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Too Small to See? A Nobel for 3 Who Pioneered

By Shlomo Maital

  Nobel chemisry

The 2014 Nobel Prize for chemistry was won by two Americans and a German: Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner. Their work greatly extended our vision into the smallest of molecules, in part enabling nanotechnology.

     Hell, born in Romania, heads a Max Planck Institute in Gottingen, Germany. Moerner is from Stanford University; and Betzig, from the Howard Hughes Institute in Virginia.

   According to CNN: “Back in 1873, science believed it had reached a limit in how much more of a detailed picture a microscope could provide. At the time, microscopist Ernst Abbe said the maximum resolution had been attained.”   As with so many Nobel prizes, the three winners simply did not accept the statement, “we’ve reached the limit —   no more can be done.”

   The three scientists, according to the Nobel Prize Committee, did this: “….Due to their achievements, the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld,” the committee said.   “The importance can’t be overemphasized: Now, scientists can see how proteins in fertilized eggs divide into embryos, or they can track proteins involved in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.”    

   Betzig and Moerner found a way to make single molecules ‘glow’ using fluorescent microscopy.   Hell found a way to use two laser beams to make the molecules glow.   This is creative thinking. Rather than conventionally illuminate molecules with photons, why not make the molecules themselves into little ‘lamps’?

     “Guesswork has turned into hard facts and obscurity has turned into clarity,” the Nobel Committee added.   The work of the three has “blurred the boundary between chemistry and biology”, by enabling us to see right inside single molecules.

   Thank you, scientists!

The Three Intersecting Circles of Innovation

By Shlomo  Maital    


  My attention was recently drawn to a three-year-old report, done by MIT scholars, for the health science research community.  The report is  The Thid Revolution:  The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering.   The authors, which include stellar figures like Profs. Phillip Sharp and Robert Langer,  argue that “convergence will be the emerging paradigm for how medical research will be conducted in the future.”

  In order for this convergence to happen, they say, we will not “not simply collaboration between disciplines but true disciplinary integration.”

    Today, the structure of nearly all the universities in the world is obsolete, ancient, creaky and counterproductive.  It is based on faculties, which are silos that work in direct opposition to convergence.   The exceptions are research institutes that are cross-disciplinary, specifically nanotechnology. My university has a Nanotechnology Center that draws scholars from many disciplines, and the resulting integration has been tremendously productive.   A small example:  Prof. Hossam Haick, whose discipline is chemical engineering, but who has harnessed nanotechnology, electronics, chemistry, physics and engineering to produce an ‘electronic nose’, which can sniff cancer molecules, for instance.   He recently delivered the first course in Arabic, on Coursera, on nanotechnology.   

      Structure is not strategy, it is sometimes said.  But, sometimes it is.  Let’s change the structure of universities.  Let’s find a way to restructure them, so that each faculty member has a very clear area of expertise, a clearly-defined discipline, but also has broad knowledge of other fields and above all,  works as part of a convergence interdisciplinary team.  And for this to work, their offices have to be adjacent…. Despite IT and networking, nothing beats face-to-face conversations over coffee.  

      Convergence poses a big challenge to those who would innovate.  You need to achieve two conflicting goals, both of which are highly challenging.

    First, as Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman repeatedly urges, you must become expert, truly expert, at SOMEthing….  his expertise was in electron microscopy, and it enabled him to overcome fierce opposition to his discoveries, and ultimately win the big prize.   You need deep knowledge in at least one field or sub-field.

   Second, you need to become curious and learn a great many things about a great many fields, not in depth but sufficient to understand them.  You need wide knowledge, surface knowledge, in just about everything.   Even if you have team members who have deep knowledge, it still helps a lot to innovate if you have basic understanding of other, distant disciplines. 

    In future, all the major breakthroughs will occur at the point of convergence among several disciplines.  In order for you, innovator, to be there,  you need to acquire depth, and breadth. 

    Good luck!


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital