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Spotlight: Norman Sanford and the Mysterious Nanolith

A white towerlike structure on a black background
Credit: N. Sanford/NIST

Monolith structures made appearances all around the globe this fall and winter, and a nano-sized one just emerged at NIST’s Precision Imaging Facility in Boulder, Colorado. Where did it come from? Aliens? Ancient civilizations? Banksy? Easter Island? And what does it mean?

We have a theory.

It starts with NIST researcher Norman Sanford, who took this rare image of the structure. He’s developing a nanoscale scheme to mount specimens for an extreme ultraviolet atom probe tool. The material under study is stuck at the tip of a tall post made from silicon, and then a gallium beam cuts the assembly into a needle-like shape for study by atom probe.

To get a sense of scale, the smile on our nanolith is rather large to qualify as “nano,” measuring roughly 686 nanometers in width. This only adds another mysterious coincidence since Norman works in NIST Division 686.

Our intriguing figure came into being while Norman was experimenting with different parameters for the process and viewing the work from different directions. That’s where it came from.

As to what it means, we can only take the happy expression as a sign of good fortune in the year to come.

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Released December 30, 2020, Updated April 15, 2021