Monday, August 31, 2009

Connections: From iTunes to NanoSlang

I used to love watching the PBS series “Connections” hosted by James Burke. Burke’s thesis was that scientific discovery and technology development often do not follow a straight line trajectory, but rather depend upon complex relationships and serendipity. In one memorable episode he explained how Napoleon’s need for food storage led to manned space travel; in another he illustrated how standardizing metals in ancient coins inevitably resulted in the atomic bomb.

In this post, I present my less grand version of this, a series of nanoconnections, and along the way alert you to some interesting nanotechnology resources:

1. I began by listening to one in a series of lectures on nanomanufacturing by A.J. Hart (University of Michigan) which I downloaded from iTunesU, a subset of the famous music site, which has scholarly material hosted by a variety of academic institutions around the world. Although Georgia Tech is not among them, there you can find lectures, seminars, and videos on a wide variety of topics. Resource #1

2. During his lecture on electrical and optical properties of nanomaterials, Hart reminded the class that a good way to remain informed is to subscribe to news sites and journal contents via an RSS aggregator such as Google Reader. This is more convenient than receiving a barrage of individual emails, and any website can be added to the subscription list, even the one you are reading right now. Shameless plug for Resource #2.

3. Following Hart’s advice, I added some sites to my Google Reader, including the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. This site is a compilation of all things related to the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer diseases that are located at the intersection of nanoscale science and engineering. Resource #3

4. Now stay with me as things take a turn: I noticed that seven of the eight articles that came from the NCI in August included the term or prefix “nano” in their titles. I could not ignore the use of nanobees, nanoparticle (3 times), nanotubes, nanoflares, and nanotags.

5. I found this curious and interesting, how nano had come to be used as more than a metric prefix meaning one-billionth, so I decided to check an online dictionary to see how many other nano-prefixed words are recognized. At, there were 36 words that included a nano prefix, and only 5 of these were related to a conventional metric unit (curie, gram, liter, meter, second).

6. This was when I discovered that there is nanoslang-- words that have been created using the nano prefix to connote smallness, not for scientific usage but in humorous or unusual ways. My two favorites were found in the online Urban Dictionary:

nanoEinstein: One devoid of general cultural knowledge but possessing extensive learning in an incredibly microscopic field of study.

nanonap: An unintentional, seconds-long nap that you take most often in class or a really boring meeting. So short that usually nobody but you notices.

I imagine that one might take a nanonap while listening to the droning on of a nanoEinstein. In any case, if the measure of a concept’s acceptance into the popular culture is its appearance in the lingo used by the youth of that generation, then all this is good news for the nanologists (a person who studies the infinitesimally small) among us.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Blog on a Blog

If you are a regular reader of this blog, or have heard me speak about nanotechnology, you may remember me mentioning The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In its own words, “the Project serves as a neutral, nonpartisan forum for study, discussion, and debate of the issues surrounding nanotechnology policy”. Since you may also know that I love video as an educational medium (see many of my previous posts), it will come as no surprise that I first became aware of this organization when I came across a wonderful explanation of nanotechnology called “The Twinkie Guide to Nanotechnology” (yes, the nuclear war-surviving snack cake). This video seminar is delivered by Andrew Maynard, who is the Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

Dr. Maynard also has his own blog, 2020 Science, where he provides his personal insights about the impact of science, technology, and particularly nanotechnology, on life in the modern world. His selection of topics is broad, including ethics, religion, the environment, communication, and policy along with some specific technical issues such as carbon nanotubes, climate change, geoenginering, and synthetic biology. The opinions in the postings are supported by selections from the scientific literature and popular press, along with a good selection of links to other websites.

Maynard and 2020 Science are also proponents of Twitter and science’s impact on this medium. Even the New York Times reported today that the majority of tweeters (?) are adults, not teens, and that “use of social networking by people aged 35 to 54 grew 60 percent in the last year”, primarily for “professional purposes” according to Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams.

I’ll stick to blogging.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Numbers 1 and 9

Occasionally I have some time on my hands. Sometimes this happens while I am eating lunch at my desk and I have already finished the morning crossword puzzle, and sometimes it occurs when I have completed one task and am not quite ready to delve into the next one. So, what does a nanotechnology blogger do when he has nothing to do? He goes to the web to look for ideas.

A few days ago I visited You-Tube and typed in the word, you guessed it, “nanotechnology.” Would you believe that I found a list of 2770 videos all tagged with that word? What I found most interesting however was that #1 in the search results (sorted by relevance) was a video I had seen about six months ago. Back then, I had made a notation that I wanted to share it with readers of this blog. I also realized that the #9 entry was a video I had seen earlier this week when searching the web for nano-related material. Both of these videos have received five-star reviews, but I can’t imagine two presentations of nanotechnology that occupy such extremes in style and content. And I loved them both.

The first video, Nanotechnology Takes Off, is from the public broadcasting station KQED in San Francisco and describes the applications of nanoscience and nanoengineering for an educated public (who else watches PBS?) in accurate, scientific, and sober terms. It features shots of suit and tie wearing scientists at Lawrence-Berkeley National Lab discussing quantum confinement, surface area, and polymer photovoltaics.

The second video, Be Amazing, is an animated, apocalyptic satire of the dangers of nanotechnology in the hands of those with evil intent. You will not be educated, but I promise you will laugh out loud.

Is there a grand conclusion to draw from the juxtaposition of these two presentations? Maybe, but I prefer to think of this as an illustration of Napoleon’s precept: “There is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New Toys, I mean Tools, at the NRC

It is not every day that I get to use the words “fun” and “work” in the same sentence, but every once in a while my regular duties at the NRC require that I be entertained. Last Friday I got to take one of the NRC’s latest instrument acquisitions, the MicroFab jetlab II, on a test drive. The jetlab II is a drop-on-demand microdispensing and printing platform which can be used for a wide variety of applications. Typical “inks” include liquid solder, adhesives, polymers, and biological materials (diagnostic reagents, proteins, and DNA). Ink jet dispensing is a non-contact printing process, so its accuracy is not affected by substrate wetting. In addition, the ability to free-fly droplets allows the fluid to be dispensed into and onto non-planar and complex structural features. The NRC staff had several days of training on this new tool, but I had not used it for a real application until printing trans-dermal drug delivery patches with Sonal Saluja of Mercer University. After establishing the proper jetting parameters to create the controlled flow of single 40 micron drops, we were able to use on-the-fly printing to create a 1 cm x 1 cm patch (10,000 individual spots) of a test solution on a rough polyethylene surface in less than 2 minutes. The ease of implementing this simple application was refreshing, and as the X, Y, and Z stages and piezoelectric dispensing device obeyed our every command, I was reminded that I am a “gadget guy” just like my dad.

The jetlab II is one of several new bionanotechnology tools in the Marcus Nanotechnology Building that are currently available to NRC users. Other tools include the Bioforce Nano eNabler , a dynamic contact angle goniometer (rame-hart model 250) for determining surface energies, and a Q-Sense quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation for measuring bulk-surface interactions. Additional equipment is being ordered and installed, and the NRC is committed to improving its capabilities with the acquisition of new equipment as funding and user interest permits. For more information about these tools or opportunities to use them, please contact me or John Pham.