Ballet on a Small Scale

By Tatu, Robin | ASEE Prism, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Ballet on a Small Scale


Tatu, Robin, ASEE Prism


Ballet on a Small Scale Hailed as one of the world's top innovators, engineering professor Ted Sargent writes poetically about the choreography of atoms and molecules. BY ROBIN TATU THE DANCE OF MOLECULES: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives by Ted Sargent Thunder's Mouth Press 2006, 304 pps.

What are the possibilities and limitations of nanotechnology? Already the U.S. military is investigating "smart suits" for its soldiers, uniforms that can absorb bullets, compress wounds, provide camouflage and protect the wearer from biological poisons. Medical researchers are developing chips to detect and destroy cancer at the cellular level, and electrical engineers are exploring a supercharged Internet based entirely upon light. In the near future, we may be able to grow human organs to replace failing livers, hearts and kidneys.

All of these innovations are explored in Ted Sargent's "The Dance of Molecules," an exuberant paean to nanotechnology. Sargent points out that nanotechnology is not new-nature has for eternity been organizing life from the atomic and molecular level on up, creating "limitless variety, beauty, form and purpose" based on a set of simple but powerful rules. Now scientists and engineers are seeking to work within this set of rules to coax matter into new forms. And this is the dance of which Sargent writes, "a choreographed [ballet] among atoms and molecules to achieve a desired effect."

Throughout his book, Sargent extols the advances of this hot new science, detailing present and future applications, as well as the ethical and environmental challenges that lie ahead. After an overview of developments from the 1980s onward, the book is divided into three sections, focusing on the fields of health, the environment and information systems. The sections are further divided into chapters that examine various aspects of these topics. In the health section, for example, we learn of the nanotechnological progress in diagnosing, healing and growing new body parts. Sargent is particularly impassioned when discussing the environment, stressing the need for America to break its dependency on fossil fuels and shift to solar power. "If we could cover one-tenth of 1 percent of the Earth's surface with solar cells," he proclaims, "we could satisfy our energy needs completely using this clean source of energy alone."

The efforts of other researchers are given generous exposure throughout this text-among many others, Rice University's Vicki Colvin's investigations into the toxicity of nanomaterials, University of Toronto's Sajeev John's exploration of photonic crystals and Northwestern University's Sam Stupp's successes with cell scaffold building. …

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