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A who what and where report of Nanotechnology

and its future implications


Albert Einstein, as part of his doctoral dissertation, calculated the size of a single sugar molecule from experimental data on the diffusion of sugar in water. His work showed that each molecule measures about a nanometer in diameter. At a billionth of a meter, a nanometer is the essence of small. The width of 10 hydrogen atoms laid side by side, it is one thousandth the length of a typical bacterium, one millionth the size of a pinhead, one billionth the length of Michael Jordan's well-muscled legs. One nanometer is also precisely the dimension of a big windfall for research.

Almost 100 years after Einstein's insight, the nanometer scale looms large on the research agenda. If Einstein were a graduate student today probing for a career path, a doctoral adviser would enjoin him to think small: "Nanotech, Albert, nanotech" would be the message conveyed.

After biomedical research and defense-fighting cancer and building missile shields still take precedence-nanotechnology has become the most highly energized discipline in science and technology. The field is a vast grab bag of stuff that has to do with creating tiny things that sometimes just happen to be useful. It borrows liberally from condensed-matter physics, engineering, molecular biology and large swaths of chemistry. Researchers who once called themselves materials scientists or organic chemists have transmuted into nanotechnologists.

Purist academic types might prefer to describe themselves as mesoscale engineers. But it's "nano" that generates the buzz. Probably not since Du Pont coined its corporate slogan "better things for better living through chemistry" have scientists who engage in molecular manipulation so adeptly captured and held public attention-in this case, the votes of lawmakers in Washington who hold the research purse strings. "You need to come up with new, exciting, cutting-edge, at-the-frontier things in order to convince the budget- and policy-making apparatus to give you more money," remarks Duncan Moore, a former White House official who helped to organize the Clinton administration's funding push for nanotechnology.

With recognition has come lots of money-lots, that is, for something that isn't a missile shield. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), announced early last year by President Bill Clinton, is a multiagency program intended to provide a big funding boost to nanoscience and engineering. The $422-million budget in the federal fiscal year that ends September 30 marks a 56 percent jump in nano spending from a year earlier. The initiative is on track to be augmented for fiscal year 2002 by another 23 percent even while the Bush administration has proposed cuts to the funding programs of most of the federal agencies that support research and development (see the NNI Web site at www.nano.gov). Nano mania flourishes everywhere. More than 30 nanotechnology research centers and interdisciplinary groups have sprouted at universities; fewer than 10 existed two years ago. Nanoism does not, moreover, confine itself to the U.S. In other countries, total funding for nanotechnology jumped from $316 million in 1997 to about $835 million this year, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Interest in nano is also fueled, in an aberrant way, by the visions of a fringe element of futurists who muse on biblical life spans, on unlimited wealth and, conversely, on a holocaust brought about by legions of uncontrollable self-replicating robots only slightly bigger than Einstein's sugar molecules.