Week 9_It’s a “small” wonder! by Cheng-Kuang Liu

“Nanotechnology” is fancy word. In pop culture, it is almost simply another cool word that means “modern,” “cool,” or “high-tech and expensive.” It is like a name brand—what ever product with “nano” attached to it instantly sounds more sophisticated by several degrees of magnitude, and could be sold at a higher price. Recall when “micro” and “atomic” sounded trendy. Anything with either of these two words attached to it automatically sounded so much cooler. Indeed, these words marked new frontiers of technological research, and the pop-cultural reaction to these words simply demonstrate their impact. I still remember when “megapixels” sounded impressive, 100 megabytes of free web-mail storage was cutting edge, and “giga” sounded totally exotic. Now “terabyte” has come on the scene, out-cooling the “gigabyte” by literally one-thousand-and-twenty-four times. “Nano” is the exact analogous of “tera,” but on the other end of the base-ten logarithmic scale. Perhaps one day we will master the nanotechnology, and “pico” will come on the scene as the new “the new thing.” If Apple would still be around, perhaps we will be introduced an “iPod pico.”

Letting alone the social craze concerning nanotechnology, what Dr. James Gimzewski talked about in lecture was truly impressive. I appreciate how he tied the development of nanotechnology to a change in our culture—from “seeing is believing” so “feeling is believing.” To take the statement quite literally, nanotechnology is applied to manufacturing new fabrics and materials, which really could be “felt.” But what is more striking is the non-literal connotation of the statement. The way we perceive and enjoy things is shifting. Recall how the phonograph revolutionized the entertainment world. Recall how the television set vegetated every household in America (ok, “vegetated” is not exactly the word). For the most part, our entertainment has been audio and visual. But this is shifting. Sounds and lights are no-longer good enough—we are growing more and more sensual. The way I see it, a recent wave of this movement started with the Nintendo DS, when the player no longer uses only buttons, but a touch screen, much more intuitive and appealing. Then along came the Wii and the iTouch, which we could control using accelerometers. In fact, the user is probably not even aware that he is using accelerometers—he may not even know what that is. He’s just swinging, tilting, and shaking like he would in real life. It was really hitting a spot in our sensual needs, as was self-evident in the popularity of these products.

Another thing in Dr. Gimzewski’s presentation intrigued me—the idea that we could build an abacus using nano-particles. Please excuse my technological inaccuracies, but to my knowledge, computers are basically built from transistors. Each transistor has two states—on and off, corresponding to signals “1” and “0.” The toggling between these two states allows the computer to carry out binary calculations, which are very efficient and fast. In an early predecessor of computers, the two-state switches are literally mechanical switches. Then we used capacitors instead. Now the “switches” have evolved to “bits” on a silicon chip too small to see. Consequently, computers are a lot more compact nowadays than they were back then. Now, if we could master manipulating nano-particles like manipulating the beads on an abacus, we could create two distinct states of one single molecule, representing “1” and “0.” Then we will be able to build a chip that is unprecedentedly small, which means that we could fit a lot more transistors in a given space. If we pull that off, our computers will be incredibly small and fast. In fact, even as of today, researchers are developing computers that use DNA instead of silicon-based chips (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dna_computer). What a future nanotechnology promises, and what impact it has on our society.

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