What is nanotechnology? How will it affect our lives? And, why should we care?
These are just a few of the questions addressed in Talking Nano, a wide-ranging
6-DVD set that includes presentations by noted researchers, a museum educator,
and, remarkably, two very talented jugglers.
Taken as a whole, Talking Nano provides an excellent overview of where nanotechnology
came from, what has been accomplished so far, and where it might eventually
take us. Discs 1, 2, 3 and 6 are geared toward viewers with little or no prior
knowledge about nanoscience, including younger science students. In Disc 1,
A Brief Intro to Nano, Museum of Science educator Tim Miller provides a concise
introduction to nanoscale science as framed by Richard Feynman's 1959
prediction that scientists would find "plenty of room at the bottom."
Miller's presentation packs a lot of information into 20 minutes, and
serves as a tasty appetizer for what's to come.
In Disc 2, Don Eigler and his Dog Argon: Moving Atoms, IBM Fellow Don Eigler
introduces the atom and its basic structure before delving into his own groundbreaking
research in nanoscale imaging and atom manipulation. A surprisingly down-to-earth
presence-sporting a ponytail and joined onstage by his dog Argon-Eigler
wraps complex ideas into a folksy and accessible delivery. He easily explains
how data from scanning probe microscopes are used to produce visualizations
of individual atoms, and shows some of his own iconic colorized "atomic
landscapes." Leaving Powerpoint slides behind, and contacting his colleagues
in California via Skype, Eigler logs into their scanning probe microscope and
with a few clicks of the mouse, moves an actual atom in front of a cheering
audience. As the video ends, Eigler takes things a step further, inviting kids
onstage to do a little atomic manipulation of their own. Their enthusiasm reveals
the power of a master of the art of science communication, able to guide children
as well as adults to an awe-inspiring awareness of a remote and typically inaccessible
Guiding Light with Nanowires on Disc 3 captures another youth-friendly presentation
by another masterful science communicator, Harvard physicist Eric Mazur. Beginning
with his own colorful underwater images, Mazur reveals the strange effects produced
by the reflection and refraction of light moving through substances of different
densities. He demonstrates "total internal reflection," first harnessed
a hundred years ago to produce public art, and now used to move light over great
distances in fiber optics, a technology which has revolutionized communications.
Mazur is a skilled and energetic presenter who has a knack for breaking difficult
concepts into bite-sized chunks. He keeps his science firmly grounded in everyday
experience. He describes almost stumbling upon the discovery that glass fibers
can be pulled to nanoscale thinness with a simple Bunsen burner, and shows how
these remarkably thin wires could serve as rails for guiding light in future
communication technologies. We get a sense of the excitement of discovery on
the edge of this still wide-open frontier: one innovation leading to another,
and basic research morphing into tools and systems that change our lives.
The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show, the "bonus" Disc 6 of
the series, is quite a departure from the presentation-based format of the other
5 Talking Nano DVDs - and probably unique in the world of science theater:
a 40 minute comedic romp through atomic structure, size and scale, nanoscale
properties, and scanning probe microscopy. The very talented Joel Harris and
Dan Foley, keeping up a constant banter about nanoscale science, spiced with
slapstick brotherly rivalry, perform some truly amazing juggling feats choreographed
just for this show, bringing key concepts about the nanoscale to life through
"juggling visualizations." Art literally embodies science, as, for
example, strobing balls arc across a dark stage illustrating the atom's
electron "cloud;" Joel and Dan "bond" by sharing electrons
(passing balls back and forth in complex patterns); and a unicycle stands in
for the tip of a scanning probe microscope, while the brothers pass data back
and forth in the form of rings (0's) and clubs (1's). This unique
presentation was conceived, written and directed by the Museum of Science's
Carol Lynn Alpert, with help from Dan and Joel and based on their prodigious
Discs 4 and 5 are more appropriate for older students or adults, and tackle
some of the more controversial aspects of nanotechnology. On Disc 4, Nanotechnology
and the Consumer, David Rejeski of the Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
discusses the complex interplay between science, regulatory policy, and public
opinion. Rejeski points out that even while nano-engineered consumer products
are rapidly filling store shelves, research into potential health and safety
risks and the formulation and enforcement of appropriate regulatory policy has
lagged. At the same time, public perceptions about nanotechnology vary widely
across gender, education level, and even ideology, suggesting significant differences
in the way information about new technologies is processed by different people.
The most illuminating aspect of Rejeski's talk is his discussion probing
the nature of current discourse between government, industry, and the public,
and its impact on the future development of nanotechnology.
The fifth disc in the series, George Whitesides: Perspectives on Nanotechnology
(and its longest, clocking in at 55 minutes), offers a provocative overview
of the past, present, and future of nanotechnology, from the unique perspective
of this pioneering Harvard researcher in chemistry, biology, and nanotechnology.
Peppered with philosophical interjections and broad insights on everything from
the nature of existence to the ineffability of the wave/particle duality, George
Whitesides' talk feels like a fireside chat with an éminence grise.
The tenor of Whitesides talk is undeniably pro-science, and by extension pro-nanotechnology.
While critically questioning some of the more hyped-up claims for nanotechnology
and acknowledging, somewhat sardonically, some of the less-exalted drivers of
research and innovation, he makes the case, on balance, that investment in nanotechnology
will bring positive outcomes for society. At the same time, he cautions his
listeners to consider the ethical dimensions of certain veins of scientific
inquiry, wondering, for example, whether we should bioengineer green-glowing
mice or prettier pets just because we can, and questioning the quality of life
in a future in which ubiquitous information capture and storage will radically
alter notions of privacy. While some viewers may feel Whitesides is too dismissive
of certain kinds of potential risks, few will find this talk lacking in terms
of the breadth of topics covered, or for the insights it offers into the implications
of nanotechnology for society.
Talking Nano was filmed at and produced by the Museum of Science, Boston in
association with the NSF Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, the Harvard
NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, the Wilson Center Project
on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and the Nanoscale Informal Science Education
Network. It is available at cost from the Museum of Science online store. For
more information, see talkingnano.net."