How did I miss it? Last Thursday night (Oct. 13, 2011) the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) televised the first of a three-part series on nanotechnology on its Nature of Things science programme. Luckily, they’ve already posted the episode so I (and you too) can catch up. Titled, The Nano Revolution, the first episode is subtitled, Welcome to Nano City, and focuses on three main topics: buildings, computers, and security.
Their ‘go to’ expert is the University of California at Los Angeles’s Dr.James Gimzewski (pronounced jemjeski) who has what I’m guessing is a Scottish accent. He worked alongside Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer (mentioned in my May 26, 2011 posting) to develop the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) which allowed scientists to work at the nanoscale in a fashion that had not been possible before. Gimzewski’s accomplishments are many (from his About page),
Dr. Gimzewski pioneered research on mechanical and electrical contacts with single atoms and molecules using scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and was one of the first persons to image molecules with STM. His accomplishments include the first STM-based fabrication of molecular suprastructures at room temperature using mechanical forces to push molecules across surfaces, the discovery of single molecule rotors and the development of new micromechanical sensors based on nanotechnology, which explore ultimate limits of sensitivity and measurement. This approach was recently used to convert biochemical recognition into Nanomechanics. His current interests are in the nanomechanics of cells and bacteria where he collaborates with the UCLA Medical and Dental Schools. He is involved in projects that range from the operation of X-rays, ions and nuclear fusion using pyroelectric crystals, direct deposition of carbonn nanotubes and single molecule DNA profiling. Dr. Gimzewski is also involved in numerous art-science collaborative projects that have been exhibited in museums throughout the world.
Getting back to the programme, there was no Canadian content in this first episode unless you count David Suzuki who did not appear on camera reading a script for voice over narration as Canadian content. I was glad to see a lot more information about research in Japan and Korea than I’m usually able to dig up and I thought the science was well presented.
I had the distinct impression that the segments were repurposed materials, i.e., the animations and interviews had originally been recorded for another purpose and reused by the CBC for this series.
I imagine that for storyteling purposes they felt it necessary to focus on specific experts and teams of researchers. For example, the segment on an atomic switch described its characteristics in a manner that reminded me of memristors, especially when Gimzewski mentioned memory and learning. The discussion then turned to neuromorphic engineering (creating artificial brains) and how atomic switches are a key area of interest which likely left most viewers with the impression that the featured team is working alone and/or that only atomic switches are being studied with regard to neuromorphic engineering. Surely, they could have mentioned other teams and other approaches in passing. Also, I’m not sure why they included a segment on computers in a programme about cities and nanotechnology.
In the last few minutes of the first episode they mention the UK’s report from the Royal Society and some of the concerns being raised about nanotechnology. Issued in 2004, the report was written after Prince Charles mentioned the ‘grey goo’ scenario much discussed at that time. K. Eric Drexler had written a book, Engines of Creation, in 1986 intended to popularize nanotechnology. In writing the book, Drexler also included an idea he had about nanoscale self-assemblers (popularly termed as nanobots) running amuck, i.e. snatching atoms and molecules to self-assemble endlessly thereby reducing the world to ‘grey goo’. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear one of the report authors, Sir Martin Rees, indirectly refer to and dismiss that notion.
All three segments featured futuristic sequences imagining our nano-enabled world in 2041. It seems like a remarkable lonely world in which women are concerned with cleanliness and dirt (why a space elevator is better than space travel); prefer to stay in the house where they can shop to their hearts’ content, raise virtual children with no fuss and no muss, and get a health check-up without ever seeing a human being in a segment where virtual reality is seamlessly integrated into all aspects of our lives; and are worried about surveillance in a world where RFID (radio frequency identification) tags which track and monitor our every move are ubiquitous.
Remarkably the first two ‘futuristic’ segments are presented as part of a happy future. One other note, all of the scientists presented in the first segment are men while the lead characters in the animations are a blonde woman and a dark-haired child. I can hardly wait to see what’s coming up next on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 in the episode subtitled, More than Human.