Can Art Make Nanotechnology Easier to Understand?

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
December 23, 2003

The old adage "seeing is believing" hardly applies to nanoscience, which operates on a scale of atoms and molecules. So how do you make something so miniscule and abstract appear real to the ordinary eye?

Why not through art?

A new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called "nano," merges the art and the atom. Through art-making exhibits, visitors can experience what it's like to move molecules and manipulate atoms one by one.

The project, which was created by a team of nanoscience, media arts, and humanities experts from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), allows visitors to experience nanotechnology by sensing it, even when they can't see it.

"This new science is about a shift in our perception of reality from a purely visual culture to one based on sensing and connectivity," said Victoria Vesna, chair of the UCLA Department of Design/Media Arts, who spearheaded the project with James Gimzewski, a UCLA chemistry professor and nanoscience pioneer.

From Viewing to Sensing

The word nano is Greek for "dwarf." A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. To better understand the miniscule scale of this science, consider this: The average thickness of a human hair is 50,000 nanometers.

The conceptual underpinnings of the science were introduced in 1959 by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in a lecture titled "There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom." But it wasn't until the early 1970s that Japanese engineer Norio Taniguchi first proposed the term nanotechnology.

Although scientists knew that matter existed on the nano scale, they were unable to analyze it through microscopes. When magnified ten thousand times in a lens-based microscope, an image starts to go fuzzy; at 100,000 times, it's blank.

The breakthrough came in 1981, when scientists at the IBM laboratories in Zürich, Switzerland, invented the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, which for the first time looked at the topography of atoms that cannot be seen.

The technology marked a paradigm shift in how scientists analyze miniscule matter, allowing them to record shape by tactile sensing instead of viewing it, much like a blind man reading Braille, only on the atomic scale.

But most people's understanding of nanotechnology remains limited. Recently, some artists have suggested that a perceptual shift has to take place in our minds if we want to comprehend the work of nanoscience.

Continued on Next Page >>


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