Science Isn’t Sexy

by Ben Thiefels

It is no secret that technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. The first thing I do in the morning after I hit the snooze button is grab my phone to check my email. I am literally still half asleep and I am already looking for my first fix of the day. I’m a junkie. Things don’t get much better from there. Facebook, Google, Wikipedia; they have become the anthem of our generation.

But if you’re like most people, any mention of complex science will immediately cause your eyes to glaze over and your mind to begin replaying a recent episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. I am certainly no exception. String Theory and algorithms conjure up images of pocket protectors, graphing calculators and lonely thirty somethings sitting in Mom’s basement. The fact of the matter is: science just isn’t sexy.

For the most part scientists live in complete anonymity. But if we actually take a step back and think about what the field of science has given us, even in the past 15 years, we may begin to change our thinking. My point to this rambling is that the science behind the technology we use every day is important, and there are a couple of fields, one in particular, that are perfectly positioned to completely transform our lives…again.

I am speaking about the field of Nanotechnology. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. Nanotechnology is the practice and study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. So you ask, what the hell does that mean? Well I asked that question too, and lo and behold the ever present, omniscient Wikipedia had the answer. In a nutshell, nanotech, as it’s referred to in the biz, is messing around with the atoms of a particular matter. To give you an idea of how small these particles are, a nanometer (the namesake of the nanoparticle) is one billionth of a meter . The width of one human hair is 40,000 times larger than a nanometer. So we’re talking pretty small.

So what does this have to do with technology? Well when you start messing around with the fundamental composition of material, you can make it do some pretty cool things. Take the examples below:

Invisibility:

John Rogers from Illinois University just created a material, using metamaterials (materials created with nanotech) which can essentially make anything it covers invisible. Think Harry Potter here.

“The metal alloys in metamaterials are arranged in a grid fitted with openings smaller than the wavelengths of visible light (400 to 700 nanometers). Light cannot pass unimpeded through any space smaller than its own wavelength, so it gets trapped in the grid. Captured photons can be stored, manipulated or, in this case, funneled around an object and returned to their original course. An object cloaked by a perfectly made metamaterial would cast no shadow.”

The team at Illinois still has a lot of work before they can actually use this in a practical application, but the groundwork has been laid and invisibility is within our grasp.

Massive hard drives and microscopic devices:

A team at The University of Scotland: Glasgow are on their way to creating a 1×1 inch hard drive that can hold up to 500,000 Gigabytes. That’s more than 250 times the storage than the largest consumer hard drives on the market today. They achieved these massive storage capacities by engineering a series of switches on a molecular level. The result could be an Ipod that could hold up to 250,000,000 songs. Yes you read that right. 250 Million Songs. If you started listening to your Ipod the day you were born you would not get through half of that by the time you were 90. Audiophiles rejoice!

In addition to increasing storage space, Nanotech can create unbelievably small electronic devices. Today’s electronics rely solely on Silicon chips, which have limitations that we are quickly reaching. The electronic devices of the future will not have these limitations because they will rely on materials that are much, much smaller. Nanotechnology already allows us to create fully functional devices that are no larger than a grain of sand. It goes without saying that the opportunity is limitless.

Self-cleaning clothing:

Yes you read that right. Nanotechnology could effectively render the washing machine obsolete.

“Red wine, chocolate, blood… more than just the ingredients of a very wild weekend, the three can permanently stain natural fabrics such as silk and wool, making that expensive linen or rug practically unusable after a spill. Unless, of course, the clothing, sheets and so on have been treated previously with anatase titanium dioxide nanoparticles. When catalyzed by sunlight, the 5nm wide particles decompose and, in the process, break down stains and even scents!”

These are only a couple examples of how nanotechnology is already improving our lives. There are countless other applications ranging from microscopic medical treatment devices to solar panel shingles on your roof. The small field of nanotech will undoubtedly have massive influence over our society in the coming decades. So the next time you hear someone talking about something you don’t understand, resist the urge to start day dreaming, you just might learn something

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