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Small Wonders 

Local scientists are shrinking chips and wires to atomic scale, revolutionizing the electronics industry. But most of the nanotechnological advances you've read about are outsized hype.

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
The bearded man tromps in his sandals across the Berkeley campus of the University of California. He talks about multiple universes. He ruminates about making itsy-bitsy machines powered by “motors stolen off the tail end of an E. coli bacteria.” He says that science and technology are going to “fuzz out the line between the living and the nonliving.” He stops dead in his tracks and proclaims, “My lab is colder than interstellar space!”

Paul L. McEuen, a 36-year-old physics professor who is also a principal investigator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, works in a strange and wonderful realm of science that focuses on the very, very small and is called “nanotechnology.” With his easygoing way and shoulder-length hair, McEuen seems to fit a certain laid-back-and-loony Berkeley stereotype. But according to his colleagues, he is one of the world’s top experimental physicists, and he is prepared to back the crazy-sounding things he says with proof. If you ask him politely, McEuen will even invite you over to his lab to see the quantum dot he built. A dot that could revolutionize computing. A dot the size of an atom.

To get an idea of the size of an atom, think of a living cell. Most cells are 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Cells are about a micron in diameter, or a millionth of a meter. (A meter is approximately 39 inches long.) Atoms are a thousand times smaller in width than a micron. In other words, atoms are a billionth of a meter in size. Since “nano” means a billionth, things built out of atoms are measured in “nanometers.”

McEuen looks at his atomic dot with a scanning tunneling microscope. This incredibly precise instrument is as big as a car and costs about $1 million. It focuses on individual atoms immersed in liquefied gases at temperatures that are a mere fraction of a degree above absolute zero. That is, at minus 273 degrees on the Celsius scale, a temperature, in fact, much colder than the farthest reaches of interstellar space.

The truth about nanotech is, truly, fantastic. McEuen's quantum dot could become the basis for atom-scale computing that would make today's most powerful machines seem as clumsily anachronistic as abacuses. Nanotubes are assembling themselves, creating the possibility of composite materials that are light in weight, yet 100 times as strong as steel.

Over the last few years, however, nanotech has become a buzzword for research into just about anything smaller than a mote of dust. And much of what the popular press has described as nanotechnology is, actually, little but the futuristic fantasies of a Bay Area group whose assertions are often closer to science fiction than the science of the infinitesimal.

While serious scientists talk about the nano-sized devices they make, few will do more than generalize about the future of nanoscience and technology. This has not stopped the mainstream press from touting the miracles-to-come of nanotechnology. Recently, Time magazine proclaimed that "within a few decades, nanotechnologists ... will be creating machines that can do just about anything, as long as it's small." The extraordinarily unlikely nanotech products envisaged by exaggeration-prone media outlets range from molecular sensors in flimsy underwear that tell smart washing machines what water temperature they should use to artificial red blood cells to evil swarms of planet-devouring molecules.

The public's misconceptions about nanodevelopment stem, in part, from the media's habitual reliance on the promotions of the Foresight Institute Inc., a futurist organization based in Palo Alto. For two decades, the institute, founded by K. Eric Drexler, has thrived by prophesizing about the tiny-to-come. And the prognostications of Drexler and his Foresight Institute have taken on the sheen of authority as one press clipping breeds another. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle last July, for instance, relied almost exclusively on the institute for its information, which is long on imagination and short on facts, according to many reputable scientists. The lengthy Chronicle article concentrated on nano-pie-in-the-sky such as color-programmable paint and floorless elevators; it gave short shrift to real nanotech developments in the Bay Area, which enjoys a high concentration of working nanoscientists.

Interviews with nearly a dozen Bay Area nanoscientists paints an altogether different picture than the Chronicle's Foresight Institute-inspired tableau of molecule-sized robots "grabbing atoms one by one" and then replicating armies of themselves. Or Business Week's Aug. 30 issue, which claimed that within 20 years there will be a "nanobox" that manufactures items such as cell phones from a "toner" made of "electrically conductive molecules." The Foresight Institute has even gone so far as to assert that, within the foreseeable future, such a nanobox will turn dirt into food, ending world hunger. And nanotech, it insists, will give humans the power of telepathy.

The Foresight Institute has played a role in publicizing the field of nanotechnology. Prophets serve a social purpose, even when they cannot build what they preach, popularizing weird possibilities that may not be probable, but do help pave the way for public acceptance of science that some might otherwise consider satanic. For this and other reasons, respected nanotechnologists are reluctant to be critical of the Foresight Institute. But some of these same scientists confide that there is a difference between promoting nanotechnology in general, and portraying the nanomechanics of K. Eric Drexler as the cutting edge of the field.

In 1992, Drexler, an engineer, went beyond predicting the general emergence of nanotechnology: He wrote a book, Nanosystems, detailing technical particulars. Paul McEuen and several of his colleagues say that Drexler's drawings of nanothings are just molecule-sized versions of mechanical devices that have been around for centuries: gears, cogs, levers, and pistons. If Drexler's peculiar versions of nanomachines some- day materialize, working physicists say, his engineer's calculations, which hold true in the world most people comprehend, will not be of much use in the realm of the very, very small, because that world is governed by strange scientific laws known collectively as quantum mechanics.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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