The Photonic Beetle


From the October, 2008 issue of Semiconductor International:

The proverb admonishes, “Look to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.” The same sentiment can be applied to another member of the Insecta class, a green iridescent Brazilian beetle with the unwieldy moniker of Lamprocyphus augustus. Just by doing what comes naturally, this inch-long weevil has accomplished a task that to date has eluded the Hominidae class's best researchers: the evolution of a structure considered as the ideal architecture for the long-sought-after photonic crystal.

To produce ultrafast optical computers, it is first necessary to produce an ideal photonic crystal that will enable exacting manipulation of light. Currently, light in near-infrared and visible wavelengths carries data and communications through fiber-optic cables, but this photonic information must be converted back to electrons before it can be processed by a computer.

“Photonic crystals are a completely new class of optical materials that enable the manipulation of light in non-classic ways,” explained Michael Bartl, assistant professor of chemistry and adjunct professor of physics at the University of Utah (Salt Lake City). “Some colors [wavelengths] of light can pass through such a crystal at various speeds, while others are reflected as if the crystal were acting as a mirror.”

Early Crystallographic Models

Colored glass models, Unsigned, first half 20th century

Wooden models of twinned feldspar crystals, G.E. Kayser, Berlin, 1834

Wooden models, Unsigned, late 19th century

Wooden models, Unsigned, mid 20th century

Porcelain models, Unsigned [John Joseph Griffin], England, ca. 1841

There are far too many beautiful examples of glass, porcelain and wooden crystal models from the 18th and 19th century to display here — much more information can be found at The Virtual Museum of the History of Mineralogy.  These once functional objects have long since been replaced in the teaching of mineralogy by computer models, but their present-day obsolescence only heightens their mysterious and sublime aura.  Such interactive sculptures surely must have been seen and relished by the Surrealists, as Taglioni's Jewel Casket by Joseph Cornell reveals.  Outside of their scientific context, there is even a prefiguration of minimalist sculpture — an unironic yet non-literal juxtaposition of organic processes and geometric perfection.  There is, for me, a fascinating contradiction in the innocence of their toylike size and sentimental presentation given that crystallography — though largely esoteric and academic in its early phases — became the foundation for the most impactful material sciences of chemical and molecular engineering in the twentieth century, as well as the more potentially transfiguring twenty-first century developments in application of topography, virtual three-dimensional modeling systems, rapid prototyping and nanotechnology.  The early crystallographic model is the self-anachronistic object par excellance.

Cueva de los Cristales de Naica

The Crystal Cave was accidentally discovered in 2000 by miners working in the silver and lead mine at Naica, Mexico. It lies almost 300 meters (900 feet) below the surface of the Earth and it contains the largest crystals known in the world, by far. The largest crystals are over 11 meters long (36 feet) and weigh 55 tons.  The crystals themselves are made of selenite which is crystallized gypsum, the same material used in drywall construction. Except these crystals formed over a span of about half a million years in a hot water solution, saturated with minerals. The temperature inside the cave remained very consistently hot for the entire time the crystals were growing.