Little Big World
long ago few scientific disciplines seemed farther apart in
their aims and methods than one of the newest fields of inquiry,
nanoscience, and one of the oldest, Earth sciences.
Fifteen years ago the popular view of nanoscience was of
self-replicating little robots going busily about making copies
of themselves to manufacture whatever might be wanted in the
way of drugs, clever plastics, microscopic computers, and
what have you (if not, as in some scenarios, reducing the
world to gray goo). Earth sciences, on the other hand, were
about old rocks and old bones, volcanoes and earthquakes,
the slow drift of the continents, the wandering magnetic poles,
and mainstay of most working geologists -- where to look
for more fossil fuel.
Anybody who thought about either topic for five minutes would
have realized that both disciplines were far subtler and more
complex, of course, but only a few visionaries really believed
that they had much to say to each other.
Yet as oceanographers and experts in soil and the atmosphere
have made it increasingly clear, the world's climate is changing
rapidly in response to atmospheric greenhouse gases, put there
by human activity; simultaneously it has become clear that
fundamental knowledge of materials and structures gained by
microscopists, chemists, and other nanoscientists, plus an
increasingly versatile toolkit of methods for manipulating
the world of the invisibly small, offer if only in the
long term some of the most promising ideas for getting
ourselves out of this fix.
It's another example of the wisdom of basic research: you
can't predict where it's going to take you, but you can be
pretty sure that something, somewhere, that you didn't expect
to find, may hold out the best hopes for the future.
This edition of [email protected] Lab looks at some of the
most basic research imaginable, including investigating the
first sliver of time after the Big Bang and the movement of
electrons in a buckyball, to some of the most practical, like
trying to find a way to turn sunlight directly into fuel.
As you might expect, nanoscience and the Earth sciences both
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