Life in the nano world Learn­ing to co­ex­ist with the very, very small

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ARTS & LIFE - ROBERT FUL­FORD Note­book

Fresh bul­letins reg­u­larly bring news of star­tling de­vel­op­ments in this era’s most sur­pris­ing and per­haps most po­etic form of sci­ence, nan­otech­nol­ogy, the study of the un­think­ably small.

Sci­ence has this habit of re­new­ing our vi­sion of ex­is­tence. Un­der the pres­sure of ex­pand­ing schol­ar­ship we find our­selves re-learn­ing what we once thought we knew about the di­men­sions of ex­is­tence. As it turns out, the gal­ax­ies reach much far­ther into the dis­tance than any­one guessed a few years ago. More­over, life of some kind has ex­isted on Earth much longer than we imag­ined, about four bil­lion years and count­ing. And in re­cent decades chemists and bi­ol­o­gists have been slowly al­ter­ing our sense of the most com­mon­place ob­jects, the cells and mol­e­cules that fill our lives.

An in­vis­i­ble revo­lu­tion has been un­der way. Great his­toric events are en­acted in spa­ces smaller in di­am­e­ter than the lead in a pen­cil. The news comes down to three facts: The uni­verse has grown much larger, the past proves to be much longer and the big­gest en­gi­neer­ing project ever built or imag­ined by hu­man­ity, the In­ter­net, de­pends on an end­less col­lec­tion of switches, each of them much smaller that we can vi­su­al­ize.

We are looking at the small­est ob­jects in the world with new eyes and a re­freshed imaginatio­n. The baroque mi­cro­scopic palace that we call the cell has been placed un­der ob­ser­va­tion as never be­fore, re­veal­ing count­less mys­ter­ies. Ge­orge M. White­sides, an em­i­nent chemist at Har­vard, sum­ma­rizes the para­dox of cells in a few words: They are the small­est liv­ing things, they are the stuff from which or­gan­isms are built and, while “they are as sim­ple as any­thing in bi­ol­ogy, they are as com­pli­cated as any­thing we know.”

New forms of Lil­liputian ex­is­tence re­veal them­selves to sci­en­tists through in­stru­ments de­signed by ge­nius-level en­gi­neers. On atomic-force mi­cro­scopes, bi­olo- gists climb down, metaphor­i­cally, into se­cret worlds, like the pi­o­neer spelunkers who in­vaded the depths be­neath Las­caux in France 70 years ago and came up with pic­tures of Palae­olithic paint­ings 17,000 years old, mes­sages from pre-his­tory the world has talked about ever since.

The un­ex­plored em­pire of nan­otech­nol­ogy teems with beau­ti­ful and un­com­mon im­ages, bil­lions of them, as if fol­low­ing John Keats’s be­lief that “po­etry should sur­pass by a fine ex­cess.” The new sci­ence of ex­treme minia­tur­iza­tion deals with ev­ery­thing from the crea­tures liv­ing their en­tire lives on our eye­lashes to viruses try­ing to break into our bodies.

A nanome­tre, a bil­lionth of a me­tre, is hard to en­vi­sion, and it doesn’t much help when we learn that, since a hu­man hair is about 100,000 nanome­tres in width, we can think of a nanome­tre as a hun­dred-thou­sandth of a hair. Even so, the nanome­tre and its lin­guis­tic cousins have in­vaded the lan­guage, oc­ca­sion­ally find­ing a place in the hy­per­bole of pol­i­tics. A

New Repub­lic writer de­scribed a sim­ple­minded U.S. gov­er­nor as a man with an at­ten­tion span mea­sured in nanosec­onds. Fu­tur­ists have sug­gested the pos­si­bil­ity of cre­at­ing swarms of nanobots that will fly through the air, eat­ing pol­lu­tants. They have men­tioned med­i­cal nanobots of the fu­ture, equipped to cruise our blood streams, at­tack­ing pathogens.

White­sides ac­knowl­edges that since atoms and mol­e­cules make up all of phys­i­cal re­al­ity, ev­ery­thing we can touch, taste, see and feel, “It’s a lit­tle un­nerv­ing that we have never ac­tu­ally seen one.” To coax us a few nanome­tres closer to un­der­stand­ing this sub­ject, White­sides and a tal­ented pho­tog­ra­pher, Felice C. Frankel, have cre­ated No Small Mat­ter: Sci­ence on the Nanoscale (Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press), a book that’s el­e­gant in ap­pear­ance, el­e­gant in its im­ages of the nanoworld and el­e­gant in prose.

One of those won­der­ful writ­ers that sci­ence pro­duces ev­ery now and then, White­sides has writ­ten 60 short, deft es­says on nanoscale sub­jects; he writes with a warm­ing ea­ger­ness, clearly anx­ious to have us share his own ex­cite­ment. Frankel has ei­ther de­vel­oped her own pho­to­graphic equiv­a­lents of his es­says or found im­ages from else­where to do the job.

Typ­i­cally, they show us what nan­otech­nol­ogy re­veals about Venus’s Flower Bas­ket, a fa­mous deep-sea sponge in the form of a cage.

A nanome­tre, a bil­lionth of a me­tre, is hard to en­vi­sion

Its in­tri­cacy grows steadily more sur­pris­ing as sci­en­tists un­cover its anatomy. Un­der the unas­sisted hu­man eye it’s al­ready in­ter­est­ing. Con­sider it un­der high-power mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and it be­comes in­fin­itely more im­pres­sive. It rou­tinely traps two small shrimp, one male and one fe­male, which spend their lives in­side its cage, as guests and pris­on­ers. The shrimp breed and their off­spring go off to find their own Venus Flower Bas­ket. The cage pro­tects the shrimp; the sponge and the shrimp help to feed one an­other. “Each el­e­ment of the cage is com­posed of smaller el­e­ments, and at each scale of size there are as­ton­ish­ing and un­ex­pected de­tails of de­sign, constructi­on and in­ter­weav­ing of el­e­ments.”

The sponge builds it­self, to de­mand­ing stan­dards of constructi­on, with sili­cic acid from sea­wa­ter that it con­verts into sil­ica. An ar­ti­cle in Sci­ence in 2005 de­scribed the process

There are prac­ti­cal applicatio­ns for th­ese dis­cov­er­ies

un­der the head­ing “Struc­tural Hi­er­ar­chy from the Nanoscale to the Macroscale.”

“This de­sign,” White­side tells us, “is as el­e­gant, as any­thing en­gi­neers can con­ceive, and its fabri­ca­tion — par­tic­u­larly since the sponge has noth­ing even faintly re­sem­bling a brain, and no raw ma­te­ri­als to work with other than sea­wa­ter — is be­yond the best that en­gi­neers can do.” Non-sci­en­tists will be for­given if they re­spond as an ed­i­tor of The New Yorker once did when an ap­par­ently mirac­u­lous form of print­ing was ex­plained to him. “There is no way this could hap­pen,” he said.

There are, as usual, prac­ti­cal applicatio­ns for many of th­ese dis­cov­er­ies, be­yond the In­ter­net and re­lated prod­ucts. A PBS re­porter last month de­scribed nan­otech­nol­ogy as a key to Amer­ica’s eco­nomic fu­ture. He said, “Main­tain­ing Amer­ica’s po­si­tion in the world’s eco­nomic net­works, it turns out, de­pends more and more on smaller and smaller.”

I’m as en­thu­si­as­tic about eco­nomic progress as any­one, but I pre­fer at the mo­ment to think about Horton the Ele­phant. In 1954 that prophetic ge­nius, Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, pro­vided his young read­ers with an ad­vance taste of the nanoworld in his clas­sic fa­ble, Horton Hears a Who! It’s about a civ­i­liza­tion that ex­ists on a speck of dust so small that it’s barely vis­i­ble. It re­sem­bles noth­ing Horton has ex­pe­ri­enced, but when he sees proof of its ex­is­tence he re­joices in its unique­ness and em­braces it with joy.

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