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  • Comparing objects at the macro, micro, and nano scales is an important aspect of many scientific endeavors and fields of study. Visualizing and understanding the behavior and properties of objects at the nanoscale can be challenging because the objects are so very tiny.


    To get some perspective on the relative size of objects at the nanoscale, think about this:

    • A meter is a little bigger than a yard. An elementary student is about a meter tall.
    • A centimeter is 1/100th of a meter. A sugar cube is about a centimeter wide.
    • A millimeter is 1/1000th of a meter. A dime is around one millimeter thick—and so is a paperclip.
    • A micrometer, also called a micron, is one millionth of a meter. A hair from your head is about 40-50 microns wide.
    • A nanometer is 1,000 times smaller than a micrometer. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. One inch equals 25.4 nanometers.


    Things that are measured in meters are on the macro scale. These include things we can see with our eyes—from something measured in miles to a grain of sand. Things on the micro scale—like bacteria and cells—are measured in micrometers and can be seen only with a standard microscope. But things on the nanoscale, measured in nanometers, are so tiny that they can only be seen with specialized laboratory instruments like Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM).


    The images in the Natural World category include objects that are a part of nature—from a flower and pollen to a caterpillar and a parasitic mite. Every year, people who own scanning electron microscopes from microscope-maker FEI enter their best microscopic images in the FEI Image Contest. The images in this collection are from that contest. 


    About Scale

    Learn how to measure the size of the objects in this collection. Click and drag to move the image in order to see the very bottom—or download the image—and note the scale bar. (One image—Yellow Mimosa Flower—does not have a scale bar, but the size of the image is provided in the descriptive information.) This bar will be different for every image. These scale bars are used much like the scale bars on maps—where one inch might equal 100 miles, for example. Use a piece of paper, a ruler, or other measuring device to determine the size of the object according to the scale on the image. Note that the scale might be indicated in millimeters, micrometers, or nanometers. Then list the images on paper, or place downloaded images in order, according to size—from largest to smallest.


    About Electron Microscope Images

    All images taken with electron microscopes are black and white because of the absence of light in the process. Color is added in post-processing phases.

    When enlarging or cropping images with scale bars, such as the microscopic images in this collection, be sure to maintain the original aspect ratio of the image—ensuring that everything in the image is reduced or enlarged proportionally.

    • In the future, products made using nanotechnologies may enable us to heat our houses through solar panels that are printed like wallpaper.
    • A human fingernail grows 1 nanometer every second. A man’s beard grows 5 nanometers every second.
    • A nasturtium leaf repels water thanks to tiny, nano-sized hairs on its surface. 
    • A material can act differently when it’s nanometer-sized. Different physical forces dominate when things get very small. For example, gravity is very apparent to us on the macro scale, but it’s hardly noticeable at the nanoscale.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    centimeter Noun

    metric unit of measurement, equal to about .34 inch.

    micrometer Noun

    a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter—also called micron.

    millimeter Noun

    a unit of length equal to 11000 meter.

    nanometer Noun

    (nm) billionth of a meter.

    nanoscale Noun

    length scale whose relevant unit of measurement is the nanometer (nm), or a billionth of a meter. Also called the nanoscopic scale.

    scale Noun

    distinctive relative size, extent, or degree.

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This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0840250. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.