CHARLES JERMY: And welcome to the first of the 2011 Cornell Summer Lectures. My name is Charles Jermy and I'm with the School of Continuing Education. And it's wonderful to see you all here. Paul was hoping for a cozy little group, but we're more than a cozy little group. And that's a good thing.
Paul L McEuen is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, the Director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics, and the Director of the Kavli Institute for NanoScale Science, all at Cornell University.
Now as I was writing this, I was trying to think of all the things that I knew that were nano. And I couldn't think of a lot of them. I thought of-- because I'm older-- that there was a Nano that was a successor to the iPod Mini. Or if you're from the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, you may think of the Nano that's the world's smallest production car made by Tata Motors. But Paul's going to tell us tonight what a nano really is.
"Nanoscience," he writes, "is the study of objects at the boundary of the molecular and microscopic worlds." I will let Paul explain to you how really small that is, but I would note that his research group has made a transistor from a single molecule, the world's smallest guitar, and the world's thinnest drum, with a drum head at only one atom thick. And it can actually be played.
Paul's more serious research focuses on nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene, applications of nanostructures in electronics, optics, mechanics, chemistry, and biology, and the fabrication of machines at the nanoscale.
Paul received his Bachelor of Science in Engineering Physics from the University of Oklahoma in 1985, and a PhD degree in Applied Physics from Yale University in 1991. He was a post-doctoral researcher at MIT. He has received numerous awards for his research, including the Agilent Technologies Europhysics Prize, a Packard Fellowship, a Presidential Young Investigator Award, and in May, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Jon Kleinburg, who will be one of our later lecturers, was in the same class of electees.
Paul is also the author, in his spare time, of the thriller, Spiral, a novel published by the Dial Press in April. And that's after seven years and 15 drafts. Should be coming out one day in a theater near you, as the film rights have been optioned by Chockstone Pictures, and the screenwriter is at work on a screenplay. And by the way, Paul has a second novel under way.
Paul lives in Ithaca with his wife, a psychologist who in her spare time runs a dog rescue, as well as their five dogs. When Paul's not studying small things, writing thriller novels, or napping, you'll likely find him running or hiking with a dog or two in one of Ithaca's gorgeous state parks or forests.
But tonight, I'm glad to say that he's here with us. Paul McEuen-- The Future of Small.
PAUL MCEUEN: Well, thank you so much for coming out-- for braving the weather, which-- I got in about two minutes before it dumped, so I'm happy for that. It's really a pleasure to be here to talk to you today, for so many different reasons. Both to tell you about my scientific work and the field surrounding it, as well as a little bit about how I got to writing a novel.
It's going to be a bit of a wide-ranging talk. It's going to start off happy, have a little dark period in the middle, with hopefully a bit of optimism at the end, like any good story.
So I'm going to start this the way you should start any story-- with you. And in particular, I want you to think a little bit about how you relate to the world. And one thing that's true is, usually you relate to the world in the following way-- big things make a big difference to you.
If you run into an elephant crossing the street, you will probably wait for the elephant to go. If you run into a mouse crossing the street, you'll probably just keep going and the mouse knows it has to get out of the way. So we're used to thinking of big things as important, and small things as is relatively unimportant.
And I think in the history of technology, it sort of has gone the same way. The things that we're most proud of technologically for most of our history are big things-- the pyramids, airplanes, going to the moon, things like that. So we're very much members of the cult of the big-- extending the human reach to larger and larger scales.
But then something funny happened about halfway through the 20th Century. Big sort of lost a bit of its luster, and small started to come up. So nowadays, small is big. And big-- well, big's still pretty big, but it's not as big as small. It's enormous change and now we're completely in the century of small, and it's revolutionized your lives in many different ways. I mean, I don't have to say too much.
Number one, we all are-- we just follow our cell phones around wherever the map tells us to go In fact, if you don't mind, I'm going to live Tweet some things during the talk. So we've been enslaved by our small technology. And whatever money we have left over, we spend on health care. Which is basically become expensive because of the small technologies that have been invented in that realm.
So today's tale is going to be the tale of these two kinds of nanotechnology-- electronics on one hand, and the one that we didn't have to build-- that we found naturally-- the nanotechnology of life.
Now my own research sits kind of at the border between these things. So as you heard about in the introduction from Bud, I work a little bit on a lot of different things. But most of them have in common that they're materials that are nanoscale, that sort of live halfway between the electronics world over here and the biological world over here. These are sheets of graphene. It's like you took benzene rings and tiled space out of them, and made a one-atom thick wall.
So looks like I'll be-- is there another pointer around? OK. We'll be doing it with gestures. I'll be-- anybody wants to come by the lovely Carol Merrill standing here-- I think we can do it.
That thing in the middle-- those are carbon nanotubes and graphene-- these amazing new materials that are sort of-- they're sort of organic. They're made out of carbon, but you can make transistors out of them. You can use them the way you would semiconductors, for example.
Now that's my own research, and believe it or not, that's the last you're going to hear of my own research in this talk. I'm actually more interested, in a certain sense, in what surrounds my own research, which is these general worlds of nanotechnology-- both the electronic and the biological one.
So that's what I'm going to do. I'm a scientist. I spend my time doing nanoscience, and not nanotechnology. Nanoscience means it doesn't have to work that often. It has to work once, or maybe twice, and then you can write your paper. Nanotechnology means it has to work all the time. You can see why I'm a nanoscientist.
So at this point in the talk, you should be getting concerned. You should be worried, because I'm a scientist and I'm talking to you about technology. And for some reason, there's a picture of a cow up on the screen. Well, let's think of technology as a cow. OK? Since coming to Ithaca, I think of many things as cows these days.
As you know, physicists like to simplify things. They like to reduce things to the pure essence. And so what we like to do, for example, is take a cow and map it onto the real essence of cow, and remove all the inessential pieces of cowness. And it turns out the most important thing about a cow is it's spherical and it has spots. That's--
But it's worse than this. So not only does a physicist take something wonderful and beautiful like technology and oversimplify it radically. Then they like to do the craziest thing they can think of with that over-simplified system. And I will quote the famous philosopher, Dave Barry, who said, "Scientists tell us that the fastest animal on earth, with a top speed of 120 feet per second, is a cow that has been dropped out of a helicopter."
So if that sounds like fun to you-- dropping cows out of a helicopter, you may want to sign up for a physics degree. That's the kind of things we like to do. But there's another reason you should be worried at this point. Because again, I'm talking about technology, and it's very hard to predict where something is going to go. When they invented the transistor, nobody foresaw what it would turn into.
So I'm going to quote another famous philosopher, Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, who said that, "Who was the first guy that took a look at a cow and said, 'I think I'll drink whatever comes out of that when I squeeze it?'" All right. I warn you, the jokes go downhill from here, so--
OK, so moving on. I'm first going to talk to you about electronics. And the question I'm going to address is, how small is small? We know we've shrunk computer chips to ever smaller sizes. Moore's Law demands that we make things smaller and smaller. How small have we gotten? Well, small is actually kind of hard to think about. We're not good at thinking about small. Like I said, we don't worry about small. We worry about big.
So let's look at big. What is big? Well, the earth is big. The earth is about 10 to the seven meters across. It's big. And we are about one meter across. And for we, I take as my representative human to be Pee-wee Herman-- for reasons I don't still understand.
The ratio between these two sizes-- the size of the Earth and Pee-wee Herman-- is about 10 to the minus seven. So a factor of 10 to the seven between them. That's the amount that-- if you could scale you up, you would be as big as the Earth.
Now let's talk electronics. So here's a modern computer wafer. It's about a meter in size. It's About a meter across, these ones. They're huge. If you zoom in and look at one of the little chips on there, and blow it up and find the smallest feature you can find, it would be actually smaller nowadays than 100 nanometers. But let's say 100 nanometers. The ratio of those two numbers is that same number-- 10 to the minus seven.
So it's really incredible. On a wafer like this, there's packed into it a density of stuff, like the whole planet, represented at the scale of a human being. So you could make a map of the entire planet represented down to the scale of a person on this thing, if you had the data to do it. So it's really amazing. This factor of the distance from us to the planet is the same as from us down to the smallest feature on a computer chip. It's really incredible.
And that's not even the most incredible one. There's a time version of this miniaturization that has gone on along with the space version of miniaturization. So Pee-wee Herman can think about one thought a second. Actually, that's maybe not a good thing to be contemplating. Let's talk about Albert Einstein. Actually, he wasn't such a wonderful guy in certain respects, either. But we'll go with him. He had great thoughts, and he would have them about one a second.
Now a computer can have thoughts on the scale of gigahertz. If you buy a processor, they'll talk about gigahertzes. And that's about a nanosecond. So the ratio of these two numbers is not 10 to the seven, but 10 to the nine. It's even more. It's a billion. So if Einstein has to think a billion thoughts in order to catch up with one second of what a computer can do, how long would that be? How long does it take you to think a billion thoughts?
Well, we'll let Einstein not think all day long. We'll let him rest about half the time. And put him to thinking, you can multiply it up. We'll let him live 70 years or so. And the net result is he'll have about a billion thoughts in his life. So Einstein thinking a life is like your computer thinking for one second, in some sense of the word.
So that-- the answer is, it's small-- pretty small. And small is pretty small. And small is fast. And those are the things that have driven this technology revolution-- that we can pack stuff into tiny spaces, and we can have things happen very quickly.
To try to get a sense of scale of it, one of those chips on that giant wafer, you can think of as Manhattan or some major city. So think of an entire city squoze down to something the size of a computer chip. About that big. About that big. The little thing that you see there. And with events in that city-- a whole lifetime of events happening every second.
And that's basically what you've got going on inside of your phone, or your laptop, or what have you. And I think the most amazing thing is it means that that, thanks to Bill Gates, it takes about 17 generations for your computer to boot up. This whole people live and die evolution happens on the scale of booting up.
So that's how small small is. It's an incredibly impressive technology-- really unprecedented-- that humans have zoomed down to such an incredible scale. Again, it's sort of like we managed to build something the size of the planet, if you were going to go the other direction. So those-- that's a pretty cool nanotechnology-- electronics.
But there is this other one. We won't call it-- well, we'll call it a competitor. A life that is its own kind of nanotechnology that we don't quite know how it got started and how it got here, but it's very impressive. We all agree about that. And just how impressive? I think to show you that, I'm going to put a little movie out that's-- this isn't real. This is an animation. But it's meant to be modeled on scientific data. So it's supposed to be kind of close. Made by a group at Harvard.
I think we ought to give life a round of applause for that one. What do you think?
Isn't that amazing? Doesn't it make you feel in awe and wonder, and isn't that all that kind of good stuff? If you're a practicing nanotechnologist, it just depresses you to no end. That is so far beyond what we know how to do. So this electronics-- it looks pretty cool. The smallest thing here-- this device that might be 100 nanometers in size-- that's about the size of a virus, for example. Packed inside of a virus would be about 10 to the fifth bits of information that are smart enough to kill you. OK?
So life has built a whole universe inside of the small that we already know how to make-- And can do all this other stuff. We basically just kind of know how to push around electrons. That's roughly-- maybe some spins and stuff. We can move information around. But we can't move matter around. We can't do synthesis like this. We can't move things around. So our nanotechnology pales in comparison to what life can do.
And it's really-- it's a 50 year program, at least, in order to go from where we are now to something where we have built, from scratch, anything remotely resembling the complexity and wonder of biology. And in fact, the rest of my scientific career will probably be devoted to taking some of the first steps along that direction. Mostly by my students and post-docs.
So it's great and wonderful, but it's also, as I said, incredibly depressing. And nobody wants to wait 50 years. 50 years? You know, that's forever. We don't deal in 50 years. We want next quarter. That's what we want to hear about.
So if you want to engage this kind of stuff on a shorter time scale-- if you want to be able to deal with nanotechnology of this sophistication without waiting for 50 years, you have two choices. And the first one is one that I've explored. Which is you cheat, and you write novels. And then you can do anything you want. This is, by the way, the world's worst segue into this portion of the talk.
In fact, what happened is I had read this book-- Prey, by Michael Crichton. Anybody read Prey by-- it's not one of his best, I have to say. And I'm a big Crichton fan. But this-- it's about these-- these little bits of black stuff are nanobots that can form into creatures and do all sorts of terrible stuff. And I read that book and I thought, you know, I could write a book like that.
And so then eight years later-- and what was the phrase? Out of the-- right out of the box? That was what you-- that-- yeah, that cracks me up, right? There were many, many out of the box, fall on your face. Out of the box again. Fall on your face.
Anyway, eight years later, I've written my book, and I think it's kind of cool. They used the same color scheme. And I think they were messing with me, because I'm sort of red/black colorblind, you know? So I can barely even see this thing. But both in this book and a little bit in my book, although my book tends to be a little bit closer to real science.
Although it's certainly in the level of microbots-- I make little things like little tiny spider-like creatures that are made in the Cornell nanofabrication facility that can run around and do no good at all. So it was a great chance to push technology forward a decade or so, and try to think about how you could torture people if you had that kind of technology. That's what you do when you're a thriller writer.
It's a lot of fun, and I want to say a few words about that. It turns out that there's a tradition of nerds writing fiction at Cornell. It's been going on for 50 years, or something like that. How many of these faces-- so who's this? This is Carl Sagan, right? Of course. So he wrote at least one novel and a tremendous number of great nonfiction books. Who's this? Yeah, Thomas Pynchon. He was an undergraduate engineer here. Yeah.
And this guy? Nabokov, right. So he wasn't an engineer nerd, but he was a bug nerd-- butterfly nerd. And wrote Lolita while he was here. And nobody probably recognizes this guy. Yeah. Vonnegut. One of my-- probably my writing hero. I can't write like him, nor do I even have the guts to try. But I just love reading him. He's fantastic.
All had to spend some time at Cornell, had some connection to science or engineering, and then started writing. And I really think, why Cornell? Why all these people at Cornell? And I think there's something in the water-- literally. Because when I was published-- when my book came out a few months ago, within just a month or two around there, all of these debut novels-- debut novels, mind you, with major publishers-- were put out by people that live in and around Ithaca. It's really been incredible. Fantastic books.
This one just won the Orange Prize in Great Britain for the best debut novelist, or novel by a woman. It's been amazing-- the production of people around here. So you can't you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a writer in this town. It's fantastic. Even one-- this is my favorite title. This is Cleaning Nabokov's House, by Leslie Daniels, who actually lives in Nabokov's house, interestingly enough.
So anyway, there's tons of-- if you're interested in writing, there are so many resources around here-- writers to talk to. And for example, Diane Ackerman will give the next one of these lectures. She doesn't make this list because she's certainly not a debut novelist-- but a fantastic writer. So it's a wonderful town to be a writer.
The other thing-- once you start messing around with writing a little bit and you come at it with that scientist's point of view, you start to see weird things about writing and about storytelling that are really fascinating. I never really thought about it. I read a lot of books, but I didn't think about storytelling. Like for example, plays.
Plays come in-- there are one-act plays, right? There are three-act plays. And sometimes there are five-act plays. But there are no two-act plays-- or very few-- and four-act plays. Why are the number of acts odd? Plays are fermions? Or you know-- what is that? That's for the real nerds out there. It's really odd. Why is that?
And-- well, you know-- being a scientist, you want to reduce everything to a graph. So here's the graph I'm going to use. So this is a play. OK, this is a standard drama. And what this graph means is that this is normal. So in this drama, things started off pretty good. And then they went bad. And then they got better. And then they went bad again. OK. So this is literary fiction, probably. You know-- it ends bad. You can do the opposite and end up good, but you have to start bad.
And so now it's kind of obvious why you want to have an odd number of things. What if the story is-- things were pretty good, and then they got bad, and then they got good again. That doesn't seem right, does it? It's like nothing happened. Why did this story even happen? You have to have change. Things have to be different at the end and the beginning, so you need to have an odd number of crosses here. You need things to go from good to bad, or from bad to good.
So by the way, if you like happy endings, read the first few pages. If they're depressing, that's the book for you, OK? If everyone's happily married and skipping through the tulips, and their children are beautiful, run screaming. They're all going to be hanging upside down, and-- you know-- whatever. Just to warn you. Although of course, writers know that some of you are onto this, and so they screw it up just enough to mess with you. There are a few even ones out there.
But actually, this is drama. Thrillers are a little bit different. So there's a thriller for you. So thriller-- things start out pretty good, then they go bad. Then you try to make them better. You try to make them better. And then they get worse. And then worse still, and then horribly bad. And then just when it couldn't be any worse, you get back to about where you started. And you're happy to be there. So this reminds you that-- and the reason this works is because things got so bad, you forgot that they were ever good again, and you're just so happy to be back here. Unless, of course, you write apocalyptic thrillers.
In which case, you're down there. So it's really interesting. And you know what I most like about you? That you all laughed, because my wife-- I made these graphs when I was going to give my first talk of this sort. And she said, whatever you do, don't show those graphs. Those are just the stupidest, nerdiest things in the world. I love my wife very much. I should be clear about that.
But it is true that the thing that scares my wife more than anything in the world is spiders, and particularly falling asleep with her mouth open and having a spider go inside. And I will mention that my sort of bad little creature is a little tiny robotic spider. And well, there's a scene-- well, I'll leave that to your imagination.
So I'm not going to tell you anything else about the book. If you're interested in the book, you can buy it outside. That was fantastic for Ted and the Cornell bookstore to bring those over. I didn't know they were going to do that. And I thank them. And I'll be happy to sign, if anybody wants. Either after or any time you can find me. So I encourage you to buy the book and give it a read.
This is actually not one of our dogs. This is actually my-- the screenwriter's dog out in LA. This is an LA dog. But I do want to put in a plug for Cayuga Dog Rescue. How many of you have heard of Cayuga Dog Rescue? That's my wife's rescue organization. They've saved something like 360, 370 dogs in and around the Ithaca area. It's a fantastic organization. And what I most want to say to you is, if you would like to foster, send her an email. Tell her where you heard this, OK? You can make things so good for me if you were--
OK. Now going back to science. OK. Let's leave behind the book for now and go back and talk about our two nanotechnologies. Now what I told you was that there's-- I gave you one way to engage a real nanotechnology that you could control and make do cool stuff and have fun with. But that was just fiction. Is there some way to do it in fact that doesn't involve waiting 50 years?
And the answer is basically yes. And this is something that I'm not doing myself, but it's going on very actively all around the world, and that's what you just might want to call hacking life. So rather than figure out how to work this-- how to build this stuff, how to make something with that kind of functionality-- let's just hack it.
Let's write a program that goes in and takes control of it and makes it do what we want it to do. That's much easier. It's easier to hack a computer than to build one, right? And that's what we're going to do. Now it's a little funny to think of the major technological thrust of the next 50-- 20, 30 years-- is going to be hackers and to take over life. But that's basically where this kind of biology is going.
And let me tell you a little bit about that. The basic idea is pretty straightforward. I remind you, if you've got like a-- let's say that you've got a bacterium-- some sort of bit of life. It duplicates itself, and the information that tells it how to do it to a large part is stored in its physical DNA. It's in this material-- this double helix. And that information tells you what to do here. We're learning more and more that there's a lot more going on than just that. But for a first approximation, that's it.
So the idea is very simple. You interrupt that process. You take the DNA and for example, you sequence it so you can read it-- you know what this sequence is. You can then modify it, or even synthesize it completely from scratch. Make some new stuff, and then that will produce a life form whose genome is different than it was originally.
So we've shoved ourselves in the middle of this step. We've sort of taken control of evolution, and we're going to do it by design. So there's a person sitting here who will tap a series of A's, C's, G's and T's out-- push some buttons-- it'll show up in a life form.
That's been going on in weak forms for decades now, but it's getting stronger and stronger. And it's probably true that in another decade or so, your kids will be doing this. And right now, the college students are doing it, and high school students are starting to do it in limited forms. Radio Shack will sell you something at some point that will help you make this go. Or at the very least, you'll design some organism. You'll ship it off, and a FedEx package will arrived a few days later that will have your little bacterium in it. So that's coming. You know, I don't know-- good, bad, whatever-- it's coming.
And just to give you a sense of some of the-- where things are going, we're learning how to, for example, hack the machinery of life that knows how to read DNA, and use that to sequence the genome very rapidly. There's a company called Pacific Biosciences that is one of the leading candidates for a technique that does-- is able to sequence a single strand of DNA in real time-- just bing, bing, bing, bing-- by using the biological machinery and roughly speaking, listening in on it as it's happening.
It's called Pacific Biosciences, and it's out there in California. But amazingly enough, it started here at Cornell about the time I was coming here as a faculty member a decade ago. I remember being down in the basement of Clark, and Steve Turner, who's all fancy now in a suit up here, was looking like a grungy grad student. And he was telling me about these experiments they were doing in Watt Webb and Harold Craighead's laboratories, and I said, that sounds pretty cool.
And now it's a huge multi, multi, multimillion dollar startup in California that is trying to be the next generation of sequencing. And the goal, which they're getting awfully close to these days, is to-- for example, to be able to sequence your DNA for $100. So everyone in another decade will be able-- everyone in a rich, developed country will be able to have their genome sequenced. We're not quite sure what we're going to do with all that information, but you'll be able to have it.
How many of you have had part of your DNA sequenced? Anybody? I gave my parents for Christmas one of those sequencing things. And it's not worth the money, but it was-- seemed like a good idea at the time. But it's coming. And also, one of our dogs-- we sequenced its DNA to find out what it was. That was more fun. Turns out he's an Iranian Gazelle Hound, I think. Turtle is-- our dog, Turtle. So-- and I would-- you never would have known that. But then you look up-- you say, they can't be. And you look at pictures of Iranian Gazelle Hounds, and there's your dog, right?
Anyway, I digress. Moving on back to our technology. You can also make DNA and have it start forming cool shapes. And this is one of my favorites. A guy at Caltech-- wouldn't you know-- designed a strand of DNA. Stitched it together and designed it so that it would fold up into a happy face, OK?
So you sequence the DNA, you put it in a bug, it replicates. You get a ton of these things. Or, not sequenced-- synthesize the DNA. You get billions and billions of these strands. You throw them in and they assemble themselves into little happy faces, so you get a beaker that's just got billions and billions of happy faces in it. The most-- as someone said, it was the most concentrated solution of happiness ever created.
So this is again going to show you, we're now thinking of DNA as a material that we work with like we would any other material. But it's quite literally a smart material, in that you can encode information that tells it what to do. But this is kind of fun and games, but actually making life-- making a DNA strand that knows to go in and cause something to happen biologically in an organism-- that's a really, really powerful.
So this is-- and you know, it's basically with Craig Venter's his work in the last year or so-- and his team-- it's gotten to the point where now you can sit at your computer, type out a sequence, and machines will put some DNA. You'll shove it into an empty cell, and out will come an organism that is functional. So at least in the limited case, this has already been done. You don't-- you've sort of gotten rid of the previous generation. It's really quite stunning.
And one other point, the-- instead of have it being-- Intel has to build a factory that cost billions of dollars to do their work. Here, if you make one of these bacterium and you want to make more copies of it, you-- and let's say it divides every 20 minutes or so, you give it some sugar water, you let it sit around, it starts dividing up like crazy, doubling, doubling, doubling.
And in a day and a half, you've got a foot of bacteria covering the surface of the entire planet. If you had enough-- you have to get a lot of sugar if you want to get that to go. But it gives you the idea that the manufacturing technology for this is really attractive, particularly if you're Intel and every generation costs the GNP of a small country to build a new factory. So it's very exciting.
And there-- the field is called synthetic biology. You synthesize things that are biological. And lots of people are talking about different things, and there are some huge great things you can do. A lot of people are talking about making biofuels from algae.
Other people, like Jay Keasling at LBL talks about making cheap malaria drugs from bacteria-- so take the artemisinin-- the critical ingredient that's taken from this plant-- and stick it into a bacterium and be able to make an anti-malarial drug that's cheap enough to use in the third world, and could save hundreds of thousands of lives. So you know, we're not talking little stuff here. This could be big and very, very beneficial.
And in fact, a lot of big companies are getting very interested in this. Money has-- people have seen dollar signs. We're going to turn DNA into cash with this kind of technology. Chemical companies, agricultural companies-- they're all jumping on the bandwagon all over the world. People who make the tools that they use, et cetera, et cetera. There's a sort of a gold rush going on. Whether it will get anywhere quick, no one knows. But certainly there's some big money that's heading this way in this technology space.
And Craig Venter, one of the leading spokespeople for the field, said, "Over the next 20 years synthetic genomics is going to become the standard for making anything." They think they'll make anything out of it. He looks a little bit like the devil, doesn't he? Craig does. Huh. So that sounds great, right? What could possibly go wrong? It's fantastic. Go, go-- technology is great. The thriller writer in me is very happy, but the citizen in me is a little scared, you know? What can happen here?
And I don't have to belabor the point, but I will make the following point-- I told you about big versus small. We're used to being scared of big things-- war planes, tanks, bombs, things like that. We're also somewhat scared of small things-- diseases and what have you.
And just to-- what we should even be more scared about then-- to put it in context, World War I. That was not good. 16 million people were killed over the course of four or so years. That's a horrible, horrible tragedy. In 1918, around the time of the end of the war, the influenza-- the 1918 influenza hit-- killed about seven times that number of people. Many more times that number of people in the scale of months.
Small is big. Small can come at you, and it can really do you in. So this is very dangerous, as well-- this technology. Because it's one thing to have big things coming at you. At least you can run from them. Small things, it's even scarier.
And one thing about this technology, as I was mentioning-- it's very democratic. It's probably going to be in the hands of your kids as well as the scientists. So like a nuclear weapon is not that trivial to whip up in your basement, but do-it-yourself synthetic biology labs are popping up in garages and rental spaces all over the country.
So synthetic biology has these fantastic benefits that we were talking about that are very significant. I mean, we're talking about saving millions of lives. We can't be cavalier about that. But obviously, there are huge risks for bioterrorism, political destabilization, ecological catastrophe associated with either a-- something like the Ebola virus.
By the way, if you go online, you can get the sequence for the Ebola virus genome, just there. It's freely available, so there you go. And you know, something very bad could happen. And nobody knows what's going to happen. We hope very much that thriller diagram that I showed you is not going to happen, but you can't be sure.
And on that happy note, let me just-- one more point about small versus big. Let's say big is the frog here. Let's see what happens with the frog.
[FLY BUZZING FRANTICALLY]
Don't you love YouTube? Isn't YouTube great? This is how you prepare talks these days. You just surf the web looking for stuff. Anyway, a reminder-- you never know what you've got a hold of.
OK. Last thing I want to talk to you about-- something to get us off of the end-of-the-world stuff. Let's have a little adventure. Let's have what I'm going to call a nanotechnology smackdown. Let's have this go against this in some particular application space, and see who's going to win. We've heard a bit about both, and they're both formidable competitors. And the application space we're going to talk about is solar energy. OK? You've heard a lot about solar energy. It's a big topic. Energy is a huge issue that we're all worried about-- looking for alternate forms.
So who's going to win? The chips or the bugs? As you probably know, standard solar cells are made out of silicon, the materials of the information revolution. The fabrication techniques, the approaches-- they're all very semiconductor industry friendly. OK? So this is sort of the old school nanotechnology at work, trying to make these things go. And this is new school nanotechnology. They're going to get some enzymes in termite guts and teach them to eat old wood and produce ethanol-- something like that. Who's going to win-- the chips or the bugs?
And it's-- by the way, it's a very non-trivial question. And a few years back, I took a bunch of scientists to Greenland to discuss this among other questions, including people like Freeman Dyson and Steve Chu, who is now our Energy Secretary and what have you. And there was widespread disagreement about whether it was going to be the chips or the bugs. I tell you that because I'm going to give you my winner, but you don't have to listen to me, because smarter people than me were on the other side of this.
OK. So let's have a vote right off the bat. Who's going to win, the chips or the bugs? Which is going to be a better way of powering ourselves in the future-- turning sunlight into energy? Who says the chips-- silicon? Who says the bugs? Who has no idea, one way or the other? Yeah, OK. Yeah, the bugs-- the bugs sound cool, right? That's new, and their biology's great and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, all right. Bugs-- must be. Let's see.
Well, first, we should just take a break and ask ourselves, what do we need? How much stuff do we need? And I can't-- you know, I'm an educator. I can't help but teach you something. So this is the thing I want you to most remember from the talk-- the next few slides-- except for where the book is on sale-- in the back.
How much power does it take to run you? We're talking about energy. How much energy do we need? And we're going to use a unit of energy that is about to go out of date. That's relevant to the story. The 100-watt light bulb-- the old fashioned 100-watt light bulb. That's going to be-- so 100 watts is our unit.
So you-- how much does it take to run you? In other words, how much food do you have to eat? What's the equivalent? If you could plug yourself into the wall instead of eating, how much would you need? Would you need one light bulb, 10, or 100?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] .
PAUL MCEUEN: I hear a random set of letters coming out. Well, I'm going to give you this one. The answer is one. One light bulb, OK? You're all about one light bulb. I don't mean to be demeaning or anything like that. You're all-- it's pretty good.
By the way, you're not 100, because if each of you were 100, imagine if there were 100 light bulbs on you and we were all sitting in this room. It would get so hot. It would just be burning up. So you're about one light bulb, which is kind of amazing, that you're so-- you can do so much with just the equivalent energy to one of the light bulbs in your house.
But that should also make you wonder, well, geez, how much does it take to run your life? All the light bulbs you have on in your life. So the literal light bulbs, but also the ones to drive your car, the ones that were needed to make the silicon that went in your computer, et cetera.
So if you took the energy usage of the United States divided by the number of people and expressed it in light bulbs, how many would it be? Is it one? Meaning do you need one additional light bulb over the food that you eat? 10, or 100?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] .
PAUL MCEUEN: Um-- the answer is that many. So you need 100 light bulbs. You think about it-- that's about right, you know? You just think about your house. You probably have a few left on there. You have your car. 100 light bulbs. One of my students, by the way-- or ex post-docs, [INAUDIBLE] Park at Harvard-- built this and brought it into this-- and had it made on a stage, and did this. And it was so bright that you basically-- they had to bring in extra power from all the other rooms. It's an enormous amount of energy.
So this is what you need. You need 100 light bulbs to run your life. That's pretty amazing. By the way, that's why life is so good. In a certain sense, you have 100 people running around taking care of you, doing your bidding all the time. Of course, the question is, where is that energy coming from? And that's the challenge that's facing us.
OK, so we all need 100 light bulbs. Can we get it from solar? That's the question to hand here. I should mention before we say that, China per capita now is about 10 light bulbs. Or at least it was a couple of years ago when I first made this view graph. So they use about 1/10 per capita than what we do.
But as you might imagine, this is going up, and it's going up very rapidly. Korea, Japan, the other people in that area are more like 50 light bulbs, so they're going to go up five times over the next decade or so, barring any dramatic changes.
Which, by the way, means that our energy usage is going to be almost irrelevant on the scale of what they're doing. Any savings we make sound good, but they're going to be utterly swamped by the growth in China. And so in fact, the main thing we can do in the United States is be a good example to other countries that are coming up, because there's so many more people that want their other light bulbs.
So that's a big deal for us-- not only for ourselves-- to reduce our energy consumption or to find a better way to make energy, but also for everybody else in the world who's coming up and coming up fast. So this is a big deal. This isn't-- this is very important.
So what could we get from solar? Let's be optimistic. Could we just do it with solar cells? There's a bunch of numbers expressed in units that don't make any sense to anybody but the experts, but let's put it in human scale. The first scale is how much sunlight is falling on a square patch of the earth? Let's take a one-meter square patch, OK? About a meter in size. About the size of the person.
You're getting about 200 watts per meter squared on average of sunlight falling through. It's a kilowatt at peak, and divided over the whole day, it's about 200 watts per meter squared. So that means there's about two light bulbs worth of energy per meter squared that you can harvest, if you could harvest sunlight at 100% efficiency. OK? So you would need 50 of those.
So you'd need a pretty big chunk of solar cell for you. And furthermore, your solar cell is not 100% efficient. It's-- we'll talk about it in a minute, but it might be 1/10 of that. So you need a pretty big chunk of solar cell real estate-- a significant fraction of your roof, plus a little bit of your backyard. Something like that.
How much you need depends a lot on conversion efficiency. So now we're finally getting to it. Who's going to win, the chips or the bugs? So the silicon solar cells now are on the order of 10%-- actually a little better. So that's pretty good. You might say, well, that's not very good at all. But it's pretty good compared to these things.
Bio-- photosynthesis-- plant-based photosynthesis-- the efficiency of that process at best is on the order of about 5%. So we do better than plants at converting sunlight to energy with silicon. So we've-- in this case, we've beaten biology. And that's-- the photosynthesis-- that's not taking into account what the plant needs. That's just the total energy conversion from sunlight to plants. Then it has to use that to grow itself, and keep itself alive, and convert it into other forms of fuel, et cetera. But at best, it's 5%.
If you talk about a system that's actually working, like an algae biofuel system where you're going to take algae and try to get biofuels, the percentages are around 1% or 2%. Much worse than silicon. Corn to ethanol-- grow the corn, make it into ethanol. That's about 0.1%, and there might be a sign error in that number, as well. It may be net negative.
Corn ethanol-- I think most people know this by now-- it's a joke. It's a disaster. It's a terrible idea from the point of view of energy efficiency. It was strictly politics that did it. Or the other reason you could say you'd want to do it is it's kind of a warm up for a more efficient thing coming down the pike. But on the face of it, it's not doing anybody any good for us to be putting corn ethanol in our gas tanks right now. It's just not. It's strictly politics and not science.
OK. So let's think about what that means. And so I've been talking a lot about numbers. Let's try to put it into some sort of context. Here's the United States. There's a square here-- this red square. So this is what we have to do-- if we want to use silicon solar cells at 10% efficiency and power the US the way it's running now, we have to lose Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and what have you, and bits of Texas.
Now I won't debate whether this is a good idea or not, whether you want to lose these. I grew up about right there, so I saved my home town just barely. Actually, Nate Lewis saved my hometown. He made this graph. The big square is if we want to be the Saudi Arabia of solar, and we want to power the world-- at least at the early 2000s numbers-- we would have to do this.
So this is both exciting and depressing. It's exciting because the square is smaller than the US. OK, that's good. The bad news is that it's pretty big. That's a lot of solar cells. Driving across that's going to be quite an adventure, I think. So that's not good. So this is for silicon at 10% efficiency, by the way.
OK, what about these algae biofuels? So algae biofuels, we have to do that. So this is a giant, stinky, green mess with water brought in and everything else. OK.
And if corn ethanol-- there you go. So--
So you can see where I think the winner is. I think it's the chips are going to win, unless somebody comes up with a much more efficient number. If people are talking 1% or 2%, my opinion is you can ignore them from the point of view of generating fuels.
In fact, for a synthetic biology to go after fuel production is a very tough thing, because fuels are cheap, unfortunately. Right now they're very inexpensive, and so the competition is really good. They should be making drugs and things like that, which is where probably the first money will be made in-- significant money will be made-- more in the high value chemical sector, rather than the cheap stuff. OK?
OK. So I'm going to claim the chips are going to win. And so you were all wrong. Ha ha. But again, people like Steve Chu might disagree with me, so you don't have to accept my word for it.
But now I want to say, well, why haven't we-- why don't we just do this? Why don't we just-- we need jobs. Why don't we just go for this? Cover everything with solar cells. And so here's the basic problem is really a monetary one, that if you use the numbers out there now, it's going to cost us about 90 terabucks to do this, which is about $300,000 per citizen.
So if you're a family of four, you better have a million dollars laying around to throw at this. And I mean, by any measure, a terabuck is a lot of money. There's just no way around that. The US GDP is only 12 terabucks, so we'd have to stop everything and just take all of our money and pour it into this for about eight years.
Which again, is one of those things that at first, you're like, well, that's terrifying-- but it's not so terrifying. I mean, you know-- it could happen, right? It's only-- you're only-- if you're a physicist, you're like, well, you're only like one order of magnitude away from where you need to be. It's detail. It's engineering. They'll take care of it from there.
And even if you're a lefty and you say, well use the military-- well, that's not going to get you there for a long, long period of time. OK. It'll take a couple of hundred years of the current US Military budget to do it. It's a lot of money.
So what do we do? Well, there are a lot of things we can do. One is use less energy. That's the obvious thing. You hear all this talk about more production, and that's maybe important. But what's much easier to do is to use less. And sometimes using less doesn't hurt very much. If your computer is lower power consumption, you're just happy. Nobody thinks it's really cool to have a hot computer, you know? So efficiency is many times just plain good.
And to give you a sense-- Europe uses about half the US in terms of energy per capita, and they live more or less a comparable lifestyle. They just-- they're a little bit-- everything's a bit smaller, there's more public transit, et cetera, et cetera. They're not as spread out. But there's a factor of two that's really low hanging in our lifestyle that you could get with minor adjustments. Are we the worst, by the way? Is the US the worst? Who thinks-- is there somebody worse? Anybody know?
PAUL MCEUEN: Well, yeah. They're worse-- well, per capita, they're not as bad. So I'm going to normalize. Per person, China's not as bad. Anybody worse than us? Look to the north. Canada. Damn Canadians.
Yeah, Canada's worse, actually. Believe it or not. And why, you might ask. Well, they're even more spread out, and it's colder, and they got-- and it's just laying around-- the oil there. You know, it's just-- you trip and you land in it. So blame Canada, as South Park would say. So we're not the worst. That's something. But we're next-to-worst, I think.
Anyway, there's a factor of two to be gotten with minor adjustments in living style and techno-- maybe no adjustments in living style, and just better technology. As an example, lighting efficiency-- our light bulb, which we were kind of using as a symbol of this whole problem-- a standard old-fashioned 100-year-old style light bulb is about 5% efficient at producing light.
That's a much easier problem than the conversion the other direction. It's trivial to make something better than that. And in fact, these are going to be illegal when? Like in a few months or something, right? They were about to become-- these are not going to be allowable. There's going to be a black market for old style light bulbs. Stock up now. You can make money later.
There is solid state stuff that's coming along. Efficiencies are improving very dramatically. They're up in the-- over 50% efficient. So factors of 10 improvement in efficiency over standard old-fashioned light bulbs. And this is-- it's not such a big deal. Right now they're more expensive, but they're coming down fast.
So we're making big gains, and that's just-- to put it in-- somebody else put it in these terms, that if you could cut the electricity for lighting in the country in half, that would result in about 50 nuclear reactors worth of savings. OK? That seems like a lot, right? That's a big deal. Efficiency gets you big benefits.
By the way, I learned an interesting-- well, I'm running late, but I can't-- I have to tell you this. How much does it-- like when you do a Google search, how much energy do you consume?
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah, I've heard this, too. It's like boiling a cup of coffee worth of energy. All the processing, and think about the search. It's a big search it has to do. So every time-- if you want to search some dumb thing on Google, think about boiling a cup of coffee, or actually boiling a cup of water, it might be a better way of saying. It's a lot of energy. In fact, California was doing really well with its energy usage right until the internet boom, and now it's really had trouble adjusting to the fact that there's this huge new power demand.
OK, but anyway, there are a lot of things that can be done to improve things. And with respect to solar cells, for example, for the collection of energy, we need to make them cheaper and we need to make them better. And the good news is, the more you make stuff, the cheaper it gets. That's just the way things seem to go.
This is a graph of cost per number of stuff made that's buried behind all of these pictures. It just gets better. You make more, it gets cheaper. It's like magic. And that's happening now, and so if we just-- the more-- the faster we build this stuff, the cheaper it's going to get, and so we want to keep throwing money at this problem and it'll keep getting cheaper with existing technologies. And then we also want to throw money at crazy new ways of improving things, because that can make a big difference.
You should take note of the fact that I'm a nanoscientist asking you to support nanoscience funding, so I might not be the most objective observer. But I think this is a big deal. And for example, right now we're probably about to start cutting science funding in this country, which seems like not a smart move, given where we are today.
We've-- the government has taken some steps to increase science funding-- things like ARPA-E, which is a program to find revolutionary new energy technologies-- run out of the Department of Energy, which is a great little program. It's like a venture capital firm run by the government. But they're really underfunded. For example, China's equivalent program is about 10 times the size as the US, just to put it in context.
So anyway, back to our squares. There's our square that we have to get rid of. If we improve the efficiency by just five more percent and cut the demand in half, now we've only lost the panhandle of Oklahoma and bits of Texas and what have you. You start to narrow this box down, and it gets more and more tractable. The area becomes something like all the roofs in the country or all the highways or something. It's a big deal, but it's not beyond the pale, OK?
But it is a big deal, and it's not easy. So how many people does it take to change a light bulb? And I would say it takes all of you. So get to work. And I would say-- I will quote Robert Strauss, who says, "It's a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quit when you are tired; you quit when the gorilla is tired."
So with that I say thank you, and I'll be happy to answer questions.
AUDIENCE: Where does nanotechnology intersect with silicon photovoltaic technology?
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah, it's an excellent question. What does silicon photovoltaic technology has to do with nanotechnology? It gets rather technical, which is why I didn't say a whole lot about it. But there are various things you can do to try to more efficiently collect the light to get more of the sunlight into the detector.
You can also make fancier solar cells that are much more efficient by stacking different materials next to each other. So instead of just treating all of the light the same, you collect the high energy photons with one part-- one solar cell-- the low energy photons with another. But it becomes a complex integration problem and a connectivity problem and materials problem to make all that happen.
So it-- the one thing to note is a lot of what you really need to do that stuff is very nitty-gritty kind of material science engineering stuff. You're squeaking out those percents, and that's a very different kind of thing than revolutionary science. So the synthetic biology is sort of revolutionary science. It might make big jumps, but they still have a long way to go to catch up to this silicon, which is doing so well already.
PAUL MCEUEN: From in a nano-- in a fancy nano kind of way? There's a lot of-- I am not right up to date on this, but there's a lot of work coming on very thin film photovoltaics that are high performance but don't have to have a whole silicon wafer. So they don't-- they-- you can trim off just a thin layer of material and it becomes flexible and much cheaper. And that's coming very quickly. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Do you think it will be ever possible to use CO2 as an energy source [INAUDIBLE]?
PAUL MCEUEN: Do I think it'll ever be possible to use CO2 as an energy source? Yeah, you have to be able to take the CO2 and have-- and convert it into something that you turn back into CO2. So the CO2 is sort of a-- kind of like a waste product of the consumption of energy, rather than a source by itself. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I found it interesting that you chose Ithaca to be your-- a place where you would study solar energy, [INAUDIBLE].
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah, it's a really interesting-- Ithaca and solar is not the greatest combination. But it's OK. You can ship things to other places. You're absolutely right, and in fact, I've talked to some-- we have some solar panels on our roof, but the guy who was putting them in-- we have a new house, and so the rest of the insulation and stuff is good-- but he was telling me that he goes to people's houses and they want solar cells on their roof.
And he's like, please. Let me put some insulation in your walls. Just let me please do that. And they're like, nope. Nobody will see that. I want the solar cells. So you know, I think-- come on, folks. Let's be real here. Right? Yes.
AUDIENCE: About 10 years [INAUDIBLE] there will be designer viruses that [INAUDIBLE]. How much faster would the turnaround time for finding a cure be? Would that increase rapidly? And the second part of the question-- once we get it, we would want to disperse it as quickly as possible. Is it possible that we may [INAUDIBLE] the solution [INAUDIBLE] that we now know [INAUDIBLE] machine, and had that [INAUDIBLE] issues.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah, it's a really interesting question. So the first part is, are they going to be making stuff and sending it out, and then are we going to have a fast way of developing a cure and then getting the cure out there? It's really hard to know.
I will make one point-- that you're basically really good at keeping stuff from killing you. You have an immune system and a response that is very effective. So it's probably not that easy to make from scratch a bug that is going to get you, because you're pretty well designed.
Having said that, there are bugs out there that we know will get you, that biology designed, like the Ebola virus. That the only thing protecting you is the fact that it's not in this room. OK. Those are very dangerous. So we may need to very rapidly try to develop some cures for those kinds of diseases.
The other one is people trying to cook stuff up in their backyard. They'll probably just kill themselves and their friends before they get something that's really good. It may work out that way. But it could get ugly. I mean, you may make the argument that we've had technology allow us to defeat disease for this one little period of history, because we sort of got ahead of biology with our cures, and that may be about to end, and-- because we've taken control of making the bad things, too. And we may go back to a time when large scale die-offs are part of the norm. I'm sorry, but that may be true.
In terms of can we-- will we be able to develop cures to stuff and get it out? I don't know. You should ask somebody other than me about that. But it may be the case that you need a very good public health system to both catch these things before they get too big and have ways of attacking them.
And certainly our human distribution system is terrible from this point of view-- the fact that we take planes everywhere and what have you. It's very bad from the point of view of trying to control the spread of something bad if it does get out. So we may have to become much more health conscious than we are now. So our health care system definitely needs to get its act together. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Well, actually, I'm from China. I was wondering if you had a choice, one is to develop the nanotechnology, and the other is [INAUDIBLE] people's [? consumption ?] of the energy. So [INAUDIBLE].
PAUL MCEUEN: So do I keep China down, or-- I mean, I'm trying to get it-- the--
AUDIENCE: No, actually, if you're just going to develop the nanotechnology for cutting those-- no, no, no. I'm sorry. I just feel like the first is to develop the nanotechnology, and the other is to cutting those Chinese people's consumption.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yes.
AUDIENCE: And which one you going to choose, to have the energy [INAUDIBLE].
PAUL MCEUEN: So I think my point of view is you'd want to develop nanotechnologies to help keep consumption down for everybody.
AUDIENCE: I just want to ask, which is more important?
PAUL MCEUEN: I think that the low-hanging fruit is in keeping everyone's consumption down. Now China's usage is going to go up. There's no way around that unless something very bad happens. So I think getting everybody used to using energy more efficiently is the most important thing we can do in the short term to make things better, while we're working hard on these other parts of the problem.
AUDIENCE: But actually, if you've just got to choose one option, which one [INAUDIBLE].
PAUL MCEUEN: I'm not quite sure I understand the options, so I think I'm going to defer answering that particular question. And I don't want to treat the US and China any different.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I just want to know, which is more important [INAUDIBLE] nanotechnology or the people's consumption.
PAUL MCEUEN: Oh, I see them as intimately tied together. That your consumption-- you don't want to consume energy for-- just to consume it, just because it's fun. You want to consume it because you want to do something. And so the technology helps you to do something-- the same thing with less energy, you're happy.
So I see it as that, it's not that I need you to change your lifestyle. I need you to just have better stuff. You need your stuff to be more efficient at what it does. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, there's two things that I wanted to raise. One-- they're kind of broad, but I don't expect you to answer it. But [INAUDIBLE] question. The first one is I've seen, I've heard, and I've read about nanotechnology possibly being a problem in its creation, like polluting. And I was very concerned about the nano labs being brought to Cornell, because I've seen that on the BBC News, BBC website, and concerns about the production of nanotechnology.
The second thing is, I thought I would hear that more in your talk and maybe-- I don't know who would talk about it in the future-- I would like to see somebody talk about it at Cornell. But I'm very concerned about where everything is taking us, because I think that the technology-- what we have now is changing our society. The way we live, the way we interact with each other, and there's huge concerns.
And the issue of health, for example. I mean, I don't carry a cell phone. I believe it causes brain cancer. But I also believe that the wireless technology is harming us. It's harming our body, it could be harming the bees, for example-- bats. And nobody-- we're not having that discussion, everything's becoming convenient, and so, you know, it's fun to pick up something and talk to someone so easily, but we're not talking about the consequences.
PAUL MCEUEN: So I think there's a couple of things. So first of all, I'll address the issue of the safety of the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility. I mean, there's two concerns. One is we're working with dangerous chemicals to do the kinds of processing that we do. That's a real issue and there's a great deal of concern about that. But it's really the same trouble you would have any time you-- in the chemistry lab in Baker Hall, or what have you. It's not to trivialize it, but it's a kind of problem we've been dealing with for a while.
Trust me, if my students could make something that could self-replicating go out and destroy the world-- don't take this the wrong way-- we'd be so excited. You know. It's so hard-- we're 50 years from doing anything like that. So active stuff getting out, I wouldn't worry about. But are there chemicals in there that you wouldn't want to be drinking? Absolutely. And would you not want to spill them? Absolutely. But that's the same problem we have in any kind of modern either biological or chemical laboratory.
The second question, which is really way above my pay grade, but I think extremely important, is thinking about how technology changes the way we live. And I mean, I've become fascinated by parasites recently and how they change our behavior. It's this whole small thing going on again. And I'm pretty much convinced that we have been infected and we are doomed. Think about it. Watch us. Watch us walking around. We all stare at our things all the time.
What does a parasite do? It takes all of your resources and it sucks them up and you use it to make more copies of this thing. Guess what? OK. So it's really quite stunning, what's happening to us. And I think you're absolutely right, that we're not having that discussion and thinking carefully about what are the implications of that. And I think the cultural implications are probably more important than any risk of frying our brains from the microwaves, but again, that's not my area, so I'm not going to comment on that.
AUDIENCE: Can I just add that there was a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, and it was in the Ithaca Journal, and made national news headlines, or global headlines, and I haven't heard about this individual again. And he had not only talked about brain cancer, but he also said that when you're using the cell phone, you're also affecting the person next to you. So-- and to me, I feel like that was it. And how would something like that just go away?
And you know-- and then the other thing I wanted to say as a backup, I was in City Hall when they discussed the issue of the nano lab, and the concern is different than other labs where nano, if you have an accident, the fire department-- you can't see it. It's a very difficult thing to deal with, as opposed to any other kind of chemical accident.
PAUL MCEUEN: So-- some of this is true of chemicals, as well. But the point about the-- I'm not going to say anything about whether-- what happened about the person in Pittsburgh, but it is important for everyone to know this-- scientists-- a lot of us are wrong-headed, and silly, and say things that aren't true all the time.
We're just like anybody else. So just because you heard it from a scientist doesn't make it so. You should always be thinking about where-- what their interests are, and making sure that other people corroborate it. But-- and certainly the media-- just because they publish it, do you think it's true? No. Quite the opposite. In fact, we have a huge problem of reliability of the information that we get.
So I'm not saying-- so I can't say whether that person's study was good or bad, but it's very hard to get good information about what's scientifically true, and not particularly on health-related issues. It's a huge challenge. OK. One more question. Yes?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] technology has exposed [INAUDIBLE] [? average, ?] so what do you think its largest potential hazard of nanotechnology?
PAUL MCEUEN: What's the largest potential hazard of nanotechnology? So it depends on what kind-- so nanotechnology isn't a thing, any more than chemicals are a thing. So you have to be careful about dividing it up. But in the sphere of things I talked about, the thing I'm most scared about is bad uses of synthetic biology. That's the thing that scares me the most.
Inorganic nanotechnology-- I don't think making better solar cells and stuff-- we might do some things that aren't great, or there might be some things-- we might get-- there may be some health risks that we're not aware of. But I don't think we're going to do anything on a massive scale. But that is real-- the other-- the synthetic biology part of this is really revolutionary, and it may have fantastically positive effects, but there is a real risk that there could be some big negative effects, too.
OK. With that, thank you.
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For over half a century, the ever-shrinking integrated circuit has been the dominant driver of technological progress. The next fifty years promise even bigger changes as miniaturization and nanotechnology invade other areas of our lives, from health care to weaponry.
Paul McEuen, Cornell's Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, examines why small is so big and speculates how nano will change your life, both for good and for ill. He also takes a detour into the world of fiction and discusses how a full-time scientist ends up moonlighting as a thriller writer.