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Author Interview: Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems

by Editor1 last modified December 19, 2011 - 11:41 speaks with co-authors of Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems: Second Edition. In this interview we explore the innovative approach from Ben Rogers, Jesse Adams and Sumita Pennathur, and discover how the team combined talents from academia and commercial research to produce an innovative and multi-disciplined nano textbook.

Author Interview: Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems


As the calendar moves into 2012, the nanoscience community prepares to turn a page.

In FY2012, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is pushing its nano focus beyond basic R&D to speed development of applied nano and commercial innovations. This shift will fuel the push to train the next wave of researchers, engineers, inventors and investors.  To learn more about the next wave in training materials, NanoScienceWorks.ogr speaks with the co-authors of one of today's most innovative textbooks in our field, Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems. What prompted you all to collaborate on an update to the Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems textbook?

Rogers: We’re all seeing a growing need to recruit more nanoreseachers to the field. Our idea when we started was to write a textbook that would give students an easy way to approach the subject, no matter what their background. One that was easy to read and go through, but also a textbook that would make nano’s benefits easy to understand. So, with Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems, we wanted to make nanoscience practical, definitely readable and even fun. In fact, in some places the readers is supposed to laugh. Laugh? In a nano textbook? That sounds interesting, how about an example of that?

Ben Rogers: In one example, we describe what it means to be the first generation in the history of the world to look right at atoms, to pick them up one at a time, and to put them back down where we like. We ask the reader to savor this, to slide the individual atoms around on their tongues like caviar and burst them one by one between their molars. Or, we talk about how many atoms are in a baseball, just so students get the idea of what all these zeros in a number mean.

Jesse Adams: Another of my favorites is explaining why a bacteria swimming in water is so much different than a person at the swimming pool. A bacterium doesn’t swim through water the same way a person does. Because of the smaller scale, a bacterium’s flagellum needs to use a corkscrew movement to ‘wind’ its way through water. So, a bacterium is more like a swimmer swimming through thick molasses than through water.

So, one of our goals with this book is that we wanted students to walk away with an understanding of ‘10 Things at the Nanoscale that are Different’ and explain them in a way that students can really walk away with those concepts as core to their thinking.

A sample chapter from Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems is available at the bottom of this page. members: Purchase this volume at a discount.
For more information, see the bottom of this page.

***************************************** So, Dr. Pennathur, even though this approach may seem a bit too whimsical or lighthearted for the classroom, you find it works well with students?

Dr. Pennathur: Definitely, one of the most valuable things a nanotechnology student can learn is that the world works differently at the nanoscale. So, students also need to think differently about the two. The approaches in this book help them think at smaller scales and also learn core [scientific] concepts that remain true at both normal and nano worlds.

And, it’s also important, let me add that while the approach may be lighter than other nano textbooks, it doesn’t avoid the more technical requirements of a textbook. We just approach them from a different angle.

There is a huge amount of research with students that shows when they learning in K-12 settings, even beyond into college, that visual learning really helps you retain a lot more about abstract concepts. With such complex concepts as nano, we thought it was even more important to have as much visualization as possible. Let’s follow that idea a bit, the balance between being readable and fun with the basic need for a textbook to also present hardcore science and math to the student. Talk about that.

Ben Rogers: One of the features we have is called ‘back-of-the-envelope.’ These are scattered throughout each chapter to underscore the core concepts we present.

But we also wanted to focus the student on concepts that are going to remain true, and won’t change, so they can get to the core of the physics that drives the understanding at the nano level. They really show the precise calculations of the science or math being discussed to give students a quick feel for all the numbers and the scale involved in nanotechnologies. Sounds interesting. How about an example?

Ben Rogers: So, these “back of the envelope" features walk the student through some “quick and dirty” calculations that illustrate the math and show how the concepts are applied to real problem sets. Here’s one example from Chapter One


A Back-of-the-Envelop Example
from Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems

How much does an atom weigh?

This prompts another question: which kind of atom? The Periodic Table has 116 different elements in it. Each atom has a different number of protons and neutrons, and so their atomic masses are different. Also, since atoms are so minute, we often perform atomic computations using large groups of them. One particularly useful group is called a mole (mol), which consists of Avogadro’s number, NA, of whatever one is counting—atoms, molecules, apples. Avogadro’s number is 6.02 × 1023. It is defined as the number of carbon-12 atoms in exactly 12 g.

Therefore, 12 g/mol is the atomic mass of carbon-12. The atomic mass of lead is 207 g/mol, and that of aluminum is 27 g/mol.

To determine the mass of a single atom, divide the atomic mass by Avogadro’s number:
Mass of 1aluminum atom = 45 yoctograms.

Ben Rogers: Along with these “back-of-the-envelope” examples, each chapter also ends with traditional textbook problem sets and short answer questions to test understanding. Talk about your problem sets and solution sets. I know that’s often an important part of any teachers’ assessment of a textbook’s value?

Ben Rogers: We’ve taken many of those same ‘visualize’ concepts and backed them up with the hard science and math for the textbook’s homework problems. We have some problems that talk about the amount of force exerted by a pair of atoms in close proximity compared to the force of gravity on those same atoms. Turns out, the force between the atoms is 100 trillion times stronger, so we ask the reader to try and imagine pulling 100,000,000,000,000 g’s on a rollercoaster, so they can put these numbers in perspective.

Dr. Pennathur: That approach really very powerful. At the nanoscale, it’s sometimes hard to grasp the impact of these numbers, all those zeros or strange prefixes can be tough to swallow or to picture. I’ve seen this approach work wonders in the classroom. The book is also designed to supplement a lab class. This books really helps make students very well prepared for practical lab experience.

So, with the combination of visual examples and the hard science it’s really amazing how students get a handhold on thinking about this world they cannot see. Those kind of homework problems and a lab really helps the light bulbs go off for students. Really? Can you give an example of those light bulbs going off?

Dr. Pennathur: Sure, it’s amazing, really. Once you get the nano basics under your belt, it really helps the student mix and match concepts much easier, and bring in his own ideas. One of my students in fact won a business venture competition with an idea that spawned out of the class.

Ben Rogers: That’s so true. So, one way we think of Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems’ approach is as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ to core nano concepts, so that whatever your “native language” (biology, electronics, physics) you can still talk about these core ideas. The cool stuff in nano for the future will be where there is crosspollination going on between disciplines, such as between biologists and electronics engineers. This will be where the next breakthroughs will come. We think our book gives students a strong sense of the core nano concepts that will help them come up with the next great breakthroughs, and be able to talk to people in other disciplines.

****Editor’s Note. The authors of Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems bring a passion for education and applied multi-disciplinary nano to their work.

Co-authors Ben Rogers and Jesse Adams are the Principal Engineer and CTO/Vice-President, respectively, of Nevada Nanotech Systems, Inc. ( a firm started to develop and manufacture MEMS-based sensor modules and subsystems for government and commercial applications. The company’s technology is being commercialized for sensors for container ships to detect radiation, chemical, explosive, and bio-pathogen threats under a grant from the Department of Defense. Adams received degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno and Stanford University. He also worked with the co-inventor of the Atomic Force Microscope, Calvin Quate and developed a high-speed multi-probe AFM.

Co-author Dr. Sumita Pennathur’s research group at the University of California, Santa Barbara focuses on applying fluidics at both microscale and nanoscale to create novel devices for biology and nanomedicine. She received degrees from Stanford University and MIT. You can reach her groups’ website at