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April 6th, 2010
Life in the nano world
An invisible revolution has been under way. Great historic events are enacted in spaces smaller in diameter than the lead in a pencil. The news comes down to three facts: The universe has grown much larger, the past proves to be much longer and the biggest engineering project ever built or imagined by humanity, the Internet, depends on an endless collection of switches, each of them much smaller that we can visualize.
We are looking at the smallest objects in the world with new eyes and a refreshed imagination. The baroque microscopic palace that we call the cell has been placed under observation as never before, revealing countless mysteries. George M. Whitesides, an eminent chemist at Harvard, summarizes the paradox of cells in a few words: They are the smallest living things, they are the stuff from which organisms are built and, while "they are as simple as anything in biology, they are as complicated as anything we know."
Whitesides acknowledges that since atoms and molecules make up all of physical reality, everything we can touch, taste, see and feel, "It's a little unnerving that we have never actually seen one." To coax us a few nanometres closer to understanding this subject, Whitesides and a talented photographer, Felice C. Frankel, have created No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale (Harvard University Press), a book that's elegant in appearance, elegant in its images of the nanoworld and elegant in prose.
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