Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Movin' Through Casimir

Nano isn't my only obsession. The other is the ultimate fate of the universe. Really. Just ask my wife. ("Why bother scooping the dog poop in the backyard if there isn't enough mass in the universe to guarantee its continued existence?")

Last I heard, the universe doesn't contain enough stuff to reverse the Big Bang and create nature's ultimate recycling machine: The Big Crunch. Before this disheartening news hit a year or so ago, it was comforting to think that my atoms would be re-used in the next spin cycle. But, no, instead the universe will coast, dim and fizzle.

The only hope? An escape hatch. And nanotech, of course, is coming to the rescue. Purdue physicist Ephraim Fischbach – oh, you beautiful, bald man – spends his time like a mime pretending he's encased in glass, feeling the space around him, hoping his hand slips into another dimension. The goal might be generations away, but – like Tang and joysticks to the Apollo program – the search can lead to some wonderful discoveries along the way.

One of them is a new way of measuring Casimir force on the nanoscale. You can read the details here. Simply put, Casimir force is the result of our constant bombardment by the photons of light that surround us. We big people don't feel it, but when scientists try to make things happen on the nanoscale, these photons can literally clog up the gears and get them to behave unpredictably. Scientists, and those who want to exploit their discoveries, hate unpredictability.

So, Fischbach and friends may not have opened the door to another dimension, but they have helped place nanoscientists into a zone where they can learn how to crack the whip and make molecules behave. The result might be computers or fiber optics that use photons as workhorses.

Regarding the fate of the universe, I guess I shouldn't be getting my superstrings all tied in a knot. There's time.


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