Keeping up with science is impossible: ruminations on a nanotechnology talk

I think it’s time to give this suggestion again. Always hold a little doubt about the science information you read and hear. Everybody makes mistakes.

Here’s an example of what can happen. George Tulevski who gave a talk about nanotechnology in Nov. 2016 for TED@IBM is an accomplished scientist who appears to have made an error during his TED talk. From Tulevski’s The Next Step in Nanotechnology talk transcript page,

When I was a graduate student, it was one of the most exciting times to be working in nanotechnology. There were scientific breakthroughs happening all the time. The conferences were buzzing, there was tons of money pouring in from funding agencies. And the reason is when objects get really small, they’re governed by a different set of physics that govern ordinary objects, like the ones we interact with. We call this physics quantum mechanics. [emphases mine] And what it tells you is that you can precisely tune their behavior just by making seemingly small changes to them, like adding or removing a handful of atoms, or twisting the material. It’s like this ultimate toolkit. You really felt empowered; you felt like you could make anything.

In September 2016, scientists at Cambridge University (UK) announced they had concrete proof that the physics governing materials at the nanoscale is unique, i.e., it does not follow the rules of either classical or quantum physics. From my Oct. 27, 2016 posting,

A Sept. 29, 2016 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, hones in on the peculiarities of the nanoscale,

In the middle, on the order of around 10–100,000 molecules, something different is going on. Because it’s such a tiny scale, the particles have a really big surface-area-to-volume ratio. This means the energetics of what goes on at the surface become very important, much as they do on the atomic scale, where quantum mechanics is often applied.

Classical thermodynamics breaks down. But because there are so many particles, and there are many interactions between them, the quantum model doesn’t quite work either.

It is very, very easy to miss new developments no matter how tirelessly you scan for information.

Tulevski is a good, interesting, and informed speaker but I do have one other hesitation regarding his talk. He seems to think that over the last 15 years there should have been more practical applications arising from the field of nanotechnology. There are two aspects here. First, he seems to be dating the ‘nanotechnology’ effort from the beginning of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative and there are many scientists who would object to that as the starting point. Second, 15 or even 30 or more years is a brief period of time especially when you are investigating that which hasn’t been investigated before. For example, you might want to check out the book, “Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life” (published 1985) is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (Wikipedia entry for the book). The amount of time (years) spent on how to make just the glue which held the various experimental apparatuses together was a revelation to me. Of  course, it makes perfect sense that if you’re trying something new, you’re going to have figure out everything.

By the way, I include my blog as one of the sources of information that can be faulty despite efforts to make corrections and to keep up with the latest. Even the scientists at Cambridge University can run into some problems as I noted in my Jan. 28, 2016 posting.

Getting back to Tulevsk, herei’s a link to his lively, informative talk :

ETA Jan. 24, 2017: For some insight into how uncertain, tortuous, and expensive commercializing technology can be read Dexter Johnson’s Jan. 23, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website). Here’s an excerpt (Note: Links have been removed),

The brief description of this odyssey includes US $78 million in financing over 15 years and $50 million in revenues over that period through licensing of its technology and patents. That revenue includes a back-against-the-wall sell-off of a key business unit to Lockheed Martin in 2008.  Another key moment occured back in 2012 when Belgian-based nanoelectronics powerhouse Imec took on the job of further developing Nantero’s carbon-nanotube-based memory back in 2012. Despite the money and support from major electronics players, the big commercial breakout of their NRAM technology seemed ever less likely to happen with the passage of time.

4 thoughts on “Keeping up with science is impossible: ruminations on a nanotechnology talk

  1. Elizabeth Awad

    Very interesting. I had just watched this TED talk and googled the speaker’s name because I am always skeptical of something I find so interesting and new. I feel like I spend so much time trying to sift through new information to figure out if its just hype or actually new innovation. I am particularly interested in renewable energy, nanotechnology, and AI. I enjoyed reading your blog and hope to create my own blog of sorts one day.

  2. Maryse de la Giroday Post author

    Dear Elizabeth, Yes! I wholeheartedly agree that sifting through the info. and trying to figure out what’s what is quite the task. Please do let me know when you start your blog (a suggestion: don’t wait ’til you’re ready, you never will be:) *n the meantime, do you have any suggestions for good nanotechnology and/or AI blogs? I’m always on the lookout. Finally, thank you muchly for dropping by and leaving your comments. You made my day. Cheers, Maryse

  3. Elizabeth Awad

    ah so glad to hear I made your day! Yes i just look at these subjects from time to time because I am interested in them and its more of a hobby. I only scan the literature in a topical way to find out new and exciting news. I like to check out the Guardian small world: nanotech. Also i read Scientific American online magazine. The blog Future Timeline is interesting to me as well as yours! I have not checked it out yet but I believe Google+ has channels on AI that are pretty informative. Its so hard to have a project outside of my full time job but i was so pleased to see your response and it definitely inspires me to just kind of start writing whatever comes out of my head lol. Thanks for your amazing blog and the time you dedicate to it.

  4. Maryse de la Giroday Post author

    Dear Elizabeth, Thank you for your recommendations. You introduced me to two new things (Future Timeline & Google+ channels). Also, I thought the Guardian’s small world: nanotech had ended so I’m glad to find out that’s not the case. As for producing posts for your own blog on a regular basis, as you note, that is a heavy commitment, especially for someone with a full time job. I wish you all the best with it and don’t forget, please let me know when you get your blog going. Cheers, Maryse

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