Thinking Really Small

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
When scientists talk about the nanoscale, they are speaking of objects only a bit larger than a single atom—DNA, for example, or the properties of a computer chip. It can be hard to comprehend just how intricate something that tiny really is. To demonstrate, the physics department hosted a lecture in March by Nobel laureate Horst Störmer, a professor of physics and applied physics at Columbia, who spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in Barus and Holley.

Störmer shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1998 for the discovery that electrons acting together in strong magnetic fields can form new types of particles, with charges that are fractions of electron charges. The discovery, the Fractional Quantum Hall Effect, was a breakthrough in quantum physics.

Störmer began his talk at Brown by plucking a hair from the top of his head. How big would that hair be, he asked, if each atom in it were the size of a basketball? “I’ve done it in comparison to Manhattan,” he said: the hair would dwarf the city, stretching forty miles. “It’s just mind-boggling,” he said.

The nanoscale, which has applications in biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering, is “the scale where the sciences meet nowadays,” Störmer told the audience. Using the silicon industry as an example, he said he is astonished by the progress of nanoscience and its potential to shape the future. Every eighteen months, he pointed out, the industry doubles the number of transistors in the computer chip. What if the automobile industry had progressed at the same rate? Cars would cost eight dollars, Störmer said, and would weigh ten grams. They’d average 8 million miles per gallon and travel 9 million miles per hour. But they’d also break down every ten minutes, a man in the audience shouted out.

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May / June 2004