By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The problem was that with all of Ventura's myocardiocytes now dead, Gimzewski had no subjects to test. Such specialized cells are not something you can order from a catalog — they are delicate organisms that researchers must carefully coax into growth. And clearly, in the wake of 9/11, importing stem cells wasn't going to get any easier. Gimzewski could have given up then and gone back to his molecules — he still has a suite of molecular-research projects going on in his lab — but he is not a man easily deterred. He'd set up the equipment, everything was in place; damn it, he thought, let's listen to some cells. Any cell. He picked up the phone and called upstairs to his biochemical colleagues: Would they mind sending down some yeast cells? As Gimzewski tells the story, the biochemists thought he was insane — yeast cells couldn't possibly be making a noise; they are not even part of the animal kingdom. He eventually persuaded them to prepare a sample, which he ran through his setup with an atomic-force microscope (AFM). When they listened to the recordings, there was to everyone's amazement a distinct high-pitched signal. Moreover, the primary harmonic of this signal was astonishingly high, around 1,000 cycles per second — about two octaves above middle C. Gimzewski's yeast cells were miniature sopranos.
Observing subcellular scales generally requires the application of some pretty sophisticated physics. Gimzewski has spent his entire professional life in the wonderlandish realm of the very small, and, compared to most of the objects he's used to probing, cells are gargantuan. Since the early 1980s he has been one of the pioneers of scanning tunneling microscopy, a revolutionary technology that enables scientists to take pictures of atoms and molecules. A scanning tunneling microscope (STM) does not operate by any conventional imaging method — it doesn't even use light — rather, it employs a bizarre quantum mechanical process in which electrons "tunnel" through an electrical barrier and appear magically on the other side.
Ironically, STMs look like relics from the 19th century; Rube Goldberg constructions bolted together and equipped with glass-fronted viewing portholes, they are clearly homemade. In his new lab in the basement of UCLA's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Gimzewski has several of these machines, all of which he had constructed in-house. In the age of the Sony Black Box there is something almost comically endearing about these devices, as if they'd been dreamed up by the art department of some B-grade Jules Verne movie. Yet, like Verne's submarines, STMs plunge us into an enchanted domain beneath the surface of mundane experience. Pinned around the walls of Gimzewski's lab are pictures of molecules his team are studying. Among them are the aforementioned buckyballs and some of their fullerene cousins, collectively named in honor of Buckminster Fuller because the soccer-shaped molecule shares the same mathematical structure as Fuller's geodesic dome. Upstairs in Gimzewski's office is a photographic triptych of his famed nano-propeller, each iteration shaded in a different Day-Glo palette. It's Andy Warhol gone atomic: a psychedelic portrait of a molecular superstar.
When Gimzewski first encountered this extraordinary molecule, he realized the paroxysms it would engender among the far fringes of nanotech dreamers — people like author Eric Drexler (Engines of Creation) who promise that any day now nanotech robots will be coursing through our bloodstreams, while nanotech factories fabricate fantastical structures on an atom-by-atom basis. Gimzewski can't abide the Drexler types, believing that their wild speculation only serves to oversell this new science before it even gets going. He knew that the "nanonuts," as he calls them, would see his work as the foundation for nanoscale motors and engines. And so, perversely, he hid the work in a drawer for a year. Then he thought: "'What the hell, let them speculate.'" The nuts duly indulged in an orgy of hype. As for what use might his molecular rotators have? "None whatever!" Gimzewski insists.
"If you want to understand molecules," he tells me, "then you have to understand mechanics." Gimzewski himself is something of a mechanical whiz. Though a chemist â by training, he has always felt drawn to machinery and has been building his own equipment from the start. "That's what I try to teach my students: You can't just buy this stuff, you've got to go out there and do it. Sometimes that means getting in there with a spanner and wrench. Sometimes it's with a nano-wrench." He is now building his seventh generation of STM, and the level of accuracy his team is achieving verges on the miraculous — their sensing tips are so stable the mechanical jitter is less than a thousandth of the diameter of a single atom. Moreover, they have developed a unique technology to control the positioning of the tip, using what is called "slipstick" motion — a microscopic version of banging on a table to cause an object to move across its surface. Their control is so fine they can move the tip by minuscule jumps or jerks measuring just 10 atoms wide: Gimzewski calls these "nanojerks." "I know a few major ones," he quips, mumbling darkly about the war.
Complex feats of engineering are not what one usually expects to see from chemists. But then, as Gimzewski points out, "You don't usually think of chemists being involved in media art either." He is referring to the fact that he's recently been invited to collaborate with UCLA's new-media doyenne, Victoria Vesna, on a forthcoming art exhibition at LACMA-Lab around the theme of nanotechnology. Gimzewski's work has always been interdisciplinary — physics, chemistry, engineering and now art, he sees it as a continuum. "I don't mind jumping outside of my box," he says.