains and sails and lumpy monsters. None of which are supposed to be there… but when I take my samples out of the cleanroom to image them, I have to expect dust. This speck is small – the bar at the bottom of the image is only about 1/100 the width of a typical human hair.
Fear of the unknown
Bashful dust particle, viewed under an electron microscope. Since our electron microscope isn’t inside the cleanroom, it’s hard to avoid the occasional visiting particle of dust. They appear randomly, like small beings exploring immense and weird landscapes. This one’s microscopic, and stands on a well-scratched metal surface. In the background is the side of a single piece of tape.
I was pretty sure this was going to be another doomed sample. For one, none of those little mesas and bumps – all formed of semiconductor laser material – were supposed to be there. It was all very interesting-looking, but it meant that some kind of junk had gotten on my sample and left its imprint while I was trying to form the laser-material wall.
Thin-film effects, viewed under a microscope, imitate the night sky. What you see here is a flat surface that has a few defects on it (probably pieces of dust), covered with a thin, transparent film. According to the thickness of the film, you get different colours reflected back – this is the same phenomenon that makes rainbow colours in thin soap bubbles. From the colours, you can see how the film mounds up over the areas that have defects, producing closely-spaced bands of colour like a topographic map. There’s no dye or pigments here – all the colours are from this soap bubble effect, relying on the interference of light waves. This sort of pigment-less colour, called structural colour, can also be seen in iridescent bird feathers, pearls, opals, and many butterfly wings. Kind of looks like a constellation of a unicorn head, to me.
A dream landscape, formed naturally by defects in a thin polymer film. This phenomenon is called Newton’s Rings, and is the same sort of thin-film effect that makes soap bubbles iridescent.