Thursday, February 26, 2004

Carlo's just a Copycat

I've had Carlo Montemagno on my mind the past couple of days, partly because he made the news recently with his spectacular microcyborg, and partly because I'm working on a Small Times magazine column that incorporates some of his work. I'm in geek heaven when I take the time out from various duties just to go through some of my old interviews with brilliant people like Montemagno who, to paraphrase ZZ Top, not only got knowledge, but know how to use it.

The winner of the 2003 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology is really just a big copycat. He's obsessed with imitating nature. I can't blame him, really, since nanomachines are all around us, just waiting for magicians like Montemagno to figure out how they work. In addition to his incredible achievement in making a microrobot move by muscle power, Montemagno is working on another project that might not make for such spectacular headlines, but in the long run will make a bigger splash in the world.

I'll roll the tape and give you a peak into Montemagno's mind. Last fall, I gave him my usual prelude about how I try to write to a lay audience, and I thought his answers were beautifully understandable. But I made the mistake of calling him a "science guy," so he quickly interrupted to set me straight:
    Montemagno: I'm not a science guy. I'm an engineer. I look at trying to achieve a device functionality that meets a societal need. So, I focus always on the end game, where it's going to go or how we will use it. I don't do inquiry-driven science unless I come to an intellectual roadblock that requires me to make an advance in that area. So, I'm an engineer, and being an engineer is fundamentally different than being a physicist or biologist.

    Me: So, what's the end game for you?

    Montemagno: My end game is focused on making devices that have embedded intelligence and which, the component pieces, when I put them together, the functionality is greater than the functionality of the individual pieces.

    ... I take all these building blocks and I put them all together and these building blocks, by the interactions with one another, they elicit properties which are not manifest by any individual building blocks. It's the difference between pressure and molecular reaction.

    At the nanoscale, pressure doesn't exist. Right? Molecules bang into one another. In the aggregate, pressure emerges as a result of all these molecules banging together. And there are numerous properties which emerge, particularly in biological systems, as a result of these molecules all interacting together that reveals sophisticated behaviors.

    Me: Can you give me a practical example?

    Montemagno: The example that I'm most focused on right now is making nanosize particles that transport information very much like neurons do. How do I do that? I take a membrane, an engineered membrane which I make, I take some molecules that allow the flow of calcium or potassium, I take another molecule that pumps potassium, and I put them all together. When I put them all together, what happens is collectively they generate an electrical signal. If I do it properly, they'll make an oscillator and they'll keep on pumping the signal.

    But the parts don't do that. It's something that emerges as a result. I see that as a tableau for trying to make embedded materials, or smart materials. The smartness is part of the way the molecules interact with one another.

He told me that he's reached a level in the lab where molecules are sorted and protons pumped. The next stop, and relatively soon, is commercialization. What kind of useful product will come out of this mess-o-molecules? The scientists among you probably already know. But for the rest of you, that's a story for another day ...

Related Posts
The Amazing Montemagno
Driving under the influence of Feynman
Merkle and the case of the Misleading Metaphor
Nano 'crackpots' seem downright respectable


No comments: