The (new) fantastic voyage

Do you recall that 1966 Raquel Welch sci fi movie, where scientists were shrunk to the point where they could travel within a living body and directly interact with blood cells and other microscopic objects? Well, consider this decidedly real statement from Eric Henderson, professor at Iowa State University, made when he tried out the University of North Carolina’s
`nanoManipulator:

“You’re flying through molecules, making chromosomes look like they’re the size of a mountain range… From a pure coolness point of view, it’s phenomenal.” 

The nanoManipulator combines an atomic force microscope with virtual reality goggles and force-feedback tools to let researchers fly across chromosomes, explore football field-sized bacteria, actually feel the textures of carbon nanotubes and viruses (they’re squishy), and even push these molecular-sized things around to suit their whim (for example, rolling carbon nanotubes around to map out the very different laws of
nano-physics.)

But this is about much more than a video game whose landscape just happens to be very real, but very small–it’s about a research tool that allows scientists to conduct experiments and intimately see, and feel, the world at the molecular level. In the January 15 MSNBC, UNC professor Richard Superfine sums up the incredible value of being able to directly experience the previously unthinkable:

“The computer science people have made it easy for us to do experiments that other people find difficult, just by messing around.” 

Sean Washburn, professor, UNC makes this tool’s value very clear:

“The nanoManipulator reduces physical chemistry into a game of tinker toys. If I want to push a molecule around to see what happens, I just reach out and push it. We play with these things the way children play. I’ll say, ‘I wonder what’ll happen if I do this?’ Then I’ll just reach out and do it.” 

It’s that `messing around’ part that I find incredibly empowering, because that’s precisely how kids, and adults, explore and learn, and sometimes stumble upon the less-than-obvious! Give people tools to let them explore and manipulate environments directly–let them bring the full power of their intellectual curiosity and their intuition to bear without the `many times removed,’ cumbersome techniques that such experiments have required in the past–and I believe that they will make extraordinary progress in learning to change our world from the bottom (the atomic level), up. 

This is also an example of how the rate of technological advancement is constantly increasing. It’s not just that things are changing quickly, but tools such as the nanoManipulator enable us to innovate ever-faster! I rather expect that, fueled by the fruits of computing such as the nanoManipulator, the rate at which change accelerates will, itself, accelerate. 

And, who knows–how long might it be before Johnny and Suzie each have their own desktop nanoManipulator, with which they can construct their own toy molecules (or even new DNA strands) after they get home from school? It sounds improbable, I know, especially considering that the current nanoManipulator costs around $ 200,000. Just as improbable as the kids coming home and interacting with people around the world through e-mail and chat. Or of them digitally editing a move for tomorrow’s class project. Or of their spending some time in today’s `macro’ virtual environments on the Internet. 

You see, the nanoManipulator is based around a PC…

Jeffrey Harrow
Senior Consulting Engineer
(Technology and Corporate Development Group), Compaq
Note: This is an article from the `Rapidly Changing Face of Computing’, a free weekly multimedia technology journal written by Jeffrey Harrow. More discussions around the innovations and trends of contemporary computing and the technologies that drive them are available at
www.compaq.com/rcfoc. The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Compaq. The RCFoC is copyright 2000, Compaq.

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