Submicroscopic machines that build diamonds from pencil lead and computer chips from sand - that’s the way-cool world of nanotechnology, a still-theoretical realm that sounds more like alchemy than science.
But it’s real enough that IBM, Yale University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and other corporations and institutions are investigating ways to manufacture such machines, computer chips and miracle cures one atom at a time.
Add to that list four seniors at Lewis and Clark High School, who recently won a regional award in an inventions contest for their vision of where nanotechnology - also called molecular manufacturing - could take us in the future.
Robert Dirks, Sam Bishop, Jude Battista and Josh Reidt will make a videotape of their winning paper and submit it to the national level of the ExploraVision contest.
If they win, each will get a $10,000 savings bond. The competition is sponsored by Toshiba Corporation and the National Science Teachers Association.
The teammates joke they have just a few weeks to solve nanotechnology’s fundamental paradox: How to build the first tool, the atom-assembler, that would build all the others.
Problems such as that fascinate them. Bishop reads everything he can about nanotech. Dirks wrote a paper on it when he was a freshman.
They even formed a nanotechnology club at school last fall. They called it eNTiTy (Nanotech Think Tank).
“They forget there’s things like senior proms and girls,” said their science teacher Larry Elsom.
They see themselves as standing apart from their school’s mainstream culture. All four take college classes for dual credit through the Running Start program. At LC, they take Advanced Placement classes.
“My mom says, ‘Why don’t you want to go to the football game?”’ Bishop said. “I say, ‘I don’t like to get drunk on Friday nights.”’
Each has his favorite nanotech-dependent future.
Reidt, 18, the biggest “Star Trek” fan in the group, wants to colonize space with starships made possible by super-strong materials and self-replicating machines.
Bishop, 17, wants to live forever by merging his consciousness with computers and machines.
Battista, 18, wants to take over the world.
“What most attracts me is the potential for power,” he said. “Whoever gets the first nanite will have a stranglehold on industry, military power and the world. There is nothing that could stop a horde of nanites.”
Nanotechies call this the Singapore Scenario, the motivating fear that the country or corporation first solving the nano-paradox will rule.
“He wants to prevent someone from taking over the world by taking it over first,” Reidt said of his friend.
“If I had it, it would be in good hands,” Battista said.
Dirks, 17, who drops names of philosophers and literary characters into everyday conversation, wants to cure disease.
“Well, there’s one of us with selfless motivations,” Battista said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.