Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
For those who despair that conservatism will always be right but never be popular; that, however we try to win young minds, we will never appeal to young hearts; that we will simply never be cool – let me offer this consolation: I am a physicist and I have proof that coolness, or lack thereof, is not written in stone.
I am, in fact, a nanophysicist and after my last (inaugural) post, I was thrilled to see several members ask if I might say something at some point about nanotechnology. I don’t usually write about science outside of Physical Review B and the like. It is a bit daunting trying to make the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle palatable to Ricochet readers. (Though easier, I suppose, than sneaking a rant about illegal aliens into PRB).
So let me start gently, without equations, and share a couple thoughts about nanotechnology and why it is neat and important. (Problem sets will be due on Thursday and there will be no partial credit for minus sign errors).
Nanoscience is the study of objects that are too large to be treated as molecules and too small to be treated as bulk material, crystalline or otherwise. Because nanoscience falls between molecular chemistry and solid state physics, it is full of surprises not predicted by either of those theories.
An excellent example is the carbon nanotube, which is just a rolled up sheet of graphite (carbon), with the heat-carrying capacity of diamond and the tensile strength of steel. Or consider an un-rolled carbon nanotube: a single atomic layer of graphite known as “graphene.” If you suspend a sheet of graphene, clamping it around a perimeter, and place a pin, point down, onto it, you can then place an elephant on the head of the pin (don’t ask me how, I’m a physicist not an engineer). That single sheet of carbon atoms will happily support Simba and probably Nala too.
These are just two of many examples of the fascinating behavior of materials at the nanoscale. But nanoscale systems and nanotechnology would be entirely uninteresting if we could not create, manipulate, and image them. In that sense, nanotechnology is the cutting edge of science. I believe, in fact, that the progress of human civilization can be gauged by how small a thing we have been able, at various points in our history, to see and manipulate.
I heard a great illustration of this idea many years ago in a story told by a friend in graduate school. My friend told about a job that his father had had in the 1930s, shortly before the war, working in a machine tool factory. The company was fabricating drill bits and they had managed to make one that had a smaller diameter than anything they had seen before…maybe a millimeter, maybe two. This is not easy. A drill bit has to be very hard to penetrate metal and hard wood and it is difficult to make it long and slender enough while still leaving it sufficiently hard and precisely shaped.
The people at the company thought it was a big deal, so they sent out samples of their wonderful, small drill bit to other machine tool companies all over the world, accompanied by a letter boasting about what a great, tiny drill bit they had made.
A couple weeks passed. Then a small envelope arrived in the mail from a company in Germany. They opened it up and found nothing inside except their drill bit. No letter, no note, nothing…just the drill bit they had sent.
They were, of course, quite puzzled about this. Why bother to just send it back? Finally, someone took the bit, held it up like a finger, examined it closely, and noticed that there was a hole through it.
Ach du lieber Gott!
Talk about genius of understatement.
Nowadays, we can do even better.
Suppose you took a so-called “65-nm” chip, like a Pentium IV (a little old these days) and blew it up from its actual size of about 2 cm on a side to 20 km on a side. You could place it over New York City and it would cover all of Manhattan and some of Long Island and New Jersey. Stand on Madison Avenue, look down and ask “how big now is a single transistor gate length?” Answer: about 1 inch. “How precisely are the features positioned?” Answer: to about a millimeter. Stretching off as far as the eye can see.
This, my friends, is capitalism; more powerful than war itself.
When computer chips get smaller and more densely packed, they don’t just get easier to carry; they get faster. There is less distance between logic elements. And so, for much of the past 50 years, the speed of the best computer chips has doubled roughly every two years. This is known as Moore’s Law, after Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus of Intel Corporation. It is not a law really, but rather just an empirical observation/prediction. But it has held, more or less, for half a century.
The electronics industry has led the way with the technology of small things. Now, largely through those developments, just about any material can be manipulated at the nanoscale. Paints, nanoparticles for medicine, ceramics, cement, airplane wings, fabrics: all those and more are structured at the nanoscale to incorporate new properties and vastly expand the range and functionality of our material world.
The fact is, in a free society — even one as mismanaged as ours — things just get better and better.
Moore’s law, we are told, is about to “hit the wall.” Make electronic devices too small and single electron behavior and quantum mechanics rear their beautiful heads. And what happens next will take your breath away.
Update: As pointed out in the comments, my friend’s story seems to be part of an urban legend that pops up in scientific communities from time to time.Whether or not an incident like it actually happened or it’s just a fable, the point it illustrates is still representative of how our knowledge and abilities advance.Published in