Lurking beneath the surface here at ScienceBlogs is a force that compels people to do extremely gimmicky things on Fridays. Since I know that I’m no better than anyone else, I’ve decided to join in on the fun. Therefore, I introduce to you Fantastical Fridays at The Scientific Activist. From now on, every Friday I’ll take a break from the more serious scientific activism to explore the stranger, more outlandish, and in general more lighthearted aspects of science.
Today’s installment of Fantastical Fridays brings you a fascinating discovery reported in 2003: the creation of tiny people, people so small they can’t even be seen under a microscope! (And, it doesn’t even involve any kind of crazy religious cult or anything like that.)
Well, OK, not really. But, it’s pretty close. On the historic date of November 14, 2003 (historic for no other reason than it was my 21st birthday), two scientists from Rice University reported in the Journal of Organic Chemistry the synthesis of a variety of “anthropomorphic molecules”:
Described here are the synthetic details en route to an array of 2-nm-tall anthropomorphic molecules in monomeric, dimeric, and polymeric form. These anthropomorphic figures are called, as a class, NanoPutians. Using tools of chemical synthesis, the ultimate in designed miniaturization can be attained while preparing the most widely recognized structures: those that resemble humans.
My first reaction to this article (which is available for free here), and its interestingly worded abstract, was a very natural “what the hell?!” So, I immediately looked up the article to make sure it was legit. It was, and in fact it was impressively rigorous as well.
Starting from the simple organic molecules 1,4-dibromobenzene and nitroaniline, the Rice organic chemists were able to synthesize the more complex “NanoKid” molecule. From there, they were able to modify it in various ways to create several different “NanoProfessionals.” Which one is my favorite? The “NanoTexan”, of course!
Disappointingly, there’s no “NanoScientist”. However, the authors were able to do some other pretty cool things, including some feats that would make any parent jealous. For example, you can see in the first image above that by “NanoKid’s” most favorable conformation, this kid is a real free spirit. However, every now and then a tired parent just wants his or her child to just sit still for a minute to let the parent rest. The Rice scientists solve this problem by attaching reactive thiol feet to NanoKid, causing it to rest itself on a metal surface. This requires a layer of solid gold, though, so this solution might not be so practical in everyday life.
Although the synthesis of the “NanoPutians” (a name derived from the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels), was surely a challenging and fun intellectual exercise, the authors claim that they undertook this study to help make science more accessible to the general public.
It is at this size region that synthetic chemists have been inherently captivated; however, their fascination is rarely shared by the layperson. The masses view chemical structures as difficult-to-grasp abstractions formulated by complex algorithms, except when molecules resemble macroscopic objects such as C60. Arguably, the most widely recognized structures are those that resemble humans. Here we describe the synthetic details en route to an array of 2 nm-tall anthropomorphic molecules, both in monomeric and polymeric form.
In that spirit, the authors followed up the study with an educational outreach project called, not surprisingly, NanoKids. The website for the project explores a variety of basic concepts in chemistry and nanotechnology. The leaders of the project also designed various lessons on these subjects that have been tested in middle schools around the nation.
So, not only are these scientists having fun with chemistry, they’re also putting their findings to good use to spark much needed interest in areas of science that children often find obscure or difficult to grasp. I’m impressed.
Stephanie H. Chanteau and James M. Tour, Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules: The NanoPutians, Journal of Organic Chemistry 68 (2003), 8750-66.
Thanks go to Alicia for sending me the NanoKids article.