Jeffrey Brown reports on an exhibit that spreads the word about nanotechnology and its implications for a variety of fields, including health care, architecture and space travel.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Science Unit report about the cutting edge field called nanotechnology. Jeffrey Brown reports.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: Oh, it's like a slow-motion beach ball.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's not every day you get to play catch with a molecule, and not every day you get a top scientist to play along.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: If we just go like this, right, it doesn't move like a soccer ball. But if we exert force, we can distort the molecule.
JEFFREY BROWN: At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently, Scottish-born Jim Gimzewski tried to explain nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials at the scale of a nanometer, the distance between a few atoms.
Building a new world from the smallest particles up is something scientists have been struggling with for over 40 years, since Nobel physicist Richard Feynman challenged them to invent new techniques to work at a scale then impossible. Each of these soccer ball shapes, part of an exhibition called "Nano," represents a single carbon-60 molecule, named a "buckyball" for Buckminster Fuller. In reality, a buckyball is far too small to see.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: Push back, yeah. You're getting good at it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Hey, yeah.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: It's a kind of dancing process. Okay, and if we go together, we can push...
JEFFREY BROWN: What have we just done?
JIM GIMZEWSKI: What we've done is flattened a buckyball.
JEFFREY BROWN: ( Laughs ) It's the first time I've ever done that.
In Gimzewski's lab at UCLA, the equipment is more complicated; the labor more intensive. But the idea of prodding and poking molecules and atoms is the same, and research into this science of the small is suddenly very big -- hundreds of universities and companies around the world and a $3.7 billion initiative by the federal government recently signed by President Bush.
Nanotechnology's promise: New materials and new devices that could one day lead to advances in health care, architecture, space travel; in theory, pretty much everything.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: Imagine you could arrange atoms anyway you wanted, all the way up to a thing, okay? And this thing could be anything. Okay, how do you, with your human imagination, cope with that? What do you design? What do you make? It has this tremendous possibility for creativity like we have never known before.
Jim Gimzewski Los Angeles County Museum of Art
What is 'nanotechnology?'
JEFFREY BROWN: The word "nano" comes from the Greek work for dwarf. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, approximately 80,000 times thinner than a human hair. In order to manipulate matter this small, nanoscientists, chemists like Gimzewski but also physicists, biologists, and others, use amazing-looking equipment. This one, called a scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, was built by Gimzewski and his team. It can't actually see the nanoparticles. Instead, it feels them, and moves them around with an atomic size probe.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: The image we see here is the tip of the microscope, which is about twice the thickness of your hair, the large part. And then the very sharp part terminates in one atom.
JEFFREY BROWN: The key to nanotechnology -- and this is perhaps hardest of all to understand -- is that, at this scale, particles behave differently than at the mass scale we live our lives in. For nano-objects, the relative amount of surface atoms is much greater than for a larger object, and those surface atoms act upon, and change, each other constantly. Gimzewski explains the nature of the nano-world using two tennis balls.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: This ball does not know about this ball unless they collide. And this picture is something that emerges from Newton, you know, Newton's laws of motion. Basically, the model of industry, the industrial model we use is off this type of interaction -- gears, even electronics is based on, more or less, a model like this. Now, in the world of shrinking these balls then, some 100 million times or so, where they become atoms, this atom would know about the presence of this atom.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it would feel it.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: It would feel it already remotely at long distance. And essentially, the properties of this atom, okay, would be changing just by the proximity of this atom.
Carbon atoms rolled into tube
JEFFREY BROWN: Until now, scientists have not been able to exploit these properties and shape, or reshape, the world at the molecular level; now, they're learning how. You keep talking about the mechanical properties, the sort of new way of building. You're really a builder.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: Yes, yes, I'm a builder, a builder on this very small scale. And I would say that if you look at science and technology up until this point, people have been concerned with electrons, you know, electricity, computer chips. People have been concerned with light, lasers. The mechanical world of the atoms has not been accessible to them. So it's a brand-new field, and it's amazing that you can by very gentle forces generate new structures.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nano processes and materials have already shown up in some early consumer products. A company called Nanotex created pants that are treated with a thin molecular layer to be stain resistant. They're sold through Eddie Bauer and other clothing companies.
Sunclean Windows self clean through nanotechnology. The glass breaks down organic dirt and provides a sheathing action on contact with water, flushing the surface clean. But that's kid stuff compared to what could one day be done with carbon nanotubes, carbon atoms arranged in the form of hexagons and rolled up into tubes that are very long and very thin -- one nanometer in diameter. Gimzewski showed us a large-scale model.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: They have amazing mechanical properties in terms of strength. They're stronger than steel and lighter than steel. In addition, just the very form suggests of a probe, a tip. We know we can open the ends of these tubes, we can put material into them. You could think of this to be the smallest syringe needles in the world.
JEFFREY BROWN: So much of what we're talking about really is the stuff of science fiction.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: Yes, and one of the reasons for that is that science as such doesn't have a language really to describe nanotechnology. So, to a certain extent, scientists borrow from science fiction, and science fiction borrows from, you know, nanoscience.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you mean that scientists are in fact groping for ways to describe what they're doing?
JIM GIMZEWSKI: Yes, very much so.
Victoria Vesna Artist and UCLA Professor
Having art explain the science
JEFFREY BROWN: If scientists are groping, how are the rest of us to understand this alternate universe, something we can't even see? One way is through art. At the "Nano" exhibition at the L.A. County Museum of Art, a team of scientists, including Gimzewski, curators, architects, and artists have tried to let visitors see what life feels like at nanoscale. On the day we visited, fifth graders on a field trip crawled inside a kaleidoscope, ran through a quantum tunnel, and built their own 3-D crystals.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are you feeling kind of dizzy?
JEFFREY BROWN: Artist and UCLA Professor Victoria Vesna says that nanoscience requires some major rethinking in many aspects of life.
VICTORIA VESNA: If you look at some of the images of the atoms and molecules that they teach our kids in school, it all looks like this plastic, 3-D, rigid world, which it's not. It's all in flux and motion -- particles, waves. So I've really started questioning that. And I truly believe that this new science needs a new form of art to interrelate and to project and move people into a new way of thinking about the world we live in.
JEFFREY BROWN: In one exhibit, Vesna worked with Tibetan monks and the UCLA Lab to make a Buddhist Mandala sand painting, and bring viewers literally inside one grain of sand.
VICTORIA VESNA: First we went with a regular microscope, where you see these boulders appearing. Then we go beyond the color scheme into this grain of sand, and then you're down to particles and waves.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is literally the grain of sand containing a whole world.
VICTORIA VESNA: That's right, as William Blake said a long time ago. He said it as a poet, but now we're actually experiencing it through science and art together.
JIM GIMZEWSKI: It's all about understanding and manipulating complexity on more and more levels. And then to tell you the truth, we're at a fairly low level in that process, at the moment. But give us 20, 30 years, who knows where we'll be.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the shorter term, Gimzewski and other scientists are concerned that nanotechnology is being over hyped and oversold to investors. And there are other potentially bigger concerns. Some critics, including a group called the Foresight Institute, have raised environmental and ethical questions about the potential for unintended consequences when we change the world at the molecular level. In his latest novel, "Prey," best-selling author Michael Crighton even posits a world in which nanorobots run amok, beyond man's control.
As these issues begin to receive more attention, Jim Gimzewski says scientists have a responsibility to explain to the public what they're doing as they go forward. For now, he'll continue his own cautious dance to the promise of nano's future.
JIM LEHRER: "Nano," the art exhibit, runs through Sept. 6 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For a slide show of that and a forum with experts, and much more on nanotechnology, please visit our Web site at pbs.org.