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The World Of The NANOS-

Part I: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way...

[from TBGS newsletter Spring 2004.]

Conjure up, if you will, several male adults clad in togas, and reclining on couches. Were they leisurely sipping wine from oversized goblets? --- reflecting on the prowess of certain gladiators at the Hippodrome? --- ruminating on the undulating bodily movements of the new dancer from Thebes? --- speculating about the vintage*, ? --- or, just plain schmoozing ? None Of The Above !

From the comfort of their couches, they were seriously contemplating the composition of all matter. After all, they, as proponents of deductive reasoning, considered themselves fully capable of figuring out many things solely via logical, mental processes - so, why experiment?

But there were also those, if few and far between, who investigated as well. Democritus (5th century BCE) was such an individual, "acquainted with the virtues of herbs, plants and stones, and (he) spent his life (conducting) experiments with natural bodies... wrote books and dissected animals..." As a disciple of Leucippus, he expanded on his teacher's conjectures about atoms.

Imagine, how through their mental gymnastics alone, they arrived at such an abstraction of scientific thought: the impossibility of dividing things ad infinitum.The least divisible was called the atom. [The word derives from the Greek atomos = not cut, or, indivisible.]

This "logical" philosophy of atomism by Leucippus & Democritus, 5th century BCE, was elevated to the status of "scientific theory" some 24 centuries later = in the early 1800's, by the English chemist, Dalton.

Proceeding along the time-line, in the 1940's, three physicists came up with what may prove to be the invention of the millenia, the transistor. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain designed the device; almost immediately, it "gave an unprecedented shock to the electronics industry."

The transistor functions either as an amplifier, or as a switch. It is solid state, with no moving parts except electrons. A small space can accomo-date collections of transistors = a descent into the world of "the tiny."

[ " What,"asks the reader,"are the links betwixt our Grecian friends, the transistor, and matters biological ?" Read on.. ]

The Greeks Had A Word For It ...
The prefix, nano, comes from the Greek combining form nanos, meaning dwarf. Back then, they speculated on what was "in there." Today, we are actually working "in there." Devices have become so small that throughout industry the motto is: Iffen you can see it, it's too big !

The major applications of "the tiny" have been in communications; e.g., a telephone is not only wireless, it is also a camera... On the heels of the transistor discovery, new industries have swallowed up old stand-bys. Although the original "wave" seems to have peaked, that's not the case for the "wavelets" - many of them in Life Sciences - that were created as well. Texas can brag The Strategic Partnership Of Research in Nano-technology, a consortium including UT's- Austin, Dallas, Arlington, plus Rice and others.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek's microscope exposed tiny life forms down to bacteria, parasitic protists, sperm cells, blood cells, microscopic nematodes, rotifers, and more. [P.S. He did NOT invent the microscope - just ground better lenses and was more precise than his predecessors.]
Newer methods of probing for smaller and smaller forms uncovered the viruses - not quite animate - and more recently, the prions. What's Next ?
In 1959, Feynman (physicist) offered $1,000 to the "first guy" who could produce an electric motor as small as 1/64th of an inch. Well, today the offer could be for Nano motors about 1,000th of a hair's width.

Torrents of discoveries stream in: Nano-this and Nano-that. (Where will they lead us? Hard to foretell. We trust for the better.)

* Flow-Thru biochips - highly porous silicon chip w/huge surface area;can simultaneously analyze the reactions to a specific substance. of up to 400 known genes By German companies. and

* Creation of a Nano bone was reported by China and after it is implanted, the artificial material "disintegrates" over time and is replaced by human bone tissue.

* Internal body scanner named "electrostatic micromachine scanning mirror for optical coherence tomography" - jointly by Duke and G.Washington Univ - uncovers surface and below surface internal

* Heightening antibiotic efficiency by uniting it with tiny carbon buckyballs that can be targeted to attach themselves to harmful, specific (sometimes antibiotic-resistant) spores. at Rice Univ.

* A single molecule light emitter= one ultra-tiny, carbon nanotube mounted on a 3-terminal transistor; simultaneous release of electrons (-) and plus charges at holes in the tube = light is produced.

* High precision semi-conductor nano-crystals -sized at atom+ level - called "EviDots" or "quantom dots" to act as fluorescent or photonic materials in bio-technology. by Evident Technologies

Richard Feynman's 1959 talk
"There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,"
He envisioned using machinery factories to build smaller factories that built yet smaller factories... "At each stage, it is necessary to improve the precision of the apparatus."... leading to nanomachines building atomically precise products. "What would the properties of materials be if we could really arrange the atoms the way we want them?"

"At the atomic level, we have new kinds of forces and new kinds of possibilities, new kinds of effects. The problems of manufacture and reproduction of materials will be quite different. I am, as I said, inspired by the biological phenomena in which chemical forces are used in repetitious fashion to produce all kinds of weird effects (one of which is the author)".
[Here's some Biology: All living things, have their own "nanomachines" that regularly build more nanomachines- notwithstanding quantum uncertainty and thermal motion.]

Foresight Institute's K.Eric Drexler (ex MIT)

He introduced the term "nanotechnology" in the mid-1980s describing molecular assembling devices able to position reactive molecules with atomic precision. He envisioned such tiny assemblers able to build anything with absolute precision & with no pollution. [The good.] "Replicating assemblers and thinking machines pose basic threats to people and to life on Earth," he also wrote. [The bad.]

Prof. Richard E. Smalley, Rice Univ
Won 1996 Nobel Prize, Chemistry: discovere fullerenes (aka buckyballs).
Fullerenes are a molecular form of pure carbon discovered in 1985. They are cage-like structures of carbon atoms, the most abundant form produced is buckminsterfullerene (C60), with 60 carbon atoms arranged in a spherical structure. There are larger fullerenes containing from 70 to 500 carbon atoms. A fullerene can encapsulate an atom, i.e., a nitrogen.

Current research focuses on the potential applications of carbon nanotubes. ( aside: Smalley does not think molecular assemblers in the manner envisioned by Drexler are physically possible.)

Smalley's dismay is that speculation with regard to potential dangers (that could stem from misapplications of nano) tends to threaten (scare away) public support for nanotechnology. The novel, "Prey," by Michael Crichton is a case in point.

He writes: "...join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.

/Rick Smalley "

C & EN December 1, 2003 Volume 81, No. 48

CENEAR 81 48 pp. 37-42 ISSN 0009-2347

[the article above is from the TBGS newsletter Spring 2004.]