IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We are in a revolutionary period where being tiny is very big, where atoms and molecules can be shaped, formed, mass produced to produce almost anything we want - from clothing, to the detergents that clean them; from cars, to the wax we shine them with; from drugs, to baseball bats, to tiny self-assembling biocomputers small enough to flow through your bloodstream.
Nanotechnology is already all around us. And no one knows that better than Cornell University's NanoScale Science and Technology Facility. The lab turns thirty this week, and like all good academics, they threw a symposium to celebrate. Maybe they hoisted a few beers, we'll find out about that. And as we talk about it this hour with some of the scientists who gathered in Ithaca, New York, to talk about what they've accomplished and what lies ahead the future of nanotechnology, the field of nanomedicine.
And how to grapple with these social and ethical issues surrounding a technology that has the potential to change the way we live, but with consequences that scientists don't yet fully understand, like what potential problems - what are those problems of having countless billions of nanoparticles inhaled, swallowed, or slathered on our skins? Do we know what effect they may have on our health, or in the environment?
As landfills pile up with used and discarded nanowaste - old baseball bats, tennis rackets, skincare products, clothing, and on, and on, and on - where do all these nanoparticles go?
So if you like to join our discussion, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com.
Let me introduce my guests, who join me today from the Cornell studios in Ithaca. Barbara Baird is the Horace White professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell. Welcome to the program.
Dr. BARBARA BAIRD (Horace White Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Cornell University): Thank you. It's good to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Rosalyn Berne is an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Welcome to the program.
Professor ROSALYN BERNE (Associate Professor, Department of Science, Technology and Society, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, University of Virginia): Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Larry Goldberg is senior engineering advisor in the Division of Electrical, Communications, and Cyber Systems at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Welcome to the program.
Dr. LARRY GOLDBERG (Senior Engineering Advisor, Division of Electrical, Communications, and Cyber Systems, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia): Thank you very much.
FLATOW: You're welcome. John Silcox is the David E. Burr professor of engineering in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell University. Welcome to the program, Dr. Silcox.
Dr. JOHN SILCOX (David E. Burr Professor of Engineering, School of Applied and Engineering Physics, Cornell University): Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
FLATOW: I just want to remind everyone that nanotechnology is really a relatively new field, but you guys at Cornell's NanoScale Facility have been doing it for 30 years. It's your 30th anniversary week.
Dr. SILCOX: Oh, yes. We were nano before...
FLATOW: You guys got on - you got out there ahead of the crowd.
Dr. SILCOX: Yeah. We were nano before nano was cool.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, what did you know that no one else did?
Dr. SILCOX: Oh, we were just beings responding to stimulus that I think the National Science Foundation gave us. And we submitted proposals seeking support for a facility that they had in mind, only, I think we made the mistake of looking for a very wide range of applications in actually one facility. And so that's how it all started.
FLATOW: Larry Goldberg, the NSF has invested a lot of money and a lot of effort in nanotechnology, has it not?
Dr. GOLDBERG: Yes, it has. And this is one investment, which we're particularly proud of because it dates back some 30 years, if you will, to 1977, an era when one really was talking about structures on micrometer scales, not yet shorter dimensions. But that investment has grown over the years to now a network of user facilities in which Cornell is a participant. That really served the broad science and engineering and technology sector in this new burgeoning field.
FLATOW: Barbara Baird, let's talk about one of the most interesting fields of nanotechnology and that is nanomedicine. Let's talk about some of the advances in this field. Care to pick one out to begin with?
Dr. BAIRD: Well, I'd like to take a step back from that and talk about nanobiotechnology, which underlies nanomedicine.
Dr. BAIRD: And it's a recent thrust out from this main trunk of advances in micro and then nanotechnology. And the recognition - again, I'd like to think that Cornell was ahead of the game in the NSF - with the NSF support and stimulus to take some of the advances that had come about through development of electronics to smaller and smaller length scales to recognize that it was now possible to address biology at its most fundamental length scales - the molecular length scales of macromolecules, proteins, DNA and so forth, that make up the workings of cells, that make up the workings of organs and tissues and so forth.
And so a lot is going on, both to examine these systems at this fundamental length scale to draw from the lessons of biology and the nanotools and technologies that have been going on for a long time in a working system. And with this understanding, hand in hand, developing new ways of engaging biology to intervene in pathological cases and perhaps, to make up for things that are missing in certain biological systems related to medicine.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. John...
Dr. BAIRD: So...
FLATOW: I'm sorry, go ahead.
Dr. BAIRD: No, I was just going to say that there's a lot going on. Maybe, a lot of the attention is directed towards what are the medical advances, but underlying that is a huge area of the interface between micro and nanotechnology and biology.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What would you say is the hottest field then in nanomedicine at this point?
Dr. BAIRD: Well, there's several possibilities...
FLATOW: Pick one out for us.
Dr. BAIRD: Okay. Well, let me just pick two...
FLATOW: Pick two.
Dr. BAIRD: ...because they go in different directions. One is the diagnostic area - being able to detect diseases at very early stages before symptoms are manifest. And the other is more in the treatment area, such as in particles that can sense and deliver drugs, and then sense the recovery or the effects of the drugs. And then, there'd be regenerative medicine after that.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Rosalyn Berne, you have been interviewing nanotechnology scientists as part of your research. What are some of the things they're working on?
Prof. BERNE: You're asking me, specifically in the laboratory, the kind of research they're doing?
Prof. BERNE: Well, one of the more fascinating projects for me was learning about a device that scrapes the inside of the mouth, picks up the cells, puts it into a box, and ideally, then, lays out in terms of genetics, what diseases might be present. As a diagnostic tool, I think it's been referred to as Doc in the Box. I've spoken with people who are interested in various specific diseases of the brain. There are people interested in new materials and how those might be applied in a computing environment.
Such a wide range of research - nano is not so much about anything in particular, more, how we approach further mastery of the material environment, whether it's through materials themselves, or chemical processes, or energetic reactions. It's more about scale is what I've learned. I've spoke with 35 different scientists in various fields, from biotechnology, to physics, to engineering science.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do these scientists think of the social and ethical issues that may pop themselves up in their work?
Prof. BERNE: Oh, this is a question I was hoping you would ask, because I think that they would like to be able to think about these things, talk about these things, but there are two immediate problems. One is that it's really difficult to do it without making it feel personal. So what I found as an initial reaction is well, these are fascinating questions but, of course, I don't need to ask them of myself, because I'm doing the best I can and I believe I'm doing the right thing here.
I'm trying to solve serious problems. I'm trying to address cancer and human suffering. And so I don't understand what the ethical issues might be for me. But of course, my colleague down the hall, perhaps there's something they need to think about.
The other thing I learned is that there are very few fora for actually dialoguing about this. The pressure to get work done, to get grants, to get reports into publications, to keep labs open and stocked and grad students moving through - only now am I beginning to see actual opportunities for these kinds of dialogues and questions to be asked between and among scientists and engineers.
FLATOW: So there are sort of this - as the stereotypical scientist might do trying to avoid talking - thinking themselves about what their own ethical issues may be?
Prof. BERNE: I wouldn't want to judge them in that way. I think it's more that the structure is not there in the training necessarily. It's just coming to be. It's - well, what was delightful was that once we close the door and sat down and began to talk, what I found were individuals who were full of reflection and ideas and concerns. And they were quite excited to be able to talk about them.
A common comment was, when will you come back? I don't often have the opportunity to think about and talk about these things. So it's less about defending and buffering; more about the opportunity needs to be present in an open kind of forum where there are no accusations. And I think, unfortunately, sometimes with ethics, the presumption is that there's a right and a wrong and we want to see and make sure that you're doing it correctly. In the scale of nano investigations, it's not so simple.
Dr. GOLDBERG: I would comment from the NSF perspective. We are trying to encourage in our research grant activities that the students are being trained, be exposed to ethical conduct of research as well as those working in the fields touching on nanotechnology, looking at societal and ethical implications.
FLATOW: Well, Dr. Goldberg, what - name one ethical complication that they would be talking about for example.
Dr. GOLDBERG: If you're in a laboratory environment and are conducting a series of process steps and there is strict health and safety standards, and you see a colleague who's avoiding those, perhaps, to speed up the process, question is, do you talk with that colleague? Do you report the colleague? Do you simply walk away from it? These are the considerations that people need to give in their conduct of research.
Dr. SILCOX: In one of our centers, we have a series of lunchtime seminars that's intended for the students in which in fact ethical and all sorts of general questions are actually addressed. One of those lectures, I remember, was - there was a case of ethical misconduct about Bell Labs, about three or four years ago. Dr. Kendrick Cheung(ph) and one of the members of the committee that investigated the allegations and - which resulted in fact in a discovery that something that well over 20 papers needed to be withdrawn, came and gave a seminar and interacted with the students after the seminar. So we do make an effort to try and deal with this, but maybe not enough.
FLATOW: Well, we'll talk more about it. We have quite a bit of time, and taking questions from our audience. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about nanotechnology with a special 30th anniversary symposium and, I guess, celebration going on at Cornell University's NanoScale Science and Technology Facility where our guests are coming from.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And we're talking with - we were last talking to John Silcox, who is the David E. Burr professor of engineering in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell University.
Dr. Silcox, one of the things driving accomplishments in this field - and in all fields, you have to have these advances and the tools that you use. What kind of great advances do we see happening in nanotechnology that are allowing it to move forward, and allowed it to begin with?
Dr. SILCOX: Well, the drivers certainly are the issue of trying to get new applications and, if you're a scientist, an academic scientist, then you're interested in new information. And I think the tools are the key things that actually limit how far the drivers can go. One of the interesting things that I heard in the first lecture in the symposium was the sort of the growth in an imprint technology.
Typically, we do nanostructure by doing lithography - I, taking pictures on a sample - on a thin film using that as a resist to pattern and create the structures that we have. Optics and electrons are the kinds of typical tools that one is using. Electrons are effectively thin films, sized small, tiny beams that are scanned and duplicating what one sees on a computer screen. That becomes expensive, and one builds master pictures for that.
The other side of the game is to get the cheap things coming out, and the cheap things are when we do the photography, the lithography techniques, then we can multiply - make many copies and do them at a very low cost. The new thing that seems to be coming through is an imprint lithography technique in which one impresses and creates a master and a mold, and one creates things of that nature. Those seem to be able to take us down to the nano scale, but it's a long way, in fact, from taking that technology now and creating new things.
The insight, I think, that I brought away from that particular talk was a question, which is, how does the world want to nanocompute in a nanotechonology era? This is at a small scale. We're going to be looking at new forms of doing the computation. It brings - a lot of things have to be developed in order to take this. The most promising era, I think, is one that's going to have a compatibility with a seamless technology, which is what we've been using all along.
But there are other possibilities that are coming out. As far as advances in the instrumental tools, the ability, perhaps, to go even further with electrons is one that excites me and that we have finally, after something like 60 years, begun to see solutions to the problem of making our lenses better. So that's one that looks as though on a long range that might improve the shorter range, I think, of the new ways of designing how computers are going to compute and do their job.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Barbara Baird, we talked recently on SCIENCE FRIDAY about biocomputers, these tiny devices that are actually constructed from DNA and RNA and proteins that researchers hope will be able to read a cell's signals and pick up the signs of trouble right before they manifest themselves as diseases. Do you think nanomedicine will change how we diagnose medical condition?
Dr. BAIRD: I think there's no question about that. And part is that - I mean, it's driven by the availability of these tools, and the goals are to be able to look at smaller amounts of complex, physiological fluids and be able to test for a variety of conditions with a fairly simple and fast test.
And so that, no question, will enable faster diagnoses in field test, in the military or in undeveloped countries. All of these things should become available and ultimately cheap and very thorough in terms of diagnostics.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How much of nanotechnology is being investigated by corporations themselves instead of the university for making products? And I ask all of you. You know, we've seen cosmetic companies making sunscreens and women's makeup and we have seen everything from nanowax for cars - the list can go on and on and on - baseball bats, tennis rackets, things like that made out of nanomaterials. It's seems like the consumer industry has almost taken over the field?
Dr. BAIRD: Well, I'll speak to that first, I guess. I think what all of those products that you described are based on materials, and it's a development of better materials and being able to make more finely controlled materials, allows you to control them in terms of lightness, strength and so forth. And so that certainly, there has been and will continue to be in a big investment in that and it will continue to improve.
I think the big companies are more cautious in the more difficult, challenging devices, which are multifunctional to do certain things especially in biological or medical types of context. That's a much more ambitious and risky undertaking. And certainly small companies are beginning to probe some of these things that the big companies, I think, are waiting for them to be developed a little by the small companies, would be my idea.
FLATOW: That's how it's always happened.
Dr. GOLDBERG: I think you'd see the innovation in this area coming often from the individual of investigators, small companies, new startups who have an idea that they want to test further. And here's where I think the Cornell and other facilities that are being supported across the country have a really important enabling role in that they provide, if you will, a prototyping laboratory for these new ideas with the equipment that is needed to test out what really could become a commercial product. And if the U.S. is to remain ahead in many of the fields today, it's through innovation and new products that are going to come about by this type of research.
Dr. BAIRD: And I would just add to that, what Larry said, is that not only is the innovation and this sort of the ideas taking the first step towards some type of device, but also the training of the students to think in this way, to think across disciplinary boundaries, to work together to bring these ideas to fruition.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255, to Scottsdale, Arizona. Is it Navine(ph)?
NAVINE (Caller): Navine. Yes. Good afternoon, Ira.
FLATOW: Hi there.
NAVINE: Thank you for your wonderful show. It's always interesting. I had two questions. First of all, do you use testing on animals? And the second one would be, if you don't, would this enable science, maybe, not to use testing on animals anymore through the computer, being able maybe to facilitate that?
FLATOW: In other words, do you test new nanoparticles or products on animals like you would a new drug, if you were making one?
NAVINE: Right. Yeah. Or, any testing on animals.
FLATOW: Dr. Baird, any?
Dr. BAIRD: Well, I think that would be ultimately regulated by the FDA for types of materials that would be used for medical purposes. But one of the things that happens in the academic labs is as these materials are being developed or devices, is to test them on cell lines, not animals, but cells that have - are immortal, that you can continue to grow and then you can -began to test the effects on toxicity and so forth on cells.
And as I was saying earlier, part of the excitement about nanotechnology is that this can be used to understand how cells work on the most fundamental levels and ultimately, how organisms work. And with that level of information, you can design more and more sophisticated computer programs or software that more realistically reflect what the response would be to a particular type of product, a drug or a nanoparticle or anything. So this really is - would be based on the fundamental research, and then would ultimately develop into something that you could hope would resemble a real animal response.
FLATOW: Okay. Thank you for calling.
NAVINE: Thank you.
FLATOW: Do we know how safe nanomaterials are? I mentioned at the beginning how many countless billions, trillions - put a number on it - of these particles are now out everywhere, and we are virtually sniffing them in and eating them and not, you know, unknowingly consuming them. They come off our clothes, off our products. Sometimes, they might even be in our water. How much - and from the research that I have in front of me, looking at the amount of research that's going on, I know the NSF, for example, is also funding research on nanoparticles, it doesn't appear to be, to me at least, that there's a great percentage of the money invested in nanotechnology, invested in the health and possible environmental consequences of what might happen here?
Dr. GOLDBERG: I think, Ira, there is a significant investment being made at the federal level in order to study these questions and develop the basic science underlying them in order to have informed policy making. And at the NSF, we have invested in science and technology centers that deal with biological environmental nanotechnology several years back. And we've had continuing grant competitions in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, looking at the science issues in this field of risk. So, I think the federal government is placing an emphasis on this aspect.
FLATOW: Dr. Baird, do we know what the long-term effects are? I mean, they haven't been around very long, this nanoparticles.
Dr. BAIRD: Oh no, we don't, of course. Any time something new comes along, you're not sure what long-term effects are. I wouldn't place these in too different a category than drugs. And as the regulation - regulatory agencies already exist, these things are tested. And there may be unintended consequences, but I don't think there's any more reason for alarm in these cases than there are in other developments of technology.
But one - a point I wanted to make is that with the investment of the federal agencies in nanotechnology, there has been from the very beginning a concern that this aspect be considered. I have served on a number of advisory committees, both with the NSF and the NIH, and together with the consideration of what new products, what new research, what new frontiers can be addressed, has been the consideration, or how can we deal with the unintended consequences? How can we be alerted to those as early as possible? So, that we can head those off.
Prof. BERNE: This is Rosalyn speaking. It seems to me, however, that we have products in the marketplace, perhaps prematurely not knowing, in fact, what effect they might have. There is some ambiguity - perhaps consumers are willing to live with those ambiguities because of the convenience those products provide.
Anecdotally, I was in a laboratory at - I will not name the institution - where a senior investigator who's been working for many years was speaking with me, and I asked her, are you concerned about protecting the well-being of your students you all work with carbon nanotubes? And she said, what can we do? We just - we work with what we have. We don't know that much. We're interested to investigate these problems and these questions. I hope we will be well.
So, I think there's a great amount of faith that we will be well, that we are doing what we can to learn what we can, that we're willing to take some risks because the studies are not definitive yet. Some of them - to my knowledge -are really just beginning.
FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about nanotechnology, the future of it. We're talking up until the break - coming break about the safety of nanoparticles and concerns about it. There's a news article that's coming out of the University of Missouri in Columbia of a study that is funded by the NSF about silver nanotechnology particles. And one of the professors of civil and environmental engineering at the College of Engineering says silver nanoparticles are emerging as one of the fastest-growing nanomaterials with wide applications. It goes on to say currently, little is known about the adverse effects of silver nanoparticles to human health and their fate in ecological systems.
And these are some of the things - not just, I guess, the health of what happens in the immediate, what you're wearing or inhaling in your factory or home, but what happens when we fill up these landfills, or we have nanoparticles that are might making their way into water filtration systems, things like that. We don't know what's going to happen to these particles, do we? And that's one of the reasons people are studying it. Obviously, people are concerned about it.
Dr. GOLDBERG: The July issue of Consumer's Report actually carries some issue on nanotechnology. And one of the things I was interested to learn from that particular issue was that, in fact, the FDA has been approached by a number of organizations to try and address, in particular - I think, it came up over a problem with this - or a perceived problem with the silver nanoparticles, that they have actually now formed a nanotechnology task force to see whether in fact they should be, I assume, to see whether they should be much more heavily involved in this.
I think what we're seeing is an agency that is beginning wake up to the fact that we have some things that they should, perhaps be looking at there. So, my sense says that perhaps we're getting some action on a federal level. One would also like to ask what is happening with some of the NIH. I think there's an institution, institute for occupational safety and health, and I would assume that they were, they need to be involved in generating research in this area, and I think they have been.
FLATOW: Ah, John...
Dr. BAIRD: That would be the national...
FLATOW: I'm sorry.
Dr. BAIRD: Excuse me, I think that would the National Institute on Environment Health and Safety.
Dr. SILCOX: Occupational...
Dr. GOLDBERG: Occupational health and Safety.
Dr. SILCOX: Ah Yes.
FLATOW: John Silcox, is this something that worry about in your lab?
Dr. SILCOX: I certainly make sure - try to make sure that we have plenty of, you know, that the students are very careful about how they're dealing with these things. I'm not sure that I particularly worry that we're discarding a great number of these nanoparticles, but I don't because I don't think we are. They tend to dry up. They sort of coagulate eventually after we're finished using them, and that they're effectively, sort of, gone-go back into a form in which they can be reasonably, and easily discarded appropriately. But - so, that sort of looking at my particular lab, we do worry about it, and we talk about it. But, I'm not sure that we've seen much that we should be doing what we aren't already doing.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, come back and talk lots more. Let's change gears a little bit. We've talked about the potential hazards of nanotechnology and nanoparticles. We're going to get back and talk more about the promises, what kinds of things are in the future? Take your calls, our number, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Also, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, and learn more about what we're talking about.
Put on our crystal balls, take a gaze into them and see what kinds of stuff that is possible. Maybe, we'd talk a little bit about computers? What about other kinds of nanotechnology devices are in these laboratories and haven't made it out yet. Stay with us. We'll talk about it when we get back to it right after this break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about nanotechnology as Cornell University celebrates its NanoScale facility, the 30th anniversary of its work in nanotechnology. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
Our guests are Rosalyn Berne, who is at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; Larry Goldberg of the National Science Foundation; John Silcox, there at Cornell; and Barbara Baird, also at Cornell. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
Let me give you all a chance and hopefully to think - put your thinking caps on and give you the Ira Flatow blank check question, which is if we - and this is good for the NSF, too, which could use a blank check these days.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. SILCOX: You're so right, Ira.
FLATOW: What if you had a blank check? What device or what device would you like to create or what something in nanotechnology that really needs to be developed that you'd like to see it if you had the unlimited funds to do it. And let me begin with you, John Silcox.
Dr. SILCOX: Oh, that's a shocker. I'm not sure. I would like to pass from that one.
Dr. SILCOX: ...let someone else get it - has some good idea.
FLATOW: Larry Goldberg.
Dr. SILCOX: I'll come right back with it.
Dr. GOLDBERG: Okay. Let me take a perspective from the electronics side, where we have these chips that have billions of transistors, the ones that fit into your computer or your cell phone, in their feature sizes or in the tenths of nanometer scale.
So one of the real developments now is putting systems on the chip and systems that have all sorts of functionality that can sense that can - then compute and send back as a distributed group of sensors' information.
And the size of these can become quite small, and so you can envision this capability really serving wide societal needs, both environmental sensing, sensing in the whole medical aspects. It's the shrinking of functionality that goes together with the shrinking of scale.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we would expect...
Dr. GOLDBERG: ... the increase of functionality, really.
FLATOW: And we would probably expect to see these chips everywhere.
Dr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
FLATOW: As sensors, that could, you know...
Dr. GOLDBERG: Yes.
FLATOW: ...to tell you there's a ring around your collar, a time to - time to send the shirt to the laundry.
Dr. GOLDBERG: One has that for your favorite dog or you would spite to make sure you don't lose.
FLATOW: They have them imbedded in their ears or something like that. Let me move on to Larry. Are you ready for your answer? I'll move on to Barbara Baird, let me get Barbara in here first.
Dr. BAIRD: Well, one way to approach a question like this is to ask well, what are the big problems. And because of my background, I tend to think of health-type questions because my interest is biological systems. But they're similar, fundamental problems like that. And clean water for most of the year is one.
And so building a membrane that can or a combination of devices that senses what's wrong with the water and then be able to filter out whatever it is that's wrong; first prescribing what's necessary and then being able to eliminate what's there and to develop pure water.
So that requires a combination of things, not just one thing. And that's another point, I guess, I wanted to make is nanotechnology, for my view, is one tool and it's to be put together with a variety of other tools to be maximally effective.
So that's - I would - so that's how I would address a question like that. And if we took - went over to the health side, a goal would be able to detect diseases before they're manifest. And that comes from first it's what they call personalized medicine now, understand what you susceptibilities are and then be on guard for when that might manifest and be able to deal with it right away.
So that's a combination of diagnostics, being able to sequence DNA very quickly, and then have the knowledge based to know what that DNA would predict for your health future...
Dr. BAIRD: ...and then whatever diagnostic is necessary to be able to determine whether that is in fact happening, and to deal with right away.
FLATOW: And we've been, actually reporting on these little chips, able to actually diagnose or to exist inside a human cell. And know when the cell is beginning to malfunction. It was an interesting story. I think we did it a little bit - a week before last on it.
Dr. BAIRD: Right. Actually saw it...
FLATOW: Yeah. That was kind of interesting. John Silcox, you're ready yet?
Dr. SILCOX: I'm not really, not ready. I'm not sure I'm going to come up with this. I like Larry's. I like Barbara's. Both of them are very nice things, but they're sort of the big system type of story.
Dr. GOLDBERG: Let me take another...
FLATOW: Well, okay. You give him a little help.
Dr. GOLDBERG: Another try. Let's look at various sectors. Barbara's raised health care, which is obviously quite, quite important in the future. But so is energy.
Dr. GOLDBERG: And everyone talks about alternative sources and conservation. We have to remember that it's a two-pronged equation. And some of the contributions, too, of nanotechnology in the alternative technologies, the fuel cell, more efficient catalysts that really can raise the efficiency and energy output of these devices.
Also in lighting, solid-state lighting is becoming quite important - still an economic issue. But solar cells - right now, the real promise is in organic materials but their efficiencies are as low as a percent and they're degradable. So here, the research challenges are great.
And then, of course, the conservation issue that goes on with using light sources that are much lower in energy consumption.
Dr. SILCOX: Let me reflect on Larry's solar-state lighting. I mean, my sense is the solar-state - the devices for the solar-state lighting are basically here. The problem we have is that we can't replace the house's wiring in order to provide the right electrical system. So perhaps, what we need to invent is a device that can, preferably on the nano scale, be a wireless capability that can sort of beam - you know, what you can put in the house - beam the power to the different lights and effectively let the old copper wire and aluminum wire to stay there in place and just rot. I don't know. So, that's my contribution for what it's worth.
FLATOW: Well, energy...
Prof. BERNE: We could recycle that copper.
Dr. SILCOX: Sorry?
Prof. BERNE: Maybe we could recycle that copper.
Dr. SILCOX: It would be nice to recycle the copper. That might take a lot of labor to pull it out, which is what I think the current problem is that just sort of rewiring the house appropriately is going to be too expensive. So, certainly, we have these wonderful nitride semiconductor and lighting sources that can give us a great deal of light and actually at various colors.
FLATOW: How about fuel cell research? Can nanotechnology involve there? It might help us. It all make...
Dr. SILCOX: There is some fuel cell research that's going on that involves nanotechnology at a level. I think it's basically growing the right materials and producing it. I think that would work. I'm not sure that it's going to have the, you know, create the hydrogen economy that quickly as, I think, people are hoping.
FLATOW: Well, we space enthusiasts are holding out for the space elevator, which they keep talking about the nanotubes strong enough to build the, you know, the cable up into orbit.
Dr. GOLDBERG: I'm not sure that's a really practical scheme there, Ira. But it, you know, you have this dangerous situation, if you say that someone's going to go do it. And...
FLATOW: Yeah, you really...
Dr. GOLDBERG: Can we do it? Not really tried it.
FLATOW: People - can you imagine I'm getting off the ground? I might fall down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. SILCOX: I do think our problems, though, are here on Earth.
FLATOW: Yes. That's a very good point. And it's interesting, talking about the water situation. I've actually seen nanotechnology devices that - where you can be able to suck the water up and it filters it right out before it goes to your mouth. Anything that could, you know, solve something very simple but certainly international problems with nanotechnology. It's certainly a good place to begin.
Let's go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see who we can get. John(ph) from Fayetteville. Hi, John
JOHN (Caller): Hi, Ira. How are you doing?
FLATOW: Fine. How are you?
JOHN: I'm doing good. My question is about the potential of nanotechnology in use for the military. I'm a recent graduate of the University of Albany. And although I was not part of their science program, we have a fairly large nanotechnology school, very new. And I know that one of the buildings is devoted exclusively to Department of Defense research. And I understand that they do mostly research with naval guidance. But I'm wondering what the potential and the controversy of using nanotechnology in improving military weapons.
FLATOW: Rosalyn Berne, any ethical...
Prof. BERNE: There was an interesting talk about this yesterday on our panel. In fact, a man named (unintelligible) who's written a book about ethics and military applications of nano, his concern was the disproportionate allocation of funding in our country for military applications of nano in comparison to other areas of interest and also, in comparison to other initiatives around the globe saying that in the United States, in past initiatives it's been around 65 percent, he cited that, now, we're at 80 percent of our funding going to nano. And I'm not sure where his figure is coming from, so I'm not going to be the authority on it. But he was concerned about whether we're doing enough assessment of military applications of nano.
There was also reference to the soldier - Institute of Soldier Technologies at MIT. Some of it seems to be there to protect and make things more efficient. Some of it seems to be there to make us more powerful and more competitive. This man's concern was that there is a gap. And studying and thinking about the implications of these allocations and these applications - it's an important question that our caller has asked.
FLATOW: All right, John. Thanks for calling and asking it.
JOHN: Thank you.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. In a few moments we have left when we all sit here 30 years from now, and we're talking about 60 years past of nanotechnology research. Do you think that we could - it's able to even predict, I mean, technology moves so fast these days. If you consider how fast the 30 years, things have happened in 30 years, from where they began. Do you think it's impossible to actually predict where nanotechnology or, you know, or even to predict, you know, what might not happen 30 years from now?
Dr. GOLDBERG: I think the only safe prediction is that you ain't seen nothing yet.
Dr. GOLDBERG: I think it's just going to go explode and it will be into everything, everywhere, is my guess.
Dr. BAIRD: When - if I could just make a comment...
Dr. BAIRD: I think one revolution that we're just beginning to see or just approaching is really even more integration amongst the disciplines. This has really been driven by the engineering and somewhat from the physical sciences side and being able to make things smaller and have all these different specifications. I think, it is yet to be embraced as much as it can be and will be by the medical side, say, or the biological side where there's really an integration of the knowledge bases of those several disciplines. And so as they become more integrated, you'll see a lot more integration of devices and particles with biological systems. I think that's for sure.
And certainly, the miniaturization or the nanoturization(ph) or microminiaturization of computers will really play a big role in that. And I hope...
FLATOW: This is - oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead. Let me just remind...
Dr. BAIRD: Well, I just hope...
FLATOW: Yeah. Go ahead.
Dr. BAIRD: I just hope that at the same time, and I think this will also happen because of some of the drivers of this will have - you'll see a much bigger impact around the world, and not just in these countries that can afford this type of technology at this time.
FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. There was a word you used there that I hadn't heard as a verb - nanoturization? Is that the word?
Dr. BAIRD: Well, I was just - I'm sure...
FLATOW: It's like moving Google into a vocabulary and now it's- what's the word you used?
Dr. BAIRD: No, I said nanoturization. I was trying to move from miniaturization because all of a sudden that seemed too big and clunky. And...
FLATOW: Well, I think you just coined the word for it.
Dr. BAIRD: Maybe, it could make it a little easier to say, but certainly that's the direction we're going.
FLATOW: Has to go up on Wikipedia tonight, I think. Nanoturization. Interesting. You know, are we going to need new physics as we get smaller and smaller here?
Dr. GOLDBERG: Well, I think the physics is there. We're at the quantum level. We're beginning to understand how that plays a role into some of the new ideas in nano scale electronics, which are so critical to keeping us moving forward in that regime. But in looking at your question of 30 years ahead, I think if I look 30 years back, our prediction of the future was terrible. And I think it's probably going to be the same way as John had said.
But one thing is clearer. The U.S. is going to have to run just to keep a pace in this technology field. Other countries all over the world - China, India, as examples - are just moving very rapidly and this will have important ramifications in our economy.
FLATOW: So we have to train more students here.
Dr. BAIRD: Yes. One comment I would make is your question about new physics. In fact, some of the very appropriate physics has been around since the early part of the 20th century and before, but as a teacher, it's actually great to point to actual quantum effects that students can see, seeing quantum dots and other things, and it's not some kind of magic. It's actually being put to use now in practical times to applications.
Dr. SILCOX: My reaction to the new physics was, we will see, sort of, new applications of physics but I was really wondering whether, in fact, there might be new chemistry. Barbara?
Dr. BAIRD: Well, there's always new chemistry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BAIRD: There's always new things to do, and chemistry is making molecules. But what you'll see rather than the engineering of what's called top-down is what you see now is more bottom up, that is making the molecules to the specifications to solve the problems that we need to solve. And the chemists, as you know, are very, very versatile and creative in coming up to the speed unless needed.
FLATOW: Well, you get the last word on that, Barbara. You've got the last word.
Dr. GOLDBERG: That was a good one.
FLATOW: And a nice way to sum up Barbara Baird, a Horace White Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University. Thank you for joining us today.
I want to also thank John Silcox, the David E. Burr professor of engineering at Cornell. Rosalyn Berne, associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Larry Goldberg, senior engineering advisor in the Division of Electrical Communications and Cyber Systems at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Thank you all for taking time to be with us.
Dr. BAIRD: Thank you.
Dr. GOLDBERG: Thank you very much.
Dr. SILCOX: Thank you.
FLATOW: Have a great Father's Day. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.