Thinking Thin For the Challenges of Super-Small Technology

Okay, so in the past six months we have had two news stories dealing with new materials that are incomprehensibly thin.

First, there is the breakthrough (also covered on NPR) about a new fabric that is by far the blackest material on earth, absorbing almost all light. This material is composed of nanotubes that are, according to Reuters, 400 times thinner than a strand of hair. The head of the project, Rice University’s Pulickel Ajayan, was previously best known for getting in the Guinness of Book of World Records for inventing the world’s smallest brush. Which, we guess, would come in handy for dealing with those way-thinner-than-hair fibers.

The second story was an item in Design News about advances in the production of graphenes, which are described as a literally two-dimensional substance, even thinner than the nanotubes Dr. Ajayan is using for his blacker-than-black fabric which, tiny as they are, still have more than one dimension. Being literally two dimensional – a state of being we didn’t even know was possible until we saw this story, graphenes are mindbogglingly tiny:

We are surrounded by three-dimensional matter and until three years ago we only knew of three-dimensional materials, even carbon nanotubes; it looks very thin, but itís still a cylinder rolled up,î says [Prof. Andre] Geim. ìWe encountered a sort of paradigm of two-dimensional matter, absolutely single layer of atoms in a very high-quality lattice; this is the thinnest possible material in our universe. Nothing thinner can exist.

That’s pretty thin. But so what? Well, it turns out that with great smallness comes great strength.

On the nanoscale itís tougher than any other material we know; its bond is stronger than diamonds, so if you make a thin layer of diamond it wouldn’t be as strong as graphene.

On a less mindboggling level, we also of course have the big product from MacWorld, the MacBook Air.

Even this last, relatively prosaic product – like all modern computers – involves really small things doing very big jobs in such a way that very few laypeople can begin to comprehend. Almost everyone these days can use a computer, and more and more of us may be able to program a computer, but how many of us actually understand how they work at the micro level? Lots of people can fix a car, but only a few truly understand the physics and electronics involved in today’s automobiles. And how many people can actually fully understand even this blog post on another super-small technology?

And, returning to the nanotubes and graphenes above, these are really just two more examples of the kind of increasingly unimaginable actors that have been discovered over the last 1.5 centuries. Bacteria, viruses, radio waves, microwaves, and the atom – these are all aspects of nature it would be easy for nonscientists to believe were figments of the imagination were the results not so clearly tangible.

So what? Well, the world of design and engineering is inherently a largely technical world, but it still needs to communicate clearly with less technical consumers and businesspeople who may never completely get over their future shock. There’s already a communication gap, and it’s bound to grow. However, we also now we have an imagination gap as fewer and fewer people can even grasp how a product comprised of difficult to describe objects can work.

Of course, once people are convinced a product is safe and works effectively and/or will make them a profit, they’ll gladly use it or sell it without understanding it. Still, with controversies already raging over nanotechnology and genetically engineered foods to name just two examples, we’re going to see more and more caution and confusion as the divide between techies and non-techies grows ever wider. Fortunately, we like challenges.