Nanometre dimension set to draw kids to science

Popularising science has grown more popular with every passing decade. In the era of Carl Sagan, engaging the masses was uncouth. For his regular appearances on Johnny Carson, a famous comedy talk show, Sagan was vilified. But his Cosmos series and popular science books exerted a powerful pull on the imaginations of the Apollo generation which spurred it into STEM careers.

Now the South African government has realised the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, fields which are vital for twenty-first century economies, and have launched a slew of outreach programmes to promote science and inspire children to take careers in science. One of the ways to woo minds is the blunt sensationalist focus on the cutting edge of scientific discovery. Nanotechnology is the newest field in science and Bongani Thabete, a researcher on nanomaterials at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), is involved in sharing the awesome world of the small.

“We know most people are not aware of nanoscience. They think of a fairy world. We go out there and teach promote nanotechnology.”

Thabete, who is involved in the Public Understanding of Science and Its Benefits (PUNiB), a project of the South African Agency or Science and Technology Advancement, wrote a radio script introducing nanotechnology and his research area of interest. The script, titled “Who Could Have Thought There Could be Room at the Bottom: Thinking in the Nanometre Dimension,” did not win him first prize in the Young Science Communicators Competition but it won the popular vote on Facebook, amassing 68 votes out of 102.

Thabete is part of a team developing tin oxide nanowires which can be used in building more accurate gas sensors. They would be useful in detecting rotten food in the food industry or deadly concentrations of methane gas underground in mines and alert miners to evacuate.

Besides being able to make better gas detectors, nanostructures could be useful in other applications like cancer treatment.

“Let’s say you have cancer. The nanorobot will travel through the bloodstream and will cure diseases. If the cancer [cells are] recognized as being red, whatever that will be designed, when it sees the red cells it will now attack.” But curing cancer in this way is far off in the future, warns Thabethe, who is candidate for a master of science in physics. “But you can apply nanowires because they’re something currents and have lots of applications.”

Bongani Thabete's research on nanowires could be used to build better gas detectors.
Bongani Thabete’s research on nanowires could be used to build better gas detectors.

The research Thabethe is involved is not novel. Nanotechnology is only a few decades old but it has covered a lot of track because governments have recognized its value. The funding given unto the field in the United States, $3.7-billion, is almost double the combined budgets of the Europe Union and Japan. The CSIR is thus seeing if it can do things differently.

The research Thabethe is involved is not novel. Nanotechnology is only a few decades old but it has covered a lot of track because governments have recognised its value. The funding given unto the field in the United States, $3.7-billion, is almost double the combined budgets of the Europe Union and Japan. The CSIR is thus seeing if it can do things differently.

One could describe the wave of interest and education in science as a zeitgeist. With The Big Bang Theory sitcom and other incipient forces, science is enjoying its day in pop culture. Screenings for a new documentary called The Unbelievers are sold out. It follows two world-renowned scientists Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor Lawrence Krauss on their talks. They have expressed astonishment that a chat between two scientists could fill the Sydney Opera House. The World Science Festival is only half a decade old. Science is cool again, and in South Africa government agencies are leading the cause to promote it.

“When you go out and teach science to the students or the general public, they become aware of the technologies around them,” says Thabete. “You know people see cell phones and say, ‘Oh, you created a cell phone.’ They don’t know who could have made it. It’s coming from somewhere, from the CSIR. … All we’re doing is trying to promote better understanding of science and stimulate interest.”

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