Back in the ’60s two guys named Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby wrote a story about how science could shrink people and inject them into other people to solve urgent medical issues. In the case of the story it was a soon-to-be lethal blood clot. The story was so cool that Harry Kleiner wrote a movie script about it and Richard Fleischer directed it, and they called the result FANTASTIC VOYAGE. If you click that link you’ll be subjected to 1966’s common sexism. Sorry about that. The film was made in 1966. But you’ll also see something unthought of at the time; the use of the human body as a location. Up until then all depictions of humans in sci-fi had the humans being sacred beings who did things, not some vessels that could have things done to them. The movie fascinated many, terrified some, and made stupid money for its time.
After it came out, any advance in technology that allowed for a reduction in size and increased productivity, was compared to that movie. Even silicon chips, which had come out five years earlier, got rolled into the pop culture stew as they were included in new advances.
As time went on numerous science fiction authors entertained the idea of micro-humans, micro-technologies, and so on. And they are rip roaring reads in many cases.
The problem is, as any scientist will tell you, is mass. Basically, if X amount of mass equals one hundred pounds in Earth’s gravity, and weighs nothing in space, it’s still the same amount of mass. By the same token, if a certain amount of mass takes up X amount of space, it doesn’t matter if you shrink it or enlarge it, the amount of mass is still the same and, assuming it’s in the same gravity, still weighs the same.
Keeping it simple, if I have a four foot square block of mass that weighs one hundred pounds on Earth, and I shrink it to the size of a golf ball, and I’m still on Earth, I now have a one hundred pound golf ball.
In other words, Ant-Man is a great movie, but lousy science.
Lauren Kent, over at CNN, reports that the fun folks over at MIT have figured out away around the core problem.
So, let’s get small.
This month, MIT researchers announced they invented a way to shrink objects to nanoscale — smaller than what you can see with a microscope — using a laser. That means they can take any simple structure and reduce it to one 1,000th of its original size.
“People have been trying to invent better equipment to make smaller nanomaterials for years,” said neurotechnology professor Edward Boyden, the lead researcher, in a statement. “There are all kinds of things you can do with this.”
It’s a far cry from “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” but the new method has plenty of cool real-world uses. For example, scientists are exploring ways to add tiny robotic particles to cancer drugs that can seek out only the cancerous cells. And forget microchips — MIT says this technology could be used to develop even smaller “nanochip” electronics.
The best part? MIT’s cutting-edge technique simply requires a laser and an absorbent gel (commonly used in baby diapers) — materials that most biology and engineering labs already have.
Here’s how it works: Using a laser, researchers make a structure with absorbent gel — akin to writing with a pen in 3D. Then, they can attach any material — metal, DNA, or tiny “quantum dot” particles — to the structure. Finally, they shrink the structure to a miniscule size.
“It’s a bit like film photography,” explained graduate student researcher Daniel Oran. “A latent image is formed by exposing a sensitive material in a gel to light. Then, you can develop that latent image into a real image by attaching another material, silver, afterwards.”
Just for the record, all of the technology they’re using is technology that’s been around for a while. This is an amazing repurposing of known materials. Think of it as figuring out how to use Mr. Bubble to power a fusion reactor.
Now, to be clear, they are recreating the object at a greatly reduced scale, not actually shrinking it, so no Ant-Man just yet.
But, because it uses existing, and relatively inexpensive, tech, it could become common worldwide.
“Normally, nanotechnology uses very expensive technology and requires sterile rooms … but we didn’t have to do that because of this scaffold that we used which protects the materials,” Rodriques said.
The researchers say this technology could become easily accessible in the future; it’s even something you could use at home or in a school because all the materials are nontoxic.
“It’s pretty hard to imagine right now all the things we can make with this,” Rodriques said.
Also, to be ANNOYINGLY clear, this tech won’t work on an organic being. There’s no iteration of Dr. Cyclops in our future. You can’t create a micro-puppy or anything like that.
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