Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Buckball discoverer dies

Richard Smalley, a co-discoverer of Buckyballs has died at age 62. It is such a pity since 62 is pretty much still the prime of your life for a thinker. Buckyballs, and their direct cousins, carbon nano-tubes, have done as much to prompt the nanotechnology bandwagon as anything since.
There's a good wiki entry for bucky's here.
Why are buckyballs and especially carbon nanotubes interesting? Well, from a chemist's point of view, it's as though a whole new candy store just opened in the neighbourhood (and not just a little one, a multiplex, 5 story high one...). A buckyball is made up of the same stuff as diamond or graphite (elements that come in different forms are called allotropes - throw that out at your next BBQ - or not, you might experience the 'oh, chemistry' personal space creation effect) and until BB's were discovered, it was thought that was all there was to it. It's amazing to think no-one had found them before, they are everywhere that combustion occurs, even in a candle, but that is what makes great scientists different from good scientists - they know when to spend a lot of time looking at anomolies in their data.
If you had to pick the dream candidate for a new allotrope in chemistry, you'd probably pick carbon as your first choice (or perhaps silicon). All of life's complexity flows from carbon's ability to form multiple types of chemical bonds (with both carbon and non-carbon atoms) and with up to 4 bonds per carbon, that makes for a huge number of possible structures, in fact, it's pretty much infinite for all intents and purposes.
The field of nanotechnology has coincided with the rise of the buckyball, and more importantly, the carbon nanotube. Imagine if you gave the ancient Greek architects an unlimited supply of steel I-beams and a brief tutorial on statics analysis. I'd bet that we'd have some very cool architecture to look at after 4000 years. Essentially, that's what CNT's are to chemists and nanotech workers, (i prefer the term molecular engineering since it seems to convey what the aims are in research at these scales, but i seem to be alone in this...), giant I-beams with all the complexity of chemistry rolled into one. There is a staggering amount of research being done just to see what can be done or built using these building blocks - everything from a molecular sized car, to creating CNT computer memory devices, to building electrical circuits.
It's a cool field but don't get too excited, regardless of what the scientists say (and we all lie, we have to get grant funding) it's probably not going to change your life within the next 6 months. Over time however, these molecular-sized designed systems will have as much impact as any other technology to date including semi-conductors, biotechnology or the internet. Imagine what the world was like in 1950-odd when Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA or during WWII when Turing basically founded computing by himself in Blechley park as something to crack cipher codes. Now imagine trying to tell those people what their discoveries would mean to us in our 21st century day-to-day activity. Funny thing is, progress is progressing. We will do more research in the first decade of the 21st century than we did in the last half of the 20th century. It's hard to keep up....

3 Comments:

Blogger XpsGuy said...

Joe,

Have yoyu considered adding an RSS feed for your blog? Would make it easier to follow, and should be easy to configure.

-- mark

7:02 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

mark, you're either a real person or a damn fine piece of socially aware spam. i had no idea anyone actually read this thing and hence you can claim the prize as first person to read this blog. your only prize however is the kudos of saying in the future 'yeah, well i was reading him back in '05...'.
as for an RSS feed, i know of them but don't know how to set one up and every time i read about it, it descends into CS jargon that shuts down my brain. if you have a good webstite to describe it, let me know and i'll set one up.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

looked at my settings and RSS is set to the 'on' position. my bloglines 'add' finds the atom feed no problem and my firefox browser shows the little orange RSS icon - i'm not sure what else i can do...

3:11 PM  

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