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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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The Next Wave
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Raising public awareness about nanotechnology is another challenge. A lot of people haven’t heard of nanotechnology, let alone how it is shaping our world, and this is a matter of great concern to many scientists. “Nanotechnology is in our watches, cars, hospitals and it shuffles information around,” says Gimzewski, who led a team at IBM that created one of the icons of nanotechnology — the world’s smallest abacus made of soccer ball-shaped molecules of carbon. On the other hand, explains Gimzewski, nanotechnology is about “therapies and new ideas — the next big thing that’s going to change the world in 20 years.”

Including, surely, the academic world, for nanotechnology is one of those disciplines that truly works on the interstices. “It is breaking down boundaries and providing an umbrella under which people from mathematics to engineering to the life sciences are coming together,” says J. Fraser Stoddart, director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA and holder of the Fred Kavli Chair in NanoSystems Sciences. “The very best of young people are responding to nanotechnology with gusto because they’re not hemmed in by the feeling that they’ve got to be a chemist or an engineer or a biologist.”

Sitting in the CNSI conference room one recent afternoon, Stoddart, an internationally renowned chemist, mused over his lifelong obsession with molecules — a time often spent, by his own admission, attracting criticisms for his “exotic but crazy” pursuits in the lab. This past May, he was part of a team of scientists that developed a molecular model of a symbol from Renaissance Italy, the Borromean rings, by bringing 18 components together in a spontaneous feat of nanoengineering. The rings, just three in number and 2.5 nanometers from tip to tip, are interlocked in such a manner that if any of them is broken, the whole assembly collapses.

The Borromean rings could be a form of a drug-delivery system or used in molecular electronics as a switching device capable of performing simple logic functions and displaying random access memory. Although the fundamental science behind a molecular computer has already been done, Stoddart says he and his colleagues “got a huge kick” out of making the Borromean rings, which are, for them, a source of fascination as old as science itself. And for very good reason. “In science you expect one thing to happen, and something else happens,” says Stoddart. “That’s the point. Almost all major discoveries have been stumbled upon.”

Ever since he was a boy growing up on a farm in his native Scotland, says Stoddart, “I was fired up by the wish to do things that no one had ever done before — to feel that I had the ability to change the way things happen. That’s what drove me to science. And the one thing you cannot do is resist it. You can’t stop the march of new technologies. It’s relentless. It’s exciting.”

 

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