NPR logo

The Small Parts That Drive The Universe

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124115276/124115251" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Small Parts That Drive The Universe

Author Interviews

The Small Parts That Drive The Universe

The Small Parts That Drive The Universe

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124115276/124115251" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

See a gallery of images from No Small Matter.

How do you take pictures of objects that are too small to photograph? George Whitesides and Felice Frankel, co-authors of the image-heavy book No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale, discuss nanoscience and the process of photographing particles smaller than photons.

JOE PALCA, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Joe Palca. Ira Flatow is away.

We may feel like we understand the world around us, but what about when you look at everything on an atomic level? It can be hard to see how the microscopic movements of electrons affect us, but they do. They're even more smaller than microscopic. They're below microscopic.

And a new book aims to help us see those kinds of movements. It's called "No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale." The authors have tried to bring the tiniest-known pieces of the universe up to a level that anybody can see and understand, and they say that with the challenges we're facing today in energy and biotech and Internet communications, nanotechnology, which is what this new world of small research is all about, is more important than what it's called is more important than ever.

So if you want to join our small talk ha-ha give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. If you're on Twitter, you can tweet us your questions by writing the @ sign followed by sciencefriday.

And I have to say, if there's any chance that you're near a computer, you should really go to www.sciencefriday.com/arts, because if you go there, you'll be able to see the pictures in this book or not all of them, but some of them and you'll be able to have a visual representation of what it is that we're talking about. You really, I mean, this is a visual story. I mean, we're going to do our best to describe it to you on radio, but the pictures will really help, and so if there's any chance you can go over to the Web site, please go do it.

So now let me introduce my guests, the authors of this new book. First we have Felice Frankel. She's a senior research fellow at Harvard and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Thanks very much for joining us.

Ms. FELICE FRANKEL (Harvard, MIT): It's a pleasure, Joe. Nice to be here.

PALCA: And George Whitesides is the Flowers University Professor at Harvard. Thank you.

Dr. GEORGE WHITESIDES (Harvard University): Pleasure.

PALCA: And we're speaking to both you're both in a studio in Harvard. Is it snowing up there?

Dr. WHITESIDES: No, it's spring almost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Oh, well, that's good. Okay, so I we just talked about why this book is important and nanotechnology is important. Flesh that out for me, George Whitesides. Why is nanotechnology something that people should know about today? Why is this book important today?

Dr. WHITESIDES: Well, think about what's changing the world. It's the world of electronics, from your computer and BlackBerry to the Internet. It's concerns about energy. It's concerns about climate. In every one of those areas, there is a component of nanotechnology, sometimes invisible but critically there.

PALCA: And how so? I mean, for example, we've said climate change. What's the nanotechnology there?

Dr. WHITESIDES: Almost everything that happens in between an oil well and the gasoline that burns in your automobile engine has to do with what are called catalysts, nanometer-scale particles that aid in the transformation of the fuel crude to the final substances.

So everything that you think about in the future of energy production, almost everything you think about, will have dimensions through which electrons flow, across which photons flow, across which hydrocarbons get transformed, that are nanometer in scale. So it is ubiquitous in the area of energy production and utilization.

PALCA: Now, maybe you can help us a little bit with scale. I bumbled through an introduction which talked about microscopic and nanoscopic. Tell us what where does the world of nanotechnology begin in terms of scale?

Dr. WHITESIDES: The world strictly speaking, nanotechnology is, a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. The way to think about that it's in the order of a ten-thousandth of a hair, that kind of number, or a hundred-thousandth of a hair, depending upon how small your hair is. But it's very small. It's in the ratio of an inch to the diameter the width of the United States.

But another way of thinking about it is that a nanometer, a few atoms put together make up a nanometer so that when you talk about one, two nanometers, you're talking about small molecules. When you talk about 50 nanometers, you're talking about things that are impossible to see by anything to do with the naked eye, anything to with a light microscope. Only very specialized techniques can, quote, see things in those dimensions. So the easy way of thinking about is really, really small.

PALCA: Okay. So Felice Frankel, what brought you to George Whitesides and this book about nanotechnology? This is obviously not you haven't been trained as a nanotechnologist, I presume.

Ms. FRANKEL: Hardly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRANKEL: I have been privileged to be making pictures in science for quite a number of years at MIT and at Harvard, working with researchers, mostly photographic images that we can see on some level because we're using photons.

So when we George and I have been colleagues for quite a while, and we realized it's tough. It's a tough thing to describe what is going on on the nano-level, and why not use the metaphor that somebody can perhaps get a handle on the phenomena that goes down, that goes on way, way down there? Why not not just make images on the nano-level, which there is an abundance of, and frankly, there are people out there who could do it much better than I can, but why not at least try to get the reader to look at an image that they can perhaps identify and then read the text so that they can have some idea of what in the world is going on.

That was really the premise of the book: How do we communicate this wild and crazy world, which it really is, how do we communicate it so that people want to know more about it? And that was our approach.

FLATOW: Okay, well, let's take a for instance, and if people are able to see it I'll describe it. There's a picture that's called Quantum Cascades, and, well, maybe you can describe it and then tell us what you were trying I mean, this, I presume, is a macro-world picture representing a nano-world feature.

Ms. FRANKEL: Yeah, it I was really, literally walking along a pier in Bath with some very good friends, and I saw this cascade of water, which was very, very beautiful and just happened to have my camera.

I actually don't usually travel with cameras. That might be unusual for a photographer, but I don't. And knew somewhere, I knew somehow we would be able to somehow use this image as some sort of expression of what's going on at the nano-level.

Now, of course the metaphor is very limited. The readers should know that none of these images are written in stone as the explanation of something that's going on, but there is a connection to what is going on at the nano-level.

So then, of course, I counted on George to explain it.

PALCA: Okay, and George, what does this help us understand? First of all, just to describe it a little, in case you don't have it, this is I guess it's cascades of water coming down, what are concentric, circular ridges with water pouring over them, or at least I think that's what I'm looking at.

Dr. WHITESIDES: Right. The key point is that what you see is water going over a series of steps, and every time the water falls, it falls a fixed distance, and one can say it's a fixed distance, or you can say the distance is quantized.

And the point of the picture is that there is a mysterious word that one hears, quantum this, quantum that. It's not that mysterious. It just means that it's a fixed height or a fixed difference in energy or a fixed difference in wavelength.

Now, where that fixedness, that quantization comes from, can sometimes be pretty complicated, but this is an example of the use of metaphor to explain a word that is sometimes presented as very complicated in a fashion that we hope makes it less complicated.

PALCA: Got it. Okay, we're talking with Felice Frankel and George Whitesides about their new book, "No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale," and we're taking your calls at 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. And let's take a call now and go to Wilson in Oakland, California. Wilson, you're on the air.

WILSON (Caller): Hi, a couple of questions. One: Has the CERN collider examined their data well enough so far so that they know whether there is or is not the possibility that they've discovered the Higgs boson? And the second question is: Is there anything smaller? I mean, is there any evidence or data or theory even that there could be anything smaller than (unintelligible) scale?

PALCA: Wow, so you're talking about maybe pico-scales. George Whitesides, what about that? I mean, maybe the Higgs boson isn't really the topic of this book, but...

Dr. WHITESIDES: The Higgs boson is, of course, not my thing. There's a nice distinction between chemists, which are concerned, who are concerned with reality that you can knock or taste or feel, and physicists who cease to be interested at about that point.

But the it's going to take a while for CERN to figure out what they're seeing, if in fact they're seeing something interesting, and then it'll take even longer for them to go through the statistics because it's a tough job they're after right now.

And then the answer to the second question is I have no clue.

Ms. FRANKEL: I certainly don't.

PALCA: Okay, well, but actually, now that we've talked about CERN, I call your attention to also back to our Web site. There's a photograph there's an image which is called Nuclear Reactions that is based on an original black and white photo, and I suspect it's particles being spewed out from some sort of a collision. Is that what you what were you aiming for there? It's a lovely picture. It certainly captures your eye, Felice Frankel. What were you trying to convey?

Ms. FRANKEL: The way we approached this was occasionally George would throw out an idea at me: What do you say we talk about this? And then I would occasionally say: What do you think we talk about this? Well, George wanted me to somehow represent decay that is going on way, way down at that level.

Now, there are these stunningly beautiful images already out there, in fact made at CERN. I think - I'm pretty sure this was made at CERN. And people have seen them, and they're beautiful, and I just decided to borrow that from them, with permission, of course, and invert the colors.

I mean, that's the only difference between what you've already seen and what I've done. It was one of these insanely silly, easy things to do. I just didn't want it to look like everything else that we've already seen.

PALCA: And George, does this reveal something? I mean, typically, I don't like to ask, you know, scientists to talk about art and artists to talk about science, because they sit in separate worlds, but you're trying to bring them together. So I feel it's okay to say: Does this art evoke something for you as a scientist?

Dr. WHITESIDES: Exactly the point. The issue in these pictures and the accompanying text is to try to take things that might seem mysterious and make them not so mysterious.

The reason that I asked Felice to look at this is that we have made a systematic effort in the book to touch at least briefly on most of the issues where nano is an important contributor, and one of those is obviously nuclear power. It's going to be a key part of our energy future.

The question is: How do you see a single particle? And the answer is that there are these yes.

PALCA: Okay, I'm sorry. I'll have to interrupt you there, but we'll come back to this.

Dr. WHITESIDES: Okay.

PALCA: Okay, but we do have to take a short break. We're talking about the nanoscale, things that are at a level that are beyond our ability to see with the naked eye or even some of the fanciest instruments. Stay with us. We'll be right back. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about how to visualize nanoscience. My guests are Felice Frankel and George Whitesides, co-authors of the book "No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale."

And we were just talking about a picture from CERN of particles and the spray of tracks that they make as two things come together, and that was a real picture. There's another picture that I wanted to talk, get you guys to talk about, which is a lovely picture of, let's see if I can describe it.

It's like a pyramid that's turned upside-down, more like something between an obelisk and a pyramid, a little narrow pyramid turned upside-down on a base, and it's called "Feeling is Seeing." Maybe Felice, you can start with what the picture really is, and then George, you can talk a little bit about what it conveys.

Ms. FRANKEL: Good. That image is a scanning electron micrograph, which means it's using electrons to image it. It's a scanning electron micrograph of an AFM tip, atomic-force microscopic tip. I know there's a lot of large words there, but in the end, what we're seeing is a sensor.

That tip is sensing the forces between a particular surface that may be underneath it and the force itself on the tip. George, do you want to...

PALCA: George, okay. So what does that help us what does that help us for? Why do we need this kind of a microscope?

Dr. WHITESIDES: If you try to see things that are very small with light, you can't do it. We don't think of light as having a size, but relative to atoms, light is very big. So the remarkable thing about the nanoworld is that the way that one images very small things is often to feel them, so that what you're looking at in that picture is, in effect, a finger that brushes the top of the surface, but the top of the the tip of the finger is so small that it can feel individual atoms.

PALCA: Excellent.

Dr. WHITESIDES: And so it represents, remarkably, how the imaging is done in a fundamentally new way in this world.

PALCA: All right. Let's invite our listeners to join the conversation. Again, the number is 800-989-8255, and let's take a call from Emanuel(ph) in Athens, Georgia. Emanuel, you're on the air at SCIENCE FRIDAY.

EMANUEL (Caller): Hey, hello. I just want to say hi to everybody.

PALCA: Hi.

Ms. FRANKEL: Hey.

EMANUEL: Yeah, I was just wondering, okay, quantum physics, they talk about how very small things are things that are improbable can sometimes happen. How can (unintelligible) in molecules cause those things to happen?

PALCA: So we're talking about strange and unlikely events that work at the nanoworld and not at the large world. Does that characterize what you're asking?

EMANUEL: No, I'm just saying, how can coherence of motion or energy transfer cause that which is improbable to be more probable?

PALCA: Okay, well, George, do you understand that question well enough to answer it? Because I clearly didn't.

Dr. WHITESIDES: It's a good and interesting question. As with many of these sorts of things, it doesn't have an equally clear and interesting answer.

The characteristic of events at the quantum scale is that there isn't the definiteness that we're accustomed to. If you drop a ball, it falls down and it lands in a spot. If you drop an electron, what it does is very complicated, and it depends upon how you look at it.

So the issue with coherence, which is a technical phrase that has to do with the way either different particles interact with one another or a way a particle interacts with itself, is that it can change depending upon the environment. It can change the probabilities in ways that are sometimes quite unexpected.

So the characteristic about the quantum world is that it does things that are really, really, really strange, and they're not intuitive, and one of the charms of this subject and one of the things we try to explain in the book is how a world which is so counterintuitive at the small scale blends imperceptibly into something that is perfectly intuitive at the large scale, because after all, large things are made of small things.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now and go to Jessica in Jacksonville, Florida. You're on the air, Jessica.

JESSICA (Caller): Hi, how are you?

PALCA: Good.

JESSICA: I'm just wondering if this book that you're discussing is relative to the lay person? I'm highly fascinated in this sort of stuff but get very confused with the big words, and I'm not a scientist. So is it something that anybody can read?

PALCA: Well, I won't speak for the authors, but I can tell you I figured it out, at least to some extent. So let's hear what they have to say. You are certainly aiming for the lay audience, I would presume.

Ms. FRANKEL: Oh, there's no question about it. But the term lay audience can also mean scientists as well. I think you'd be surprised at how many scientists don't quite understand what's going on also at the nanoscale.

I think - the thing is, when you open the book, we both pretty much agree that it is about the pictures that you first look at. It's laid out for that reason, in a certain way. But the wonder of it, as far as I'm concerned, is once we grab your attention with one of these images that you really pretty much can recognize for the most part, you want to read the text.

And George, I mean, he's sitting right next to me, and he hates when I do this, but it happens that he knows how to write. He knows how to write for people like me. In a way, this really, truly was a collaboration in that he was, I think I don't know if he's going to agree with me or not but he was writing for me because I was asking all of the questions that, Jessica, you will probably ask when you see the pictures, and it is so accessible.

That's what the joy of this is, that we are speaking to anybody interested, and I think, in my opinion, that everybody should be interested not just because it's our book, because it's really cool. It's cool stuff.

PALCA: That's nice, cool stuff. But now, George, first of all, I have two questions. Were you writing for Felice, and did you capture I mean, is this book, if we go into it, will we learn what the most important things are today in nanotechnology? Will we get all of the things or most of the things by reading this book?

Dr. WHITESIDES: First, was I writing for Felice? Absolutely, Felice was the first filter. If I wrote text, and she said I have no clue of what you're talking about, then there were several interpretations of that, but one was that I had to rewrite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Right.

Dr. WHITESIDES: But for Jessica, we've made every effort to take out all the jargon that we can, and if you read it, with luck, what you'll find is two things. There will be things there, subjects which really can be understood pretty easily, which previously had seemed mysterious, and then there's some other subjects which seem still mysterious, and the reason they seem mysterious is because, in fact, they are mysterious.

One of the charms about this subject is that, at the very small scale, our intuition just doesn't work. So it's a wonderful, wonderful area because things do things that you would not expect them to be able to do, and you just have to live with that fact. It's not that you do or don't know physics, it's that nobody understands this in an intuitive sense. We can do the math, but there's no math. It's just understanding the phenomenology of it.

PALCA: But Felice was saying that this is really cool, and it clearly is really cool, but there's a bigger implication here, that this is going beyond cool and interesting and neat to the place where it's going to change the way we live.

Dr. WHITESIDES: It has already changed the place we live in the sense that if you think about what's been the major change in the world that we live in in the last 50 years, I would argue it's the progression from the transistor to the Internet and Google. And every part of that depends upon quantum mechanics, on small structures, on micro- and nano-fabrication.

That entire assembly of technology leading to the largest single engineering project the human race has ever attempted, which is the Internet, is all dependent upon this tiny stuff called micro- and nano-technology. And so it's already there. We've done it.

PALCA: All right. We have time for one more quick call. Let's go to Chris(ph) in Columbia, South Carolina. Chris, you're on the air with SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRIS (Caller): Thank you, Dr. Whitesides and Ms. Frankel, we're coming up, the month after next, to the 20th anniversary of the Eigler-Schweizer experiment, the publication of the experiment, and as long as we're talking about science and art in nanotechnology, I wonder if you could tell the listeners a little bit about the Eigler-Schweizer experiment, what it showed visually and what that reminds us about relations between science and art in nanotechnology.

PALCA: Can you do that?

Dr. WHITESIDES: I can't do it. Perhaps you could.

Ms. FRANKEL: I think you should do that. George and I are looking at each other, not a clue. Please.

CHRIS: I'll do it. Okay. So in November of 1989, Donald Eigler at IBM Almaden and Erhard Schweizer, a visiting scientist, reduced the chamber of their scanning, tunneling microscope to four degrees Kelvin, and it doesn't get much colder than that.

They dosed a nickel surface with a series of xenon atoms and made an STM image of that, and then with their STM tip, they lined up 35 xenon atoms to spell out the logo of their company, IBM, spelled out in xenon atoms. And it's a remarkable experiment in showing how instruments like the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope can control matter at the level of atoms. We can move atoms around where we want them, at least if we have the skills of people like Eigler and Schweitzer.

PALCA: Okay. Chris, let me - let them...

CHRIS: And then that image was then enhanced with color and shading and tilting the perspective and so on to take a simple gray tone micrograph from an STM and turn it into a very, very famous blue, three-dimensional picture.

PALCA: Okay. It sounds like our guests have figured out which of these - which is the picture. Let's see what they have to say about it.

Ms. FRANKEL: Well, I will say, you know, another one of those images from Don's lab was the quantum corral, which is also similar - you're probably familiar with a similar technique where they place the atoms around in a corral.

And I want to quickly get to the point. You discuss this connection between art and science and how they colored it. As it turns out, we, who are very interested in how to represent ideas in science, we talk about how that - those colors, in fact, might misinform the way we should look at that image. They did color it with turquoise and red, for example, and the issue is whether or not we're looking at what we're supposed to be looking at.

So here's an example of a grayscale image that was colored. And I've - I'm not convinced that the colored image, in fact, does represent what - or at least communicates what we want it to communicate. So - and when they did it with the IBM, that - I always get a kick out of the research labs showing off their logos in all kinds of weird ways. But Don is very interested in the intersection of art and science, and I commend him for it. But I - I'm not convinced that some of those colors really work.

PALCA: George, any final comments?

Dr. WHITESIDES: The image, for the listeners, looks like a series of multicolored ice cream cones upside down.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WHITESIDES: And, in fact, atoms are not multicolored ice cream cones upside down. They're sort of fuzzies - fuzzy, roughly spherical clouds, little puff balls of stuff.

And so every scientist, given the opportunity, will make some cute pattern because it's fun to do and it illustrates the principle. This is one of those cute, pretty things which was well worth the effort doing. Everyone remembers it. And it is, so far, a skill pretty much useless, but that's not a criticism. It's just a description.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: All right. Well, we're going to have to leave things there. I'd like to thank you both. Felice Frankel is a senior research fellow at Harvard University and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And George Whitesides is the Flowers University professor at Harvard. Thank you both very much.

Dr. WHITESIDES: Thank you.

Ms. FRANKEL: Thank you so much.

PALCA: They are co-authors of the book "No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale."

I'm Joe Palca, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.