7:19pm

Wed April 6, 2011
The Two-Way

Today's Distraction: The Microscopic Art On Computer Chips

When engineers design computer chips, they have to be precise to a microscopic level. So for the most part, no one notices their work. Except that is companies like Chipworks, a specialist on silicon technology that reverse engineers chips to provide its clients with analysis and so they keep an eye on their competition and guard their copyrights.

But there's another thing they stumbled upon while they analysized computer chips: microscopic pieces of art left there by the engineers who designed them. On their website they have four galleries full of this "Silicon Art."

From this ode to Texas on an AMD Athlon Processor:

To this "moose boy" on the chipset of a Nokia 5190 handset:

To give you a sense of how small these things are, the images above have been magnified 200 to 500 times.

We came upon this story through Wired's Gadget Lab blog, which explains the chip-making process:

As Chipworks explains, these drawings are made with the same processes used to assemble the rest of a computer chip. Designs are etched onto photolithography plates which are then used to "print" the chips' circuitry, layer by layer, in thin films of silicon, silicon dioxide, aluminum and other materials. It's a complicated process that takes hundreds of steps and millions of dollars worth of machinery, and it requires incredible degrees of precision and repeatability.

The guys at Chipworks get to the grain as to why this feels so compelling:

The mass production of these works of art as parasites on the body of a commercial IC goes unnoticed by most observers. Their existence is a tribute to human resourcefulness and creativity, surfacing from deep within a complex process.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.