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Measuring small, thinking big

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While listening to Professor Gerhard Ertl’s (2007 Nobel in Chemistry) Plenary lecture on Monday morning I was reminded of one of the most interesting things about chemistry: the fact that processes which occur at the atomic and sub-atomic levels are responsible for nearly everything. Muscle function, photosynthesis, respiration, and more - the list could literally go on forever. This juxtaposition between nanoscale properties and macroscale applications is striking. For instance, Prof. Ertl is perhaps most well-known for his discovery of the mechanism of the Haber-Bosch process, which reacts nitrogen and hydrogen gasses to form ammonia, which allows farmers to increase their yields to meet the needs of a growing planet.

Professor Roger Tsien (2008 Nobel in Chemistry) gave another Plenary lecture earlier today on his word in biological imaging. Tsien’s lab uses the relation between nanoscale (in this case even smaller) phenomena for selective chemical imaging of tumor cells. Further development of his lab’s work could lead to surgeons being about to more effectively remove tumor cells, resulting in lower healthcare costs and longer lifespans for patients diagnosed with cancer.

These types of nanoscale arrangements are all around us, yet often I lose sight of that fact. I shouldn’t, because the world seems a much more interesting place knowing that there are trillions and trillions of molecular interactions happening at every second.