Not infinite, but really big

After all of this talk of infinity, I think it’s time to come back down to earth and talk about finite things. The question came up recently about things that people make, and how big or small they can be. I started wondering what is the biggest – or smallest – object ever created by people.

One candidate for smallest object is the IBM logo that Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer created in 1989 with the tungsten tip of a Scanning Tunneling Microscope. They used the STM to position 35 xenon atoms, one by one, on a smooth nickel surface. When they were done, the xenon atoms were arranged into the company’s famous logo:

The whole thing was just six nanometers across – four million of them laid side by side would be only about an inch wide.

My candidate for largest object ever created is an ingenious sculpture that David Barr built in 1985. He placed four tiny tetrahedra (three sided pyramids) at equidistant points around the Earth – one each in Easter Island, South Africa, Irian Jaya (New Guinea), and Greenland – and there they stand to this day. Collectively they form a perfect tetrahedron about the same size as the planet Earth itself.

So far I think that’s as big as anyone has ever gotten. Jaron Lanier has told me that he wants to start a project to arrange entire stars into artificial constellations, as a kind of shout-out to alien races across the Galaxy. Needless to say this would be a very long-term project – some tens of thousands of years – and would require immense effort to succeed.

What I like about David Barr’s achievement in 1985 is that he created his sculpture pretty much all by himself. Just one person – a man with a dream (and a travel budget) – ingeniously converting our entire planet into a scaffold for his monumental sculpture.

By my calculations, the difference in size (from end to end) between the Barr tetrahedron and the Eigler/Schweizer IBM logo is about 2,000,000,000,000,000 – or about two million billion.

For some reason that makes me very happy.

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