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Spring 2001
SMALL SCIENCE
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A NANO PRIMER

The technical meaning of "nano" is one billionth, as in 10 to the -9 meters, aka a nanometer. Less technically, nano means something very small or minute. Nanosystems, however, as the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) will explore it, carries considerably more interesting connotations.

"The great triumph of 20th-century scientific," says UCLA chemist and CNSI scientific co-director Jim Heath, "was to derive a fundamental understanding of the characteristics of the very, very small - like a few molecules or a few atoms - and the characteristics of bulk solids and how to manipulate and manufacture based on that knowledge. But it's the stuff in-between that interests us. It's smaller than the bulk solid, but much more complex than individual molecules. It's always characterized by very high information content, and the function can be very complex and not easily predictable. But it's harnessing that - those nanosystems - that will be the real challenge of 21st-century science."

And those nanosystems will span the spectrum of modern technologies, from telecommunications to medicine. "Every nanosystem we can think of has some nanoscale component," Heath explains, "a protein, for example, or a quantum dot or the family of interlocked molecules of a molecular mechanical system. Bring these components together to make the nanosystem - proteins and lipids, for instance, to make a cell, or single atom dopants linked with nanowires to make a circuit." All of these systems have crucial characteristics that can be studied and manipulated at nanometer-length scales. And the CNSI will bring together the infrastructure - the research and imaging requirement - to do just that. "It will," says Heath, "be designed to attack a broad range of problems and to bring together disciplines in a completely new and unique way."

- G.T.

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