It’s an intriguing thought that if you took all the space out of all the people in the world, what was left over would occupy the size of a sugar cube. That was the starting point of “What is the World Made Of?” presented by Michael Mosley in the series “The Story of Science” currently being broadcast on TVO (Canada).
The atom is a basic unit of matter consisting of a dense, central nucleus made up of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. It’s the space in which the neutrons move about that is interesting.
Imagine the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (right). If a nucleus is represented by a grain of sand, the cathedral is the space in which the neutrons fly around. Remove the space from all the atoms of all the people in the world (currently 6.8 billion), and what’s left will fit into the dimensions of a sugar cube.
The idea echoes recent claims by IBM scientists that the world’s most powerful supercomputer processors can be shrunk to the size of a sugar cube. William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” (written in 1803) comes to mind:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.”
Of course, we now know that this is all to do with quantum mechanics: the scientific principles that explain the behaviour of matter and its interactions with energy on the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. From quantum mechanics to nanotechnology may only be one miniscule step for human beings, but it is a mega leap for humankind.
Nanotechnology (“nanotech”) is the manipulation of matter on an atomic or molecular scale. Nanotech deals with structures between 1 and 100 nanometers in at least one dimension and involves developing materials or devices within that size. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
At the end of 2010, using nanotechnology, scientists produced what they believe is the world’s smallest Christmas card. It was created by nantotechnologists at the University of Glasgow and was small enough to fit on to the surface of a postage stamp 8,276 times. The image measures 200×290 micro-metres and is etched on a tiny piece of glass.
Nanotech discoveries are being announced on a weekly basis. One of the latest is touchscreens that contain carbon nanotubes. Touchscreens are expensive because they make use of a rare and expensive compound (indium tin oxide). That’s why researchers have come up with an alternative display made of low-priced renewable raw material available all over the world.
“Small is beautiful” was used by the German economist Fritz Schumacher for his influential collection of essays Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (1973). Schumacher didn’t coin the phrase, however, which he credited to his teacher, Austrian philosopher and economist Dr Leopold Kohr. But, as both men knew, there is a lot more in a grain of sand than meets the eye.