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Science Wednesday: You Say You Want A Revolution

2010 February 24

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Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

You say you want a revolution,” said the Beatles. Well, we have one—a scientific revolution.

Nanotechnology is a scientific revolution of the sort described by Thomas Kuhn. In Kuhn’s description, science moves along with a certain set of beliefs until anomalies occur that don’t fit in with these beliefs. As the anomalies become more evident and common, somebody or some group forms a new and totally different theory that explains what’s going on–and shifts the whole direction of science. Hence, a scientific revolution occurs, and science moves forward on this new basis.

For example, 17th Century scientists were doing their “normal science” developing equations that explained how the sun rotated around the earth. These equations got more and more complicated trying to explain what was happening. Then, Galileo came along and said the earth rotated around the sun. This shifted the current geocentric paradigm and caused a scientific revolution in astronomy.

Unfortunately, Galileo was punished by the Inquisition for his “heresy,” but science marched on.

Before being able to work at the nanoscale, we thought that you could slice and dice materials to their smallest size, and they would still retain their properties—like color, magnetism, conductivity, melting point, etc. However, an anomaly occurred at the nanoscale. Materials were changing properties in a particular very small size scale—the nanometer scale.

For example, if you take a piece of gold jewelry, it is colored gold. You would expect that by chopping it up really, really small, its color would remain gold. That is not the case, however. If a particle of gold is 10 nanometers across, it is red. You also would not expect your gold ring to be reactive; yet, at a 2-3 nm size range, gold is a good catalyst.

All this is very exciting to scientists and engineers. Maybe we could “tune” properties to get the color we want or the reactivity we want. However, as scientists and engineers at EPA, we must make sure that the environment and human health are protected while making use of these really cool materials.

To carry out this mission, I support research in both applications of nanotechnology for helping the environment and implications of nanotechnology that may cause harmful effects. Some of the research results can be found at http://epa.gov/ncer/nano/.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research where she works in nanotechnology.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    February 24, 2010

    But, Dr. Barbara, The Beatles also said “The Long and Winding Road”, I meant, nanotechnology now hit Darwin by his Evolution theory.
    So, Evolution or Revolution, by my people, here, just take to eat and hope our children goes to school every day. So far, we just to see your brilliant force, and we just to say the long and winding road : that maybe that is our destiny…….

  2. Al Bannet permalink
    February 24, 2010

    The only technological solution to the problem of our growing population and our expanding economy on this shrinking planet, is peaceful family planning programs to reduce the population Worldwide, and 100% safe recycling of all waste and garbage. Failing that, our future will be ecocide and extinction.

  3. Guy Montag permalink
    February 28, 2010

    What a cheery guy!

  4. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    February 28, 2010

    The nanotechnology revolution promises to give important benefits to society including the area of environmental improvement. But at the same time care needs to be taken to ensure we are not solving one set of problems while creating new ones. I am reminded of the oil revolution at the beginning and middle of the last century which until the late 1960s promised we could run our entire economy and meet all of our transportation needs with virtually free gasoline and diesel fuel. Then in the middle of the last century came the chemical revolution which said you could have higher crop yields and more meatier livestock at less cost by using agrocultural petro-chemicals, and then the chemical revolution went from the farms into practicly every part of the manufacturing sector. Both the oil and chemical revolutions revolutionized society and made vast improvements over what was seen in the 19th Century, but both also brought about their own sets of severe environmental problems we have todeal with today and into the future. This is why care should be taken at the beginning of the nanotechnology revolution. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  5. Al Bannet permalink
    March 2, 2010

    Reality eventually catches up with everyone, no matter who they are. We humans are a species out of control and grabbing for more than the Earth can provide, while dumping growing tons of waste and garbage in land and sea, and dreaming of space travel to find new planets for conquest and “development”.

  6. Jewelry Buyers Houston permalink
    June 12, 2010

    Yes, nanotechnology can start a Revolution in this earth or in our human life. Through this nanotechnology we can change environment and gate much more data about our environment. I think in future this nanotechnology change our life style, and smooth our life. I see some TV shows on nanotechnology and I also agreed that it’s the future of human society.

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