Small Wonders

Local scientists are shrinking chips and wires to atomic scale, revolutionizing the electronics industry. But most of the nanotechnological advances you've read about are outsized hype.

In quantum computers, quantum bits, or "qubits," can be in both state 0 and state 1 at the same time, superimposed on one another. Theoretically, the ability to create databases of qubits and connect to them will shrink computers and increase their powers of calculation astronomically. But in the present, qubits have not been realized, because it is impossible to access the data without causing decoherence to set in, which destroys the information. And what is the use of storing information in the quantum universe, when attempts to access it import chaos and destroy the data?

Despite this almost ontological problem, Charles Marcus and many of his nanotechnologist colleagues believe that further experimentation with quantum dots could well lead to the development of a quantum computer. In the meantime, Marcus is also working on fabricating quantum wires to connect the quantum universe to the classical world. In that pursuit, he's in a collective that includes Hongjie Dai, Mike Crommie, Paul McEuen, and thousands of other experimentalists.


Paul McEuen holding a "buckyball."
Courtesy of Hongjie Dai
Paul McEuen holding a "buckyball."

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RELATED LINKS

"Brave New Nano-World Lies Ahead: One atom at a time, scientists are building a future of the fantastic"
San Francisco Chronicle
July 19, 1999

Foresight Institute
Official site of Eric Drexler's Palo Alto-based futurist organization

McEuen Group
Home page of Paul L. McEuen's research group at the University of California, Berkeley

Dai Lab
Home page of Hongjie Dai's Stanford University-based research group

Marcus Lab
Home page of Charles Marcus' Stanford University-based research group


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Paul McEuen shows a visitor his lab. "My mom was disappointed. She thought it would be full of beakers and Dr. Frankenstein stuff," he grins. It looks like a weekend hobbyist's basement full of water heaters, gaffer's tape, and abandoned screwdrivers. But the water heaters are $250,000 refrigerators full of liquid helium and quantum dots.

It costs a lot of money to do nanotech, which is why university labs are umbilically tied to the U.S. government. The National Science Foundation is heading up a task force of scientist-bureaucrats from NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and several other federal agencies; this group is trying to control developments in nanotechnology, and, to this end, the U.S. government is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on basic nanoscience research over the next two years. It is likely that nanotech manufacturing will become profitable once it passes the research stage. That's why the labs of multinational cybercorporations like IBM and Raychem are also heavily invested in nanotech research.

Those involved in nanotechnology regularly express a degree of social consciousness often missing in experimentalists. McEuen does not necessarily believe that nanotechnology will solve humanity's problems; he does hope that as biology, chemistry, and physics continue to intersect in the pursuit of nanosolutions, human beings will connect more deeply with their environment. "If everybody lives the way we live here," he says, "the planet is doomed. We'll run out of raw materials and kill everything."

But the technology of the infinitesimal is amoral. It is a tool that spans two viewpoints of reality -- classical physics and quantum mechanics -- with wonderful power. The results of nanoinvention -- which will likely include powerful weapons applications, as well as, one can hope, more benign and useful devices -- will change how the world operates its machines. But it cannot change how people operate in the world.

In 1995, the Rand Corp., a government-linked think tank located in Santa Monica, published a study on the potential of nanotechnology. The Rand paper relied heavily on the writings of K. Eric Drexler and the Foresight Institute.

The Rand Corp.'s authors concluded that nanotechnology would best be used to "take advantage of indigenous resources found on asteroids, comets, or planets for mining; defending Earth against impacts; or tools to assist extensive colonization of the solar system on a reasonable time scale." There was no mention of ending world hunger.

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