Nanoscience Guru Shares Large Visions of Tiny Tech's Future

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 20, 2006

The year Greta Garbo died of kidney failure—1990—was when Ted Sargent decided to become a nanotechnologist. He fantasized about rebuilding the dreamy actress from the atom up.

Sixteen years later the now-32-year-old Sargent is being touted as the "Stephen Hawking of the nano world," referring to the field of science that deals with the very small.

Creating another Garbo may still be on his to-do list, but so far Sargent's research breakthroughs have been anything but tiny.

The University of Toronto professor has invented an optical switch that could make the Internet a hundred times faster than it is today and developed spray-on solar-power cells that may one day run our cars and homes.

National Geographic News spoke with Sargent, whose new book is called The Dance of Molecules: How Technology Is Changing Our Lives, about the promise that nanoscience holds, from curing cancer to breaking our dependency on oil for energy.

Many people only have a vague notion of what nanotechnology means. What do you tell them?

I call it engineering new things with the smallest little Lego blocks that we can get our hands on. It turns out that these building blocks—atoms and molecules—don't follow the same rules as those that you can physically pick up with your hands. As a result, the opportunity to create new functions becomes greatly enhanced, because it's like we have a whole new and very rich landscape in which to design materials.

It's not just about scale, you're really emulating nature.

It's stunning what nature can do and what we can't do. The most dramatic thing, to me, is how nature builds at so many length scales. Nature builds with atoms … then builds very simple molecules, and from those molecules builds proteins, and the proteins all collaborate together to eventually form structures inside cells, and then cells, and eventually organs, and eventually people.

Nature [builds] from the bottom up using these forces of self-organization, and that's something nanotechnology is trying to emulate. Although we use things that are small, maybe we can build things that are really big with it.

Your book details practical applications for nanotechnology, and it explores the potential for the science in three areas: health, environment, and information.

Let's start with health. How can nanotechnologies such as quantum dots help with diagnosing diseases?

Continued on Next Page >>


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