How Small Can Science get?

Author: Suhani Patel

Editors: Peggy Yang and Cynthia Zhang

Artist: Aurora Chen

Imagine climbing out of the shower only to discover that you have shrunken in the wash by about 1500 million times compared to your original size! If you stepped into your living room, what you would see around you would not be chairs, tables, computers, and your family, but instead would be atoms, molecules, proteins, and cells. Shrunk down to the "nanoscale," you will not only see the particles that everything is composed of—you will actually be able to move them around! Now suppose you started sticking those atoms together in interesting new ways, like tiny lego bricks of nature. You could build all kinds of fantastic materials, everything from brand new medicines to ultra-fast computer chips. Making new things on this microscopic scale is called nanotechnology and it's one of the most exciting, fast-moving areas of science and technology today.

We live on a scale of meters and kilometers, so it's quite challenging for humans to imagine a world that's too small to see. You've probably looked at amazing photos in science books of things like dust mites and flies photographed with electron microscopes. These powerful scientific instruments make microscopic images, which means on a scale millionths of a meter wide. Nanoscopic involves shrinking things down to a whole new level. Nano means "billionth,” so a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. In other words, the nanoscale is 1000 times smaller than the microscopic scale.

There are some very intriguing things about the nanoscale. Lots of substances behave very differently in the world of atoms and molecules. For example, the metal copper is transparent on the nanoscale while gold, typically nonreactive, becomes very chemically active. Carbon, which is quite soft in its naturally occurring form, becomes incredibly hard when it's tightly packed into a nanoscopic arrangement called a nanotube. It is easier for atoms and molecules to move around and between one another on the nanoscale, so the chemical properties of materials can alter. In other words, materials display different physical properties on the nanoscale even though they're still the same materials zoomed out! Nanoparticles have much more surface area exposed to other nanoparticles, so they are excellent catalysts (substances that speed up chemical reactions).

One reason for these differences is that different factors become essential on the nanoscale. In our everyday world, gravity is the primary force we encounter: it dominates everything around us, from the way our hair hangs down around our head to the way Earth has different seasons at different times of the year. But on the nanoscale, electromagnetic forces between atoms and molecules are more significant than gravity. Factors like thermal vibrations (the way atoms and molecules store heat by jiggling about) also play a critical role. In short, the game of science has different rules when you play it on the nanoscale.

Nanotechnology sounds like a world of great promise, but there are controversial issues that must be considered and resolved. Some people have raised concerns that nanoscale organisms or machines could harm human life or the environment. One problem is that these tiny particles can be extremely toxic to the human body—it is unknown about the harmful effects of new nanomaterials and substances. Chemical pesticides were not considered dangerous when they were first used in the early decades of the 20th century; it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that their harmful effects were adequately understood. Scientists wonder if the same could happen with nanotechnology.

Critics of nanotechnology argue that humans shouldn't meddle with worlds they don't understand fully, but that would mean that no scientific breakthroughs would happen at all: no medicines, no transportation, no agriculture, no education, and we would still be living in the Stone Age. The real question is whether the promise of nanotechnology is greater than the potential risks which will determine whether our nano-future becomes a dream come true—or a nightmare.

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