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Nanotech Gets Real

From the editor in chief
March 1, 2002

In the winter of 1997, as I was assembling a team of editors and writers to relaunch Technology Review as “MIT’s Magazine of Innovation,” one application caught my eye. We had advertised in the New York Times, and the candidates weren’t all that impressive. But one stood out. The letter and résumé had a dry, understated style combined with what looked like good knowledge of chemistry and materials science.

Now, I already knew chemistry and materials science were going to be close to the heart of the magazine we were inventing, and so I took a chance and invited the sender of the résumé, whose name happened to be David Rotman, up from New York.

I was fond of chili in those days and I met Rotman at a restaurant on Beacon Street in Brookline called Kokopelli Chili. By the time I finished lunch I knew I hadn’t been wrong about the man’s style. He didn’t waste words, and he didn’t say anything stupid. I had a feeling that he was going to be a good addition. That feeling was confirmed a couple of days later when I got the story ideas I had asked him for. Anybody who’s looking for a job can say they like the idea you’re pushing for your new magazine. Not many can give you a list of potential articles that flesh the concept out and make it come alive. Rotman could.

David RotmanLittle surprise, then, that David Rotman has turned out to be one of the stars of the new Technology Review. Bright, calm and unblinking. A star to steer by. And I have. In particular, I’ve used David’s illumination to steer us through the emerging field of nanotechnology. In mid-1998, when we relaunched the magazine, not many of our readers had heard much about nanotech. Still, we believed that the manipulation of matter on the scale of atoms and molecules to make new technologies was going to be a significant part of the technology landscape.

When we started covering this small world, its potential was far greater than its payoff. Indeed, some of nanotech’s proponents had vastly overhyped it. They were spouting fantasies about “nanobots,” tiny submarines that would cruise through your bloodstream, diagnosing what ails you and fixing it at the same time.

In the face of this hype, one of the first services we provided in covering nanotech was deflating hot-air balloons. That’s what Rotman did in one of our first major pieces on this field, “Will the Real Nanotech Please Stand Up?” published in the March/April issue in 1999. Rotman sorted out what was possible from things that would remain dreams for many years to come. Since then he has either edited or written just about everything we’ve published on nanotechnology.

A lot has changed since those first pieces. Nanotechnology has evolved from a laboratory curiosity into an object of intense interest on the part of some of the world’s largest corporations. Specifically, the companies that make computer components have figured out that nanoscale, tubular structures consisting entirely of carbon atoms-“carbon nanotubes”-could lead to better, cheaper versions of three of the fundamental elements of every computer: processor, memory and display.

Carbon nanotubes offer a good example of how something that is basic science one year may be commercial technology the next. Nanotubes are the descendant of “buckyballs,” spheres consisting of 60 carbon atoms, arranged in icosahedral form (much like the surface of a soccer ball). Buckyballs were discovered in 1985 by Richard Smalley of Rice University, an achievement for which Smalley and his collaborators received the Nobel Prize in 1996. Nanotubes were isolated in 1991.

From the first, researchers including Smalley were intrigued by the optical and electrical properties of these unusual tubular structures. Indeed, Smalley waxed enthusiastic about nanotubes in an excellent Q&A by Rotman in our pages (TR March 2001). And now some of that promise is beginning to materialize. As Rotman writes in this issue’s cover story, “The Nanotube Computer,” on page 36, the properties of nanotubes make them well suited for replacing today’s cathode-ray tubes. As early as Christmas 2003, Samsung plans to have on the market carbon-nanotube-based flat-panel displays. The first versions will probably be used in ultrathin TVs, but computer screens should follow.

The virtue of these nanotube displays is that they could eventually be much cheaper than current flat-panel screens, which are an order of magnitude more expensive than conventional displays. Beyond displays, nanotubes should move on to revolutionize processing and memory. That may not be quite as exciting as having nanoscopic submarines roaming through your blood vessels. But it has the advantage of being achievable. Following the guidance of David Rotman, Technology Review will continue to cover nanotechnology in almost every issue, helping you sort the possible from the imaginary, hope from hype, hot air from hot technology.

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