Nano-What?

Alex Halperin Photo Nanotechnology might change James Eastwood’s life. Pouring green-algae extract into a beaker with salt water might help him understand why.

At least that’s what organizers of a “Nanodays” festival thought.

The idea is that people need to understand what nanotech—which is revolutionizing consumer and medical products—is all about. But usually scientists write and talk in something approaching their own language, not something that 10-year-olds like James Eastwood or even the average adult can understand.

Conducting his experiment at the recent “Nanodays” fest at Boston’s Museum of Science, Eastwood looked nonplussed when the water turned light green as if someone had dropped in food coloring. Eastwood then combined the algae with another liquid, a calcium chloride solution. The algae congealed into a green gelatinous snake as the surrounding solution remained clear. Eastwood pronounced it “cool.”

Mikkel Jensen, a Boston University graduate student in biophysics who was running the demo said the experiment was supposed to demonstrate how “changes in microscopic properties change the macroscopic structure.” Like his fellow volunteers he was wearing an “I “heart” NANO” T-shirt.

At another station liquid poured over a crushed Alka-Seltzer foamed up more violently than liquid poured over an intact tablet. Kids could see how clumps of sand treated with a “hydrophobic” coating could be dropped in water and emerge bone dry. In the museum lobby young visitors added to a giant balloon model of a carbon nanotube. The “Amazing Nano Brothers” performed an expert juggling show.

Nanotechnology is a set of tools and techniques used to manipulate ultra-small particles. At the molecular level, familiar materials can behave in unusual ways. They can change color, repulse water or become ultra conductive. Because their surface area relative to mass is so much higher, as in the Alka-Seltzer, materials can become more reactive.

These properties ensure that nanoparticles, typically defined as between one and 100 nanometers – a nanometer is one billionth of a meter – have applications in areas from manufacturing microchips and electronics to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The cost of that progress is still in the process of being tallied; environmental and consumer advocates have raised concerns about nanoparticles polluting or causing health problems.

In fact so much science is now conducted at the nanoscale that the term is perhaps more useful for non-scientists. Nanodays, a series of educational events held across the country and organized by the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, is an effort to initiate people to some of the basic concepts nanotech and explain why they’re relevant to everyday life. 

Karine Thate, an education associate at the Boston museum, said that many people are “familiar with the word. They’ve heard it in the news, but I think very few people know what it really is.” If the exhibit can “make people aware of it and make it seems less complex and scary.”

Indeed, the best-known reference to nanotech in pop culture is Michael Crichton’s novel Prey, in which nano-sized robots reproduce into swarms of nanobots which terrorize the countryside. This unlikely apocalyptic scenario is sometimes called the “grey goo problem.” It’s a less than ideal launchpad for discussing work that might contribute to cancer treatments or new ways to produce renewable energy. 

Though aspects of nanotechnology could prove incredibly useful, it resists easy definition. Nanoparticles are undetectable without an atomic spectrum microscope. As with so much leading science, explaining an individual experiment, let alone understanding why it matters is often incomprehensible to anyone who never got past high school physics. 

Meanwhile those looking to reassure the public about nanotech, such as people in industry, sometimes blur the term’s meaning. Atoms and molecules are nano-sized, they say, and since they’re the building blocks of everything it follows that everything is nanotech. On the other end of the spectrum nano-sized particles often clump together forming particles larger than 100 nanometers. If something is 120 nanometers long should it be considered nanotech? Questions like this may contribute to why the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration haven’t developed working definitions of nanotech for regulatory purposes.

“We’ve been using nanotech for centuries but I think the key issue is not that the nanoscale exists and that it has such interesting properties… It’s that we know why these properties arise and we can control them,” said Dr. Jeffrey Grossman, a material scientist at the Massachusetts institute of Technology who spoke during Nanodays on energy applications for nanotech. 

With notable exceptions, explaining science to the uninitiated is not the job description of leading researchers. Whether funded by tax dollars or private grants, most scientists publish in professional journals and have little time or incentive to reach out to the public. Nanodays is an attempt to bridge that gap.

The previous day Raoul Correa, a graduate student at MIT, gave a talk explaining colloidal quantum dots, nano-sized semiconducting crystals. First Correa dispelled stereotypes about scientists with a slide of him and some colleagues playing volleyball. They were in a tournament. “We did quite well. Just putting that out there.”

He explained how his lab creates colloidal quantum dots by injecting the material into a heated solvent. Then he showed how under UV light, liquids
containing a type of quantum dot less than 2 nanometers glow green but dots twice that size glow red. At the end he listed potential applications for quantum dots in solar panels and energy efficient monitors.

“It’s important for the public to understand that the things we do in research are not small incremental gains that don’t have any benefit - rather, each success brings us closer to realizing a more understandable universe,” Correa said.

But there’s a cognitive gap between what happens at a leading lab and what most people can understand. Dr. Jennifer Hoffman an assistant professor of physics at Harvard said, “Today’s basic science is going to be the technology 20 years from now, but people want to hear about next year’s technology.”

“You don’t have impact in science unless you know how to communicate,” Dr. Donald Ingber, director of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering said. “I don’t think science will continue to be supported and funded unless we get the buy in of the public.”

Though nanotech is invisible Dr. Ingber suggested that the concepts might be easier to grasp than those in advanced chemistry or biology. “It’s really physical things. It’s mechanics. It’s structure. It’s form.”

Dr. Ingber, who used to be a comedy writer, said science “can get so caught up in jargon and abbreviations and lost in the details that very few people can get at the conceptual level of what’s important.” He has designed accessible presentations like illustrating cell activity with pictures of eggs in carton. For example more than 12 eggs in a carton illustrates “tumor formation.”

Similarly on his Web site Dr. Grossman of MIT has an “outreach” section with articles explaining the value of nanotechnology to non-scientists but it remains a relatively rare phenomenon.

“We collectively as a science community need to do much more to step to that responsibility,” he said. “If you can’t explain [your work] to anyone than you don’t understand it well enough”

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