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Tour Guide to the Future

A nanometer is so small that if it were the size of a quarter, you’d have to drive from Washington, D.C., to Boston to travel an inch. In the vast spaces of this invisible realm, properties behave differently. Water can act like molasses. Electrons can pass through an insulator without ever being inside it, almost as if they’re teleporting.

Marlene Bourne explores this world for a living. In fact, she takes others along. You could call her a tour guide for the world of nanotechnology.

Bourne, SIS/MA ’90, is a futurist who analyzes the impact of today’s technology on tomorrow’s world. Her radio broadcasts, books, podcasts, and reports tell nonscientists, from Wall Street executives to D.C. area middle schoolers, what scientists and engineers are doing in the Lilliputian universe where the world of the twenty-first century is being built.

When I was growing up, I wanted to live like the Jetsons,” says Bourne. “It’s kind of disappointing we don’t have our jet packs. But we have everything else. Big screen TVs. Video phones.” And a lot of other things that Bourne knows are on the way from the labs of scientists and engineers to our closets, desks, and doctor’s offices.

Socks that don’t smell.

A computer mouse that doesn’t get grubby with germs.

A tiny shell that coats cancer tumors, destroys them with infrared light, and makes chemotherapy obsolete.

The mouse and the socks are on the market now. The cancer treatment is still in the lab. But they’re all made by working on a level so infinitesimal that until recently it couldn’t even be seen, let alone turned into a workshop for the future.

Every day Bourne, working from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona, scans university publications and scientific news sites and talks with experts to give a heads up to listeners of the Bourne Report, whose tag line is “Next generation science. Cool technologies. Real products.”

She has made a career of explaining not only what these things are, but how they work.

“It’s fun to get people to think about this a little more,” she says. “I think people are smarter than we give them credit for, and naturally curious about the way things work.”

Science opens a new world

The notion that people could work on a very, very small scale is not new. In 1959, before Bourne was born, a famed physicist named Richard Feynman speculated in a talk called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” that it would be possible someday to manipulate individual atoms.

He imagined the possibility of a tiny robot cruising through the blood stream. It’s a sci-fi image that Bourne would, in time, come to dread. It would capture the popular imagination in ways that weren’t, she thought, always helpful to understanding what nanotechnology is really about.

For years, it was all speculation. When Bourne was growing up in Minneapolis, no one could know much about the world, nano scale, much less work in it, because no one could see it. It wasn’t until the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 and the atomic force microscope in 1986 that the invisible was made visible.

Once scientists got a look at this world, it turned out that materials often behaved quite a bit differently than they do in their larger, more familiar forms. Water and oil, for instance, don’t mix in the world as we know it, but on a nano scale, they mix better and stay mixed longer.

The discovery was both a revelation and a revolution.

Not that Bourne was a scientist when the potential of nanotechnology began to be revealed. A high school career test had predicted she’d make a great engineer, but she’d been set on a career in fashion design until she finished all the interesting course work—in her view, those were things like textile chemistry—and took some finance courses that intrigued her.

She switched her undergraduate major to business and went on to AU to earn a master’s in international business and economics at the School of International Service. But she graduated into a recession, and instead of landing a job at a Fortune 500 company, had been doing everything from copy writing to freelance marketing when she was asked to update a report on something called micro-electro-mechanical systems.

“That was the first I’d ever even heard about it,” she says.

She was intrigued. It was almost like being back at AU. “I was one of those students who silently cheered for joy when a research paper was assigned, because I loved the process,” she says.

Tongue-twisting names

When she turned her inquisitive mind to figuring out what was meant by the tongue-twisting term “micro-electro-mechanical systems,” she learned that MEMS are tiny machines whose parts might be only one micrometer in size.

Yet things this small are commonly manufactured. Nor were these the smallest things being made, by a long shot. While a micrometer is a millionth of a meter, a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Atoms are about half a nanometer.

She was fascinated. The high school test had been right about her. Bourne did think like an engineer. But with her background in finance, she saw the extraordinary implications all this had for business.

She started to write for research firms, mainly about MEMS devices and material science. Sometimes she’d also write or edit a report about medical research, which is how she encountered nanotechnology. “That was the early stages of nanotechnology-based products. Nanotechnology is really just material science,” she says.

For Bourne, the topic was “addictive.” As she delved into it, she developed a reputation as an industry analyst who could write and talk about complex topics in a clear, conversational, and scientifically accurate way.

Back at AU, she’d been a bit of a maverick, avoiding jargon and “isms” and writing papers in a conversational tone. She’d always been surprised when the professors enjoyed her unique style. Now she was writing about scientific topics in the same way, and it soon won her a national following.

People have been taking advantage of products on the nano scale for thousands of years. The kohl eyeliner used in the time of Nefertiti was made from a soot with some particles only 10 nanometers in diameter.

Two thousand years later, cathedrals were built with stained glass windows that included a brilliant red. “It turns out these are nano particles of gold,” Bourne says.

And when the knights who worshiped in those cathedrals went on Crusades, they were often bested by warriors wielding a super-weapon, a sword of Damascus steel. Yet even when the Crusaders captured a Damascus sword, they couldn’t replicate it. The secret wasn’t the shape of the sword. The steel bound for Damascus swordsmiths was forged in India from an ore that, as it happened, included nano particles.

It couldn’t be replicated, because no one knew why it worked. That was the key. Once science figured it out, the world began to change. But the changes, like the nano world itself, arrived all around without being noticed.

The future is here

The future Bourne began to write about isn’t a future that flashes, blinks, and travels at warp speed. It’s a future that is already here in bottles of sun block, cans of house paint, and jars of car wax.

To see it, just go to the beach.

“Those of us of a certain age are familiar with lifeguards on the beach back in the ’70s, with big white noses and white lips,” she says. “That’s because they were putting zinc oxide on to protect against the sun. It’s white. It’s opaque.

“If you take zinc oxide and manufacture the actual particles of powder at a nano scale, they’re actually clear. That’s why suddenly sun screen today, instead of white and opaque, is clear.”

Of course, technology seldom arrives without a disturbing flip side to raise questions about whether it’s worth it. Antibacterial sprays are a case in point. Viruses are adapting to these products, which is a potential disaster of a global scale.

Nanotechnology may offer an alternative, though it, too, could have its consequences. Silver has natural antibacterial properties and is being added in nano form to paint and sprays and products. Silver is being embedded in Band-Aids, and doors and countertops can be made antibacterial with nano-scale silver.

On balance: boon or potential bain?

Yet there are still many questions. Take antibacterial clothing. “If all these clothes are releasing silver into the environment just by washing, that’s a concern,” Bourne says. “At some point in time, if all clothes are embedded with silver or other nano particles that are burned or thrown away, what are the potential long-term impacts, environmentally?

“But the thing also to keep in mind is there’s more clothing using silver as antibacterial, but the quantity is so minute. What’s the tipping point between the impact of throwing clothes in a landfill and throwing a silver dollar in the landfill? And then again, what is the impact of all those antibacterial sprays and detergents?”

Bourne, on balance, is a believer in the potential of nanotechnology, particularly in medicine. “I think ultimately the most promising uses are in medicine. One category I think is really, really cool is what’s called a ‘lab on a chip.’

It’s revolutionizing emergency room care. It’s a chip the size of a finger that can take a blood test in less than 15 minutes.

“A lot of people go to the hospital for chest pains, and this test is looking for proteins released as the heart is damaged.

So it tests if they’re really having a heart attack. If they actually are, it improves the chances of survival.”

Last year, Bourne authored two award-winning books, A Consumer’s Guide to MEMS and Nanotechnology and MEMS and Nanotechnology for Kids, which is being adopted this year by the Fairfax County, Virginia, school district for use with gifted middle schoolers. Her third book, The Future of Healthcare: BioMEMS and Nanomedicine, will be published this year.

Her Phoenix-based radio show has found its biggest audience online, where its reach is global. It has been downloaded from such unusual locations as Honduras, Iran, and Tanzania. One of the first users to sign up for her e-newsletter was a middle school student from South Africa. Teachers in Wisconsin have used her podcast for middle school science.

Ironically, the futurist who creates weekly podcasts does not, herself, have an iPod. Nor has she learned to text message. “I’m not an early adapter.

I shouldn’t admit it,” she laughs, “but it’s true.”

She does have the nano-socks, though. The socks that don’t smell, because their fabric is embedded with antibacterial silver. “I’d love to buy a car that had MEMS-based tire pressure sensing or uses a nano clear coat so it doesn’t chip or scratch. But those are big ticket items right now.

“I know about things like next generation TVs and clothing and cool stuff that probably won’t be on the market for the next 10, 15 years. But by the time it’s on the market,” she says, “I’m looking further out.”