fb-pixel Skip to main content

Greatness on the tiniest stage

The Joyce coin was searched for a flat surface and the ideal spot within the left eyeglass lens was found for “Dubliners” to be printed.
The Joyce coin was searched for a flat surface and the ideal spot within the left eyeglass lens was found for “Dubliners” to be printed.Michael Naughton/Boston College/Boston College

On first glance, it looks for all the world like a manufacturing flaw: a tiny smudge defacing James Joyce's owl-like eyeglasses on a Euro coin commemorating the Irish novelist.

But the rectangular imperfection reveals itself to be far more intricate and marvelous under the microscope: a miniature reproduction of the famed writer's 300-page short story collection, "Dubliners."

A Boston College physicist etched the famed text, published a century ago this Sunday, onto a 2.5-square-millimeter patch using a sophisticated nanolithography technique more commonly employed to build electronics than to print miniature editions of classic literature.

This is not the first time Joyce's influence has rippled beyond the merely literary. The word for a subatomic particle known as a quark was inspired by its use in his book "Finnegans Wake." In 2010, scientists encoded a quote from Joyce into the DNA of a lab-made cell.


“You might say there’s kind of a tradition of physicists borrowing from Joyce,” said Joseph Nugent, an English professor at BC who provided the coin that now bears an edition of the “Dubliners” that is roughly one-hundredth the size of a dime.

The decision to painstakingly deface a silver coin using a beam of electrons and a special coating in a BC laboratory this spring happened by chance. But it is a playful reflection of the growing effort to integrate methods and tools more commonly used in the sciences into the realms of literature and history.

It also shows how two worlds that can seem impossibly separate — the laboratory and the library — are connected as human endeavors.

"These experiments show how science and culture are deeply entwined," Colin Milburn, an English professor at the University of California, Davis, wrote in an e-mail. "They show how the meanings of scientific discovery and innovation are not merely technical but resonant with many other aspects of history, politics, literature, art, and popular media. Even as individual experiments, they brilliantly illustrate the extent to which science is culture, never separated."

The project began in April, when BC physicist Michael Naughton attended a physics conference on campus focused on energy production and the development of new materials to help meet the world's future energy needs. As he was leaving, he noticed a few friends attending a different conference in the same building, this one focused on James Joyce and the digital humanities, in which researchers apply tools of computer science to fields such as literature and history.


The gulf between these two worlds can be wide, the butt of friendly teasing on either side. To the English professor, the science conference was for "physicists and their abstruse brand of knowledge." The physics professor admits to being a fan of Joyce, to an extent. "Like everybody else, I've struggled to read 'Finnegans Wake,' " Naughton said.

Michael Naughton is a Joyce fan, kind of. “Like everybody else, I’ve struggled to read ‘Finnegans Wake,’ ” he says.
Michael Naughton is a Joyce fan, kind of. “Like everybody else, I’ve struggled to read ‘Finnegans Wake,’ ” he says.Boston College

Still, the physicist was a happy interloper at the Joyce conference, where he learned about a "Digital Dubliners" initiative, an interactive e-book being developed by Nugent and students that would enrich the text with maps, archival videos, and interactive contextual information.

"I was thinking, 'Why can't I do something cool like that?' " said Naughton, who works in nanotechnology, a field focused on manipulating matter at the smallest scale. He came up with a simple idea: What if he just printed a really, really small version of the book?

He had to persuade a graduate student — Fan Ye, who has since moved on to Cornell University — to come on board. There was no particular practical application for printing tiny books on coins, and Ye had not read "Dubliners," but they struck a deal: After Joyce, they would create a nanoedition of the writings of Confucius.


Naughton took the text of "Dubliners" from the public domain and formatted it, working line by line to make sure Joyce's distinctive style was preserved, including the italics. Then, he handed the project off to Ye, who coated the coin with a polymer coating and printed the text of the book using an electron beam. Finally, they used a chemical solvent that left the text etched in the special coating.

At first, they tried a variation of the technique on silicon wafers. Then Naughton took a 50th anniversary coin, a two shilling Irish coin called a florin, minted in 1964. Between the word EIRE and the harp, he and Ye deposited "Dubliners."

The English professor then proffered an even more appealing nanopublishing opportunity: a commemorative Joyce coin. Naughton searched the coin for a flat surface and found the ideal spot within Joyce's left eyeglass lens. He printed "Dubliners" on the lens. Then, on a second coin, he printed the 866 pages of "Ulysses" on a different coin, a feat that took 12 hours.

Naughton and Nugent admit that the nano version of "Dubliners" is something of a gimmick. It will not have much to contribute to serious scholarship. But it shows how art and science are often driven by human curiosity and how they can, each in different ways, provide new and deeper perspectives on the world.


The physicist thinks he might make nanoprinting books part of his teaching; it is a good way for scientists in training to learn basic techniques. Both professors think this is a way to draw broader interest to their fields.

Nugent said that looking at the text through a microscope, he would search out the final paragraph of a short story called "The Dead."

"That is the most anthologized and the most lyrical and, for most people, the most beautiful and, perhaps, the most heartfelt piece," Nugent said. "There's a way in which I think we can touch Joyce's old feelings, Joyce's old heart."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@ globe.com.