No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale

Andrew Briggs finds much to praise in an enlightening introduction to nanoscience

December 10, 2009

We humans are good at appreciating things that are not too much bigger or smaller than us. We can relate to a horse or a cat, and we can use a car or a computer with varying degrees of understanding of how their innards work. The greater the discrepancy in size, the harder we find it. Whales are more difficult to relate to than horses, and fleas are much more difficult than cats. Beyond that, it is helpful to use visual cues. Many people who do not know the astrophysics of galaxies are nevertheless familiar with pictures of their spiral arms. No Small Matter conveys science on the nanoscale through a remarkable series of photographs.

You might expect that this book would take advantage of the astonishing advances in microscopy that have occurred over the past few decades. In the department of materials at Oxford we have for many years used three completely different kinds of microscopes that are each capable of resolving individual atoms in structures. No Small Matter contains a few transmission electron microscope images, of antibodies and of platinum cobalt intermetallic catalyst particles. Somewhat surprisingly, since they can be readily imaged by electron microscope, single-walled carbon nanotubes are portrayed through hexagonal patterns printed on transparent acetate rather than through an actual micrograph.

There are several pictures taken using an atomic force microscope, such as molecules of a block copolymer. There is a picture of molecules of carbon monoxide on a surface, which have been tastefully arranged, like the sheep in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, using the tip of the microscope. This picture is used to illustrate how molecules can be arranged so that when you push one, the whole row falls over like so many dominoes. The text comments, "Using metastable arrangements of molecules as a switch is, so far, more a game than a practical solution to a problem. But the idea - to arrange sets of molecules to serve as a mechanical switch - is as quirkily wondrous as training fleas to perform a classical ballet."

In another pair of images, the sharp tip of an atomic force microscope is seen through the eyes of a scanning electron microscope. Side by side with this (actually overleaf as a double-page spread) is a picture of a child's toy that uses a plate through which many pins slip to replicate the shape of an object pushing up from below. This is how most of the images in the book are used - to illustrate the concepts and techniques of nanoscience by analogy rather than by direct visualisation. Thus quantum cascades are illustrated by a photograph of water cascading down a series of steps, as an explanation of how light is emitted when the electron drops from one energy level to another in an atom. The wave-particle duality of a particle such as an electron is illustrated by a photograph of a vibrating viola string.

The book is written almost entirely in non-technical language. Professional nanoscientists will enjoy the pictures, and may borrow some of the analogies in explaining their work to wider audiences. But the target readership is anyone who has heard of nanotechnology and is curious to learn more. Like the title, the photographs fulfil a double role of conveying information and imparting aesthetic pleasure. There is a technical annexe explaining how the photographs were taken. There are no scale bars, and while this may be intentional for the non-specialist readership, it will set on edge the teeth of professional microscopists. The text sins, too. On page 1, the fascination of the small is illustrated thus: "From childhood on, we have stuck forks into sockets to see what would happen." Maybe in the US, with 110-volt mains electricity, you just blow the fuse - but with the higher voltages in Europe you will kill yourself. I hope no child reads this book and tries it at home.

The authors are a heterogeneous partnership of a photographer and a materials chemist. Felice Frankel is a senior research fellow in the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University, where she heads the Envisioning Science Project at Harvard's Initiative in Innovative Computing. She has received numerous awards for her scientific photography. George Whitesides is the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers university professor at Harvard; he has an immensely distinguished record of research, with a list of awards that fills a whole screen. This is not their first book together, and they are able to combine the text and the visual in a remarkably effective way. This is a brilliant book that will help a wide readership to appreciate the wonders of the very small. It should adorn the coffee table of every nanoscience laboratory, and no doubt will find its way into the Christmas stockings of friends of many scientists.

No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale

By Felice C. Frankel and George M. Whitesides

Harvard University Press

192pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674035669

Published 26 November 2009

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