Can Nanotechnology Save Lives?

Harvard professor and scientific genius George Whitesides believes that nanotechnology will change medicine as we know it

Polymer fronds a few thousand nanometers long wrap around even tinier plymer spheres. (Felice C. Frankel)
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Finding George Whitesides is often tricky even for George Whitesides. So he keeps an envelope in his jacket pocket. “I don’t actually know where I am in general until I look at it,” he says, “and then I find that I’m in Terre Haute, and then the question really is, ‘What’s next?’” During a recent stretch, the envelope revealed that he was in Boston, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai, Delhi, Basel, Geneva, Boston, Copenhagen, Boston, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles and Boston.

The reason Boston shows up so frequently, although not as often as his wife prefers, is that Whitesides is a professor of chemistry at Harvard University, and Boston Logan is his home airport. The reason for all the other cities is that Whitesides’ contributions to science range into biology, engineering, physiology, materials science, physics and, especially these days, nanotechnology. Other scientists, government leaders, inventors and investors worldwide want to hear from him.

Whitesides’ inventions and ideas have spawned more than a dozen companies, including drug giant Genzyme. No Harvard lab comes close to matching the number of patents attached to his name—“approximately 90,” he says. The citation “GM Whitesides” shows up more frequently in academic papers than that of nearly any other chemist in history.

So Whitesides is something like the Bono of science, though taller, more wiry and at age 70, less hirsute. A Scottish fisherman’s cap almost always covers his head, even in front of an audience. He has a deep voice, with little hint of his native Kentucky. Lately that voice has been introducing audiences to a new nanotechnology project aimed at saving lives in the developing world. “What is the cheapest possible stuff that you could make a diagnostic system out of?” he asks. “Paper.”

On a piece of paper no thicker or wider than a postage stamp, Whitesides has built a medical laboratory.

One day this past winter, Whitesides woke up in his own bed. By 9 a.m. he was in his office just off Harvard Yard. He wore his typical outfit: a pinstripe suit, white shirt, no tie. He set his fisherman’s cap on a conference table in front of a bookshelf that held The Cell, Microelectronic Materials, Physical Chemistry, Advanced Organic Chemistry and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

A text not on the shelf was No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale, a newly published coffee-table book by Whitesides and the science photographer Felice C. Frankel. It’s about truly exotic things that appear to be very large but are exceptionally, absurdly, astoundingly small—nanotubes, quantum dots, self-assembling machines.

Nanotechnology is, simply defined, the science of structures measuring between 1 nanometer, or billionth of a meter, and 100 nanometers. (The prefix “nano” comes from the Greek word for dwarf.) Still, to most people, that definition isn’t so simple. Trying to understand nanometers can rapidly induce crossed eyes. The sheet of paper these words are printed on is 100,000 nanometers thick—the diameter of a human hair, roughly the smallest object a person can see with unaided eyes. A bacterium sitting atop this paper is about 1,000 nanometers in diameter—microscopic. To see something only one nanometer in size was impossible until 1981, when two IBM physicists invented the first scanning tunneling microscope. Conventional microscopes use lenses to magnify whatever is in the line of sight. But scanning tunneling microscopes work more like a person reading Braille, moving across the surface of structures by using a tiny stylus. The physicists, who won a Nobel Prize a mere five years later, built a stylus with a tip that was just one atom across (less than one nanometer). As it moves, the stylus detects the material’s structure by recording electrical feedback, and then the microscope translates the recordings into images.

Now that really small things—right down to individual atoms—could finally be seen, Whitesides and other chemists got very interested in nanoscale materials. And what they learned amazed them. Materials this small, it turns out, have unexpected properties—we were just clueless until we could see them up close. Molecules with different surfaces—surfaces that don’t usually combine well, if at all—can suddenly bind. Glass, normally an insulator of electric currents, can conduct electricity. Materials that could not carry electric charges suddenly become semiconductors. The metal gold, in small enough particles, can appear red or blue.

“One of the fascinations of small things is that they turn out to be so alien, in spite of superficial similarities in shape or function to larger, more familiar relatives,” Whitesides writes in his book. “Discovering these differences at the smallest scale is wonderfully engrossing, and using them can change (and has changed) the world.”


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