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Icons of Progress

Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Binnig and Rohrer’s scanning tunneling microscope revealed aspects of the physical world that previously had been invisible to science. The images obtained were so unique and captivating, the scanning tunneling microscope soon became an artistic medium. Equally exciting was the emerging field of nanotechnology, which held so much “sci-fi” appeal that it rapidly became a cultural phenomenon, popularized in books, movies and television.


Nanotech as narrative

Nanotechnology has appeared in literary works both before and after the scanning tunneling microscope came into being. Legendary science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is credited for first referring to aspects of nanotechnology in his short story, The Next Tenants (1956). Within this tale of a scientist interested in termites, Clarke alludes to powerful, invisible devices approaching atomic-scale proportions. Then, in 2002, Michael Crichton penned the novel, Prey. The cautionary tale centers on a nanotech research project gone awry, with nano-robots as the story’s villains.

Nanotech on film

One of the earliest film depictions of nanotechnology is in Terminator 2 (1991). Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original model terminator appears obsolete, sharing the screen with a new and improved version. This state-of-the-art terminator has been constructed from an assemblage of millions of “nanobots,” capable of reformulating themselves when incinerated, crushed or shot to pieces. Released in 2004, the popular sci-fi movie I Robot is set in 2035. Nanobots take center stage as biomedical probes, built and designed to heal humans. The film was loosely based on a collection of short stories written by the great science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov.

Nanotech on television

The atomic force microscope (AFM), a descendant of STM technology, made its broadcast television debut in 2008 on the popular crime series, CSI: Miami. In an episode entitled “Rock and a Hard Place,” forensic experts use the AFM to examine a pill found during a murder scene investigation. In reality, nanotechnology is steadily gaining acceptance in forensic science. For example, the latest fingerprint recovery method consists of liquid containing gold nanoparticles.