Miniaturization to the Max: Nanotech Pioneer Lauded

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 10, 2003

Machines, medicines, and materials a mere fraction the width of a human hair may one day store trillions of bits of information, detect the onset of cancer, and restore a paralyzed limb.

But before the promise of nanotechnology is even modestly met, scientists must first learn how to make three-dimensional structures and tools at a scale much too small for even the deftest robots or nimblest human hands to manipulate.

George Whitesides, a chemist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the job. On November 10 he will be awarded the 2003 Kyoto Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Advanced Technology for, among a myriad of accomplishments, laying the foundation for building nanostructures.

Nanotechnology gets its name from a unit of measurement known as the nanometer, which is one billionth of a meter. To put the dimension in perspective, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Whitesides is being recognized for pioneering advances in material sciences that increased understanding of how molecules can assemble themselves and how such assembly can be applied to building devices that are measured in nanometers.

"Materials are very important—they are the stuff out of which everything is made—but they are often invisible to the user. So they are a foundation for technology, not the visible part," said Whitesides.

The Kyoto Prize, one of three to be awarded in Japan for significant contributions to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual development of humankind, comes with a gold medallion and check worth about U.S. $400,000.

"[I'm] pleased, of course, what else?" said Whitesides about the honor. "But for the research group—this is an award that [goes] to a substantial number of people."

The nod is to about 50 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and visitors that work in his laboratory at Harvard, which is one of the largest and best funded nanotechnology-related labs in the U.S., according to Mihail Roco, the senior advisor of nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, and leader of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Multidisciplinary Area

Roco oversees the more than U.S. $700 million the U.S. government now spends on nanotechnology research each year. He said part of Whitesides' success in obtaining a hefty slice of the pie is the ease with which he moves between the various disciplines that make up nanotechnology.

"He is certainly good in chemistry—his original interest—but he moves very easily to fluidic devices, systems engineering, electronics, and many other fields," said Roco. "This is part of his success and recognition."

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