Secret beauty hidden on the chips

May 14, 1999

Biophysicist Michael Davidson was studying chromosomes through an incredibly high-powered microscope at Florida State University when he discovered something no scientist before him seems to have considered about DNA: it was lovely.

"These were very beautiful textures that these things were forming," said Dr Davidson, who started to examine, and then to photograph, microscopic images of anything he found around the lab. Soon he was publishing these pictures, not only in scientific and technical journals, but also in popular photography and science magazines.

Now, Dr Davidson, 48, has a lab at FSU devoted exclusively to microscopy, employing 15 technicians working full-time on sophisticated high-powered Nikon microscopes with built-in cameras. Their magnified depictions of the infinitesimal have been licensed for use in school supplies, neckties, wall calendars, screensavers, and coffee mugs, and are in a book called Magical Display: The Art of Photomicrography and on a website that has drawn a staggering 14 million hits in three years. Some of Dr Davidson's custom prints hang on the walls of the Smithsonian Institution. Does the university mind? Nope. It has reaped more that a million dollars in royalties, which goes back into its research budget.

"Now it's our main interface to the business and scientific community, because just about everybody can see us on the web," Dr Davidson said.

It was when he started to put computer chips beneath his microscope that Dr Davidson made his oddest discovery. There, left secretly in silicon by unsung chip designers and technicians, appeared unlikely works of art one-third the width of human hair. There were birds, dogs, snakes, dinosaurs, ducks, sharks, mythic gods, Groucho Marx, Godzilla, the starship Enterprise, even the sperm whale that slammed into the planet Magrathea in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

"What's unusual about this is that most of the chip designers placed these images on these chips without the idea that they would ever come to light," Dr Davidson said.

That was certainly true of Dan Zuras, a Hewlett-Packard engineer whose rendering of a western desert bird called the road runner Dr Davidson discovered on a 64-bit combinatorial multiplier integrated circuit stamped in 1982. Immortalised in a 1960s cartoon about a bird that constantly outsmarted a pursuing coyote, the road runner on the chip signified that it was the fastest at that time. It took two weeks to draw, traced from a children's colouring book by the same means used to lay out the chip's transistors and circuit patterns. Mr Zuras thought no one would ever find it.

"When you're proud of your work, you sign it," he said.

Dr Davidson has captured these and other tiny animals for an online Silicon Zoo on his website, (http://microscopy.fsu.edu/ creatures/index.html).

The site, which has become increasingly popular as modem speeds increase, also has an educational component, with interactive Java-powered virtual microscopes that can be downloaded to explore such topics as specimen focus, illumination intensity and magnification, operating essentially in a manner identical to real-life microscopes. There is an online museum of the history of microscopy, and a gallery of photomicrographs of drugs, beer, ice cream, alcoholic drinks, vitamins, amino acids, pesticides, birthstones and religious relics.

He has developed lighting techniques that can magnify circuitry so clearly that he has been hired by such companies as Intel to provide photographs of circuits.

As for surreptitious microchip graffiti, it is becoming hard to find as microprocessors become more complex, and as high-tech corporations increasingly discourage such rebellious activities; Intel allows its engineers to sign their chips only with their own initials. And a single chip can take months to search.

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