There’s Plenty of Boom at the Bottom!
Decades ago, in 1959, when the world was still getting the hang of the color TV, and the personal computer was still the epitome of user-friendly technology, an avid bongo-player remarked, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom!”. Today, we know this genius as Nobel-prize Winning Physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman. This very simplistic statement of his, stemmed from his staunch belief that even though humans were fiddling around with micrometer (one millionth of a centimeter) sized technology, they could go further down, even to the nanometer (10-9th part of a meter) level. This, coupled with a very inspiring speech, spurred a race among scientists, to explore a then unheard-of area of science…… Nanotechnology! The science of manipulation of individual atoms and molecules, or the study of objects up to 100 nanometers in size, is known as Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has become an integral part of our everyday lives, quite unbeknownst to us! The rapid advances in the field of pharmaceutical products, the exponential and quite unbelievable advent of technology, and the radical upliftment of even seemingly harmless industries like food preservation, can all be attributed to an increase in research into the field of Nanotechnology. The seemingly endless combinations that are possible at this size-scale, have ensured that this field brings forth new wonders with every new day. Some men are said to have been born ahead of their time, and Dr. Feynman tops the list. In his uncanny visionary style, he had often quipped, that if people thought hard enough, one could work out how to make a working, nanometer sized car. And almost 6 decades later, humanity has taken its first few steps in that direction. The trio of French scientist Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Englishman Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Dutch Scientist Bernard Feringa, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in the year 2016, for, “development of molecular machines that are a thousand times thinner than a hair strand”. This implies, they have created working machines almost as small as an atom!
Dr. Sauvage, who hails from a middle-class French background, very ingeniously thought of and synthesized, a type of molecule known as a “catenane”, which is a kind of polymer where molecules are bound together not by chemical influence, but by mechanical interaction. One can think of them as a really small set of interlockable rings.
Dr. Stoddart had even humbler beginnings, being the son of a Scottish farmer. But he built his career with an iron will, and pioneered studies about “rotaxanes”, molecules which rotate about an axis, under influence of various wavelengths of radiation. A good analogy for these molecules would be a ring that can move along the length of a stick.
Dr. Feringa, too hails from a farm on the German Border, and forged full steam ahead with his career, to the extent, that he developed the definitive theory about the direction of motion and rotary speed of molecule sized rotor blades under various stimuli.
Putting together these three outstandingly clever devices, scientists were able to come up with a nano “car” just as Feynman had predicted all those years ago!
In summary, the field of Nanotechnology, like its greatest minds, had humble beginnings. But, it is destined for greatness, and can very well be the key to a brighter future for all of humanity.