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May 13, 2005
Little Big World

Not so 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 figure large.

If you have comments or questions on any of these stories, just drop us an email.

The Editors