"They have found universes in grains of sand." - "Blood Music" by Greg Bear
A new frontier is at hand, but on such a small scale that it is nearly invisible. Scientists are actively pursuing research that would result in working devices measured in a few thousandths of a human hair, bringing faster and more portable computers, clothing that can protect against poison gas and tiny repair robots that can swim inside a human body and clear the gunk out of arterial pathways.
Hinted at for decades in science fiction stories such as "Fantastic Voyage" - a 1966 film that portrays humans shrunk to explore human arteries in tiny submarines - thinking small, very small, is the world's latest future fixation.
It was 1959 when Cal Tech physicist Richard Feynman declared "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," as he talked about nanotechnology, or maneuvering at the atomic scale. These infinitesimally small inventions, made up of gears and enzymes and chemical reactions, would do actual work. Perhaps they would manufacture enzymes to gobble up an oil spill safely or enable a layer of paint to include millions of solar collectors for household energy production. The basic research that would permit thousands of viable uses of nanoscience is in laboratories all over the world today, funded with a sudden influx of public and private research dollars.
IBM, Futjitsu and Intel are pouring money into research. So are public and private foundations. The Bush administration has earmarked $710 million for nanoscience research this year, a 17 percent increase over last year. The National Science Foundation predicts a $1 trillion market for nanotechnology products by 2015.
"If you look at it from the applications viewpoint, the computers, the devices, they are all getting very, very small," said Satish Tripathi, dean of the Bourns College of Engineering and an expert in computer science. "We need to study materials at the nano level for us to manipulate at the atomic level. This is a natural progression from where we are in materials science, biological sciences and information sciences. In order to stay relevant, we have to invest in this."
Whether major research breakthroughs are five years or 20 years or 50 years out, the potential changes wrought by nanoscience are likely to affect us all. Just beneath the surface of the basic science under way are potential applications in medicine, in the environment, in our national defense and in computers and other consumer products.
Just as in many areas of technology, science fiction has helped explore the idea of making tiny medical robots, mechanical and/or biological in nature, that manufacture and deliver medicines or diagnose and repair injuries.
The main character in "Blood Music," by Greg Bear, is a scientist whose body is physically reconfigured by tiny biological robots swimming inside. In the recent futuristic spy thriller, "Ecks vs. Sever," a tiny robot needle swims in to deliver a few molecules of a poison to one of the main characters: not enough to realistically kill anyone, but it makes for a good plot twist.
Back in the real world, researchers are looking for ways to tunnel out clogged arteries before the patient suffers a stroke or heart attack. Drug delivery systems might use nanoparticles small enough to gain entrance through the pores of a cancerous tumor. Or perhaps tumors can be found and removed while they are still only a group of a few cells, rather than a few million.
Commercial drug companies, a $380 billion annual industry worldwide, are major players in finding ways to make nanoscience join with the biological world of DNA strands, enzymes and proteins. The U.S. accounts for 40 percent of the world drug market.
"We already inject people with chemicals, and many medical functions work at the cellular level," said Robert Heath, a botany professor who also has an interest in the uses of science in science fiction literature. "What we are just starting to do is to combine the biological with the mechanical. That is the next step."
As an example, Heath cited a NASA project that changes a gene from a single-celled organism that lives in near-boiling acid mud to add instructions on how to make a protein that sticks to gold or semiconductors. Since cells and proteins are already programmed to replicate themselves, they make the perfect medium for attaching metals or chip components.
Just think about the cosmetic uses of nanoscience and the money they would bring in our appearance-obsessed society. Hair color can go from dark to light with nanomachines that change the amounts of melanocytes in hair follicles. And those robots swimming through the arterial lines? Wouldn't they, on their way, process some of the excess body fat?
On shelves of sporting goods stores, consumers can already find tennis rackets made from materials mixed with carbon nanotubes, for strength without weight. On the next aisle over sits sunscreen, with particles of zinc oxide that are so small they no longer reflect a visible light spectrum. Consumers get the protection from solar radiation without the white, globby mess.
The step-up platform in the GMC Safari SUV and the Chevrolet Astro minivan contain nanoparticles. For the most part, these applications do not call attention to themselves. But more could be coming that will be more visible. Or maybe invisible.
When Jackie Chan hides in plain sight in "The Tuxedo," it is a demonstration of one nanotechnology possibility: digital ink on clothing that would use millions of tiny electrical contacts to show or hide pigments, literally making the wearer a fabric-covered chameleon. In the movie, the clothing also controls the actions of the wearer, a concept that at this point is still much more fantastical than realistic. And the movie's claim that a tux like that costs $2 billion? That's a low estimate. Since nanotubes have not yet been mass produced, a gram of nanotubes costs more than the same amount of gold or platinum.
It's not all science fiction. MIT has an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, funded by the U.S. Army, which is working on developing lightweight armor or clothing that detect and protect against biohazards on the battlefield. Approximately 1,000 companies currently have nano-related products in the marketplace. A little less than a quarter of those are profitable at this point, according to NanoBusiness Alliance, a trade group in New York.
Wilson tennis balls, for instance, have nanoparticles in the coating of the inner core. Eddie Bauer right now offers stain-resistant khakis that are based on the new technology.
The National Science Foundation's senior adviser on nanotechnology, Mihail Roco, said the market for nanocomponents will reach $1 trillion a year, especially in computer chips, pharmaceuticals and chemical catalysts.
Computer science, already expanding more quickly than most people can update their systems, will advance even more quickly with the tools of nano science. IBM researchers have come upon a concept that may take us back to the future.
"Millipede," the code name for its research project, uses sharp tips to punch indentations into a thin plastic film. The result is more like the punch cards of the 1950s than the electrical on and off switches of our current computers. Because it is so small and the distances are so miniscule, Millipede can store a trillion bits of information on one square inch, 20 times more than today's available technology. That equates to 25 million printed pages on something the size of a postage stamp.
Nanotechnology might be able to do all this, while still keeping the planet green and clean. Devices to eat impurities from smokestacks, or oil from the oceans, or bacteria and chemicals from the drinking water, would help the earth support more people without massive industrial pollution.
At the end of their useful lives, these nano machines take up much less room in the trash bin, saving people from becoming overwhelmed by their own technological waste.
Imagine solar power cells so small they can be painted on with a layer of light sensitive paint on the outside of a house. Solar power for homes and businesses would be nearly invisible and clean. Cars might be made from lighter and stronger materials, thereby needing less energy to power them down the road.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding an effort to develop a portable, energy-efficient desalination unit to make sea water drinkable in the field. Ren and Mark Andelman, of Worcester, Mass.-based Biosources, have come up with a way to run seawater over electrically charged carbon nanotubes. The sodium and chloride ions are absorbed onto the tube surfaces. Desalinated water might be used to support growing populations with a readily available substitute for fresh water sources.
Philosophy and Religion
One thing that science fiction does best is raise ethical questions. For instance, how are we going to regard these devices that are part pulley and part chemical reaction? At what point do the boundaries slip between the biological and the mechanical?
"Soon we will be breeding machines instead of making them," said George Slusser, professor of comparative literature and the curator of UC Riverside's extensive collection of science fiction and fantasy. "In the end, will we have to hand over the world to a higher entity?" he asked.
Heath, Slusser's teaching partner in a course on the scientific ideas in science fiction, asked the age-old question of who decides whether a person's brain needs an overhaul. "If someone is psychotic, do you cure that? Or is that the part of them that might be tremendously creative?"
"Blood Music," the story cited previously, graphically details how a scientist experiments on himself, by injecting tiny biological devices that make repairs and improvements to bone and muscle and brain. It is, however, a cautionary tale. The scientist is transformed from the inside out. In the end, however, the bots themselves, as a new sentient life form, spread to other people and overwhelm human kind.
"But how realistic is this notion of a self-replicating nanobot?" asked Richard E. Smalley, a Nobel prize winner who founded the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University. In a Scientific American article from 2001, he outlined two fundamental problems with the idea of self-replicating nanobots, the kind that might "take over."
With comparisons to "fat fingers" and "sticky fingers," Smalley declared that self-replicating nanobots are no more than a "futurist's daydream," a comment that seems almost prescient in light of the December release of Michael Crichton's book "Prey" that imagines nanobots that fly in hordes and become threats to mankind.
Other great inventions have changed the world. Think about the first written language, curing plagues, the introduction of the printing press, discovering penicillin, the invention of the computer and harnessing atomic power. Mapping the human genome and biotechnology are two more scientific fields that have huge potential and risk, at the same time.
As James Burke pointed out in his public television series, "The Day the Universe Changed," there are certain inescapable realities of progress. Change brings both good and ill. And we are the ones who will determine the end of this tale.