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Small is smarter

Prof. Mark Welland... engineering single molecules. Photo: V. Sudershan.

WITH COMPUTERS getting smaller and smaller, means of communication getting faster, everybody in a hurry and `global' being the byword for everything from food to finances, many of us have begun to take advances in science and technology for granted. What was exotic science fiction yesterday is commonplace today, and it seems - at the pace new products and processes are invented - increasingly difficult to conjure up a suitably outlandish scientific scenario that will not be obsolete before the film hits the screens. We are aware that many of these advances are due to the computer chip. And much as the academic plebeians amongst us may admire the smallness of the silicon chip that has changed the way the world communicates, studies, and approaches data, we may not be aware that this revolution has been enabled by a science known as nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is all about manipulating and engineering single molecules. The tiny scale of work can be gauged by the size of one nanometre: a measurement equal to 0.000000009 metre, or a 10,000th of the diameter of a human hair.

Nanotechnology has been around for a long time, enabling the manufacture of objects measurable at an atomic scale - tools that reduce energy waste and pave the way for improved and increasingly non-invasive treatment and diagnosis of diseases. It is also to be found in the realm of cosmetics. The majority of India's population may believe in multiple births and admit to the cyclical nature of time, but that does not stop consumers from making a beeline for anti-aging creams. It is nanotechnology that goes into these pomades and potions allegedly empowered to set the clock back by firming the skin and getting rid of wrinkles.

The U.K. Government is putting millions of pounds into nanotechnology research. One of the foremost researchers in the field, Professor Mark Welland, Director of the University of Cambridge's Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Nanotechnology, currently touring Delhi and Mumbai lecturing on "Small is better: Controlling material properties by nanoscale patterning", describes the science as "the ultimate in precision, in engineering and in understanding of ourselves and our surroundings." Professor Welland is the lecturer for 2003 in the annual series of lectures in different countries organised by the Sterling Group, an association of 20 U.K. universities known for excellence in engineering. In the future, he says, nanotechnology will produce more and more uses.

If ever there was a candidate for the phrase `all this and more', it is nanotechnology. And tempting are scenarios like the 1966 film "Fantastic Voyage" - in which a group of doctors are shrunk to microscopic size and enter the body of a patient in a submarine-like capsule to set him right from the inside. But though such feats may be as far-fetched as ever, this is a branch of science with amazing possibilities.


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