Museum exhibit translates nanotech for American public

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Sept. 10, 2004 – Explaining nanotechnology to those who are unfamiliar with the concept is a challenge Daniel Davis enjoys. The audience Davis speaks to each day is the ultimate investor: the American public, whose tax dollars fund nanotech research initiatives. Davis meets that audience at the Boston Museum of Science where he leads them through a nanotechnology exhibit.

“We’re breaking science news to the public in language they can understand,” he explained. “One of the big strengths that museums have… is the opportunity to use physical models and demonstrations, that aren’t really available in a classroom setting. We want to give sensory examples.”

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The museum, a 140-year-old landmark that attracts more than 1.6-million visitors annually, launched the nanotech exhibit two years ago. Housed in its Current Science & Technology Center, the exhibit displays consumer products that use nanotechnology. The exhibit includes regular multimedia presentations delivered by Davis.

The project is the public face of the National Science Foundation’s effort to bring nanotechnology to the masses. Davis’ exhibit is funded through a $10.8-million grant awarded to Harvard University.

Davis introduces nanotech to the public with as many real-world examples as possible. He has stocked a display case with items such as cosmetics that use nanoparticles, a tennis racket infused with nanotubes and a pair of khaki pants made stain-proof by nano-whiskers in the fabric.

Nearby is a computer kiosk with interactive tutorials. Visitors can review two presentations, one about nanotech in general and one about nanotubes specifically. The tutorials cover fairly complex concepts (for the general public, at least), such as photolithography and chemical-vapor deposition.

The centerpiece of the show is Davis and his multimedia presentation. He conducts his 20-minute nanotech talk four or five times weekly, usually to audiences of about 30 to 40 people whose interest is piqued as they wander by.

“Imagine your arm in a thousand little pieces, and then one of those pieces cut into a thousand pieces, and then one of those pieces cut into another thousand,” he likes to tell the audience. “That’s a nanometer!”

Davis confines his talks to nanotech’s applications in medicine, since they are concrete examples most people understand. A physics student himself, he knows that he cannot delve deeply into quantum mechanics. “The hardest part is to do the concepts justice,” he lamented.

First up is a nano-cantilever to detect viruses. To demonstrate the point, Davis uses a small box with a foot-long cantilever extending from one edge. He places a yellow magnet (representing the virus) on the tip of the cantilever, to show how it bends more slowly when a virus is detected. He then moves onto colloidisomes as agents for drug delivery; then quantum dots for medical imaging; and finally, nanoshells as therapeutics to fight cancer.

Davis does his own research on nanotechnology, and tries to talk with every scientist mentioned in the program. He even convinced Jennifer West, a professor at Rice University and nanoshell pioneer, to make a guest appearance in July while she was in Boston for a business conference.

“It was a neat experience,” said West, who talked about cancer for 30 minutes. “I ended up with 100 people sitting in the audience and had great questions from the audience.”

George Ead, an engineer from nearby Methuen, Mass., caught the show last week with his teen son Ronnie. Ead had read of nanotech’s promise of far-off profitability, “so I kinda lost interest in it.”

He had no idea the Science Museum had a nanotech exhibit until he visited. Ead was particularly impressed with the nanoshells’ potential to fight cancer. But he did have some reservations: “from a business standpoint, I’m not sure I’d invest yet.”


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