By attaching four molecular ratchets, like wheels that turn in only one direction, scientists recently created a ‘nano’-car – a familiar machine, reproduced in an unfamiliar world. The report of an electronically driven four-wheeled molecule that is 1 million times smaller than the head of a needle recently made the headlines in Nature magazine. But what is the big deal about small science? (Information about the Nature Magazine Cover)
Our lives and modern technologies depend on the science of the ‘very small’. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, “nanotechnology has the potential to change every part of our lives.” It will be essential for the American public to engage in nanotechnology if citizens want to influence the direction of environmental, medical, and energy science research.
Nanotechnology is all around us. ‘Nano’ describes the science of what happens when we shrink things down to one billionth of a meter, 100 times smaller than the diameter of an average strand of human hair. From sunscreens to solar cells and other alternative energy sources, to new anticancer drugs, to a plethora of medical tests including the common pregnancy test stick, nanotechnology drives our world from the bottom up.
New and unknown properties emerge at very small scales. Often, the ‘nano’ world behaves in ways that we couldn’t predict from watching the ‘macro’ world around us. A whole other world exists below 1/1,000,000,000 meters – for example, nanoscale materials interact with fluids and light in weird ways, making it possible to create self-cleaning glass and invisibility cloaks. In the nano-world, gravity is defied in the favor of forces that exist between individual molecules, such as the forces that cause water molecules to be sucked up into your narrow red coffee straw all by themselves. Nanotechnology offers all kinds of new solutions for medicine, energy, and ‘smart’ materials.
Nanotechnology is a fundamental science: To understand the world of the BIG, you must fully understand the world of the small. Nanotechnology supports many developing technologies. For example, nano-electronics could be the next biggest revolution in computer technology. Nanoscale objects interact in unique and often borderline unbelievable ways with light and electricity – interactions that make nanoscale objects particularly good at transferring information quickly across a computer microchip. Cancer researchers are using nanotechnology to develop new anti-cancer drugs, designing ‘nano’-drugs to be particularly good at targeting a specific injury or disease site.
Nanotechnology will impact our futures whether or not we understand and engage in this science of ‘small’. It will become increasingly important for the average citizen to understand what ‘nano’ means, and to invest in using nanotechnology appropriately for the bettering of our planet and our health.
‘There is plenty of room at the bottom,’ – Richard Feynman