The American Chemical Society has launched a new journal devoted to nanotechnology, ACS Nano, to accompany its existing, and very successful, letters journal, Nano Letters, about which I wrote a little while ago. In contrast to the short report format of Nano Letters, ACS Nano publishes full length papers about original research, together with some perspectives and editorial material. The journal is now on its second issue, and features an interesting interview (I think this is available without subscription) with one of the leading figures of US academic nanotechnology, Harvard’s George Whitesides.
The interview is worth reading in its entirety, but a few points are worth picking out. Firstly, contrary to the hype that has surrounded nanotechnology, Whitesides exhibits rather a lack of confidence that nanotechnology ever will have a revolutionary impact, in the sense of supplying a fundamentally new capability. He doesn’t doubt that it is “a big, big deal”, but more through enabling incremental developments in many different industries and sectors. In a far future, the ability to exploit fundamentally quantum objects at room temperature, which nanoscale fabrication can facilitate, is his possible exception to this pessimism. “we talk about quantum computation, and quantum entanglement, and quantum communications, and the concepts are there, but the realization is going to require nanotechnology to make it work. If there is something there (I don’t know whether there is), what we’re seeing now is the beginning of the materials base that will lead to that, and that could be revolutionary in some major way.”
Whitesides is famous, among other achievements, for inventing soft lithography, and he tells a rueful but instructive story about the original motivation for this new technology. In the mid-90’s, it was felt that the continued miniaturisation of electronic circuits was threatened by the limits on how much optical lithography could be scaled down. It turned out that this was a misconception, which greatly underestimated how effective the semiconductor industry would be at driving down the working length scale in incremental (though immensely clever) ways. Nonetheless, soft lithography found many other uses, exploiting its unique advantages. As Whitesides says, “you don’t know until you get into it, you find out what works”.
Finally, he has excellent advice to young scientists – whatever else you do, make sure the problems you are working on are the really important ones, even if they seem more difficult or challenging than less interesting ones, on which one might feel one had a better chance of success. His logic for this is that it’s better to fail on an important problem than to succeed on a boring one.