Nanotechnology, Creation and God: Prof Russell Cowburn (Transcript)

Full text of physicist Prof Russell Cowburn’s talk: ‘Nanotechnology, Creation and God’ at TEDxStHelier conference.

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Prof Russell Cowburn – Physicist

I’ve got two ideas I’d like to challenge you with, this morning. Two new ideas. The first is really about how small can we go in science and engineering? And to that end, I’d like to introduce you to the world of nanotechnology. So, both; what is nanotechnology and what’s exciting about nanotechnology?

I’ve been a professional scientist for about 25 years. You may be surprised to know I’ve also been a Christian for 25 years. And so, the second thing I’d like to challenge your thinking about, this morning, is your expectation of what a scientist might think about God.

And so, to that end, having told you about nanotechnology, I then want to ask what does God think about nanotechnology?

Okay, so, what is nanotech? Well, if you think of a size scale, we all know what a meter is. That’s you and me. If we go down a factor of a thousand to a millimeter, again, you still you know what a millimeter is. There’s a paperclip.

If we then go down another factor of 20 or 30, we get to the diameter of a human hair, and that picture there shows you a pinhead with a human hair across it and actually a dust mite, that’s the little pink thing in in the picture.

If we go down a little bit further to a length scale of around 10 microns, where a micron is a millionth of a meter, we get to the individual red blood cells that flow around your body.

Now, let’s go all the way to the bottom of that scale and to the smallest thing we can imagine, which would be a single atom. On this scale, a single atom is 0.1 of a nanometer, where a nanometer is a thousand millionth of a meter. So, a European billionth of a meter.

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Nanotechnology is everything that lies in that gap. So, it’s everything that is bigger than a single atom, going up to about a hundred nanometers or so.

And just to give you a little flavor of why we might want to explore in that particular size range, let me just show you a little picture of some of the very early work to come out of IBM on nanotechnology.

They made an abacus but instead of make using wooden beads and a metal pole to make the abacus, they used single atoms and to count from one to ten, they moved the atoms along bit by bit and spelled out the number just like a Chinese counting machine.

Let’s just talk some of the… about some of the techniques of nanotechnology. How is it possible to make things and to see things and manipulate things on such a small scale? Well, one of the most important techniques is called the atomic force microscope, and it’s primarily a microscope but it sees things in the same way that a blind person reads Braille.

So, we make a very, very sharp tip, something which is almost atomically sharp and then we scrape it across a surface and as that very sharp tip goes over the lumps and bumps of the surface, the cantilever that it’s attached to goes up and down just by a very small amount and by bouncing a laser beam off the back of that cantilever, we can actually measure those very small deflections, and from that we can map out the surface with near atomic resolution.

There’s a sister technique to this called scanning tunneling microscopy, which uses a very similar method, and together they allow us to see and to move individual atoms. There’s just an example. This is what you get if you look at a piece of silicon under one of these microscopes. You actually see the individual silicon atoms making these pretty rings on the top surface.

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