Tools for building a small world
How many times when working on something frustratingly tiny like your wife's wrist watch, have you said to yourself, “If I could only train an ant to do this!” - Richard Feynman lectures on miniaturization, 1959
Tools wheel civilization forward. As early humans experimented with the raw materials of their environment, they discovered fire and the miracles it could perform - reorganizing materials to convert clay into pottery, sand into glass, and ores into bronze, iron and other metals.
By the early 17th-century Galileo’s telescope had rocked the very foundations of theology, providing the first concrete observations in support of the Copernican model, which placed the sun, rather than Earth, at the center of the universe. And within decades, Robert Boyle had formulated the idea of chemical elements, paving the way for a conceptual tool - the periodic table - that would later prove an irresistible playground for chemists. These set about heating, cooling, distilling and mixing different combinations of matter in a wave of experimentation that would soon bring about the industrial revolution and, later, the wonders of 20th-century materials science: plastics, computers, lasers, aircraft and even the first space probe, Sputnik 1, launched by the USSR on October 4, 1957.
Today’s nano toolbox features instruments that perform a range of imagination-stretching functions, including microscopes that can view and even pick up and move individual atoms according to design.
Unappeased however, by the challenge of exploring the vastness of space, the winds of science were soon blowing in the opposite direction, with researchers seeking the ability to study matter on the tiniest of scales. In 1959 physics Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, speaking at the California Institute of Technology, gave his classic talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” firing the imagination of scientists with the vision of a new discipline devoted to manipulating matter down to the level of a single atom.
But it would take years for researchers to come up with the critical ingredients. They first had to develop the techniques and tools needed to view individual atoms and fleeting, nanosecond-scale events, such as those occurring in the human cell.
Today’s nano toolbox features instruments that perform a range of imagination-stretching functions, including microscopes that can view and even pick up and move individual atoms according to design. These technological advances have been coupled with ever more powerful computers, facilitating the calculation of the properties of nanoparticles.
Weizmann Institute researchers are applying the tools of nanoscience to advance microelectronics. Others are working to develop sensors capable of identifying minute traces of various compounds - a quest with medical and industrial applications; while yet others have pioneered the use of X-rays to analyze the structure of nanosized crystals. Their studies are yielding insights into long-explored riddles, including the origin of life on Earth.