The Nano Lands project is the UK’s National Plysical Laboratory’s (NPL) Second Life Nanotechnology project. It’s a virtual environment where they’ve developed a whole series of nano displays and experiences. Troy McConaghy who helped to construct Nano Lands very kindly answered some questions about himself and the project,
What you do: I do projects in the virtual world Second Life.
Where are you located: (Ontario?) Yes, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
[How did you get the job?] I knew a guy working at NPL from our involvement with the International Spaceflight Museum, among other things. He wanted to hire me to do this job and I accepted the offer.
Did you know much about nanotech before you started? A little bit.
What did you learn about nanotech from working on this project? I learned a lot about nanotech, from the exhibits and events that happened while I was on that project: how MOSFETs are built, how AFMs work, the history of nanotubes, how the University of Waterloo set up the first undergraduate program in nanotechnology and much more.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to vast Nano Lands? Do you mean visit? You can visit them today – just open the “Map” in Second Life and look for “Nanotechnology” – it’s the name of the sim. Then teleport there.
What advantages does a virtual environment offer for someone wanting to find out about nanotech? You can see models and simulations that would either be impossible or very expensive in the physical world.
Is there anything you’d like to add? One should really be careful to distinguish nanoscience from nanotechnology. Science is not technology.
(Interview Edited [October 25, 2010] to change font size and increase readibility.) More about Troy McConaghy here. For those not familiar with the abbreviation AFM, that’s an atomic force microscope, which is often used when working at the nanoscale. I had to look up MOSFET and according to Wikipedia, it’s a metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect-transistor, which is used to amplify or switch electronic signals. My guess is that they use this device at the NPL and decided to reproduce it in Second Life.
That last comment of McConaghy’s about science and technology is interesting for a number of reasons. Nanotechnology in particular has a problem. While the idea was more or less defined by Richard Feynman, a physicist, in a talk he gave in 1959 (there’s some debate about where it really starts by literary theorists), The idea was named ‘nanotechnology’ by Norio Taniguchi, an engineer, in 1974. It then got popularized by another engineer, K. Erci Drexler in his 1986 book, ‘Engines of Creation’. I have more about the origins story on my wiki. (if you want to check it out, go to studentnanomysteries.pbwiki.com and either use the origins tag or View all pages and check out the ‘Storytellers create nano’ and the ‘Modern Times’ pages.
Back to science and technology, I think the genie is out of the bottle where nanotechnology is concerned. Personally, I don’t like the conflation and I don’t think the increasing pressure that scientists of all stripes are under to do only work that has commercial applications (the sooner, the better) is good for us as a society. We need the dreams and we need the ideas not just because they might be useful some day in the future but because it enriches us all in some indefinable, unquantifiable fashion.