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Atomic Scale Technology - and where it's leading us.
Wednesdays 9, 16 and 23 June 2004 9.00-9.30pm 

Nanotechnology has become a big buzzword – so much so that the stockbrokers Merrill Lynch has created an index to track investment in the newly burgeoning industry. But others are concerned. Prince Charles, taking a lead from the environmental group ETC, has expressed concerns where this ‘atomtech’ may lead. The environmentalists see it as a step beyond genetic engineering.

In Small Worlds, science writer Philip Ball explores what’s happening in nanotechnology and just where it might lead.

Artist's Impression of a Nanobot
Artist's impression of a "nanobot" on a red blood cell.
1st prize, Visions of Science award, 2002.
"Nanotechnology" by Coneyl Jay.

Programme 1:  Engineering at the Atomic Scale

It’s only 25 years since scientists actually saw an individual atom, 15 since they started moving them around using the atom-fine point of an instrument called the scanning tunnelling microscope.

IBM’s Don Eigler, the first to do this, says reaching into the atomic world has the excitement of arriving at a new continent. “We’ve only just begun this exploration,” he tells the BBC, “we don’t understand what’s out there.”

Along with the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope, the creation of a new, ball-shaped form of carbon, buckminsterfullerene, has helped through the 1990s to transform a vague dream of manipulating the atomic world into a real art.

And already scientists are preparing to use this new ability to squeeze the power of a thousand desktop computer chips onto a grain of sand.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1

Programme 2:  Why Worry?

The environmentalist ETC group has warned that nanotechnology (or ‘atomtech’ as they describe it) poses “horrendous social and environmental risks”. It was that group's report, TheBigDown, which prompted the Prince of Wales to ask the Royal Society to look into the impacts of nanotechnology.

Concerns range from the release of pollutants with completely new properties and toxicities, to uncontrolled self-replicating nanomachines (“grey goo”) as highlighted in Michael Crichton’s Prey.

What are the worries? What is the science behind them? And what do the scientists say?

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2

Programme 3:  Nanobiotechnology – when atomic engineering meets the life sciences.

To most of us, viruses are the cause of illnesses like flu and measles. But to Angela Belcher of MIT, they’re the ideal building blocks for creating new materials at close to the atomic scale, in the new science of nanotechnology.

Besides using them to guide the growth of new magnetic and electronic materials, she is also evolving viruses that can do quality control on electronic semiconductor samples.

Viewing the nano/bio interface from the other side, CalTech’s Jim Heath is planning on using arrays of nano-wires to eavesdrop on the chemistry of human cells – perhaps as a probe of disease. With the help of artificial biomolecules, Sam Stupp of Northwestern University thinks he can guide nerve-cell growth to heal spinal-column injuries.

Meanwhile others want to borrow and adapt the molecules of life and implant them into synthetic plastics to make solar cells and miniature motors.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 3
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