Nanosciences: New Tools and New Scientific Research

Can we understand contemporary nanoscience research through its equipment? That is the challenge of this study. Noting that scientific revolutions have accelerated, we found that new instruments open up new fields of investigation, thus creating a break in epistemology. Historically, the questions asked by researchers have always been guided by the limitations imposed by Nature. But in nanoscience, thanks to new instrumentation, researchers are in a position to ‘shape nature’ to their will.

They thereby gain new freedom in formulating questions. To conclude, we will discuss the impact of nanoscale research on the organization of the scholarly community, in particular the debate between traditional disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and what we call ‘new disciplinarity.’

  • Marcovich A., Shinn T., 2014, Toward a New Dimension : Exploring the Nanoscale, Oxford University Press.
CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux

CC Patrick Mignard for Mondes Sociaux

Nanoscale Revolution: a ‘Gold Rush’

Over the last thirty years, scientists have opened up new avenues of investigation that have profoundly changed the research landscape and its goals—so much so that this has been compared with the impact of the discovery of gravity (Isaac Newton, 1687), the law of combustion (Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, 1783), radioactivity (Becquerel, 1896), quantum atoms (Max Planck, 1900) or the theory of special relativity (Einstein, 1905).

In 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Roher invented a new instrument, the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), which is able to locate and visualize individual atoms. Working at the IBM laboratory in Zurich to develop a new generation of computers, they also worked almost secretly to develop their new tool. Until 1983, their articles describing their discovery were rejected. But by word of mouth, other junior researchers took up their research and made DIY microscopes: for example, by using cat whiskers as the tip of their STM detector. Meanwhile, experienced researchers used this new tool to successfully explore a crystal – silicon (111) (7 × 7) – which for years had resisted investigation.

CC Wikimedia Commons

CC Wikimedia Commons

That’s when everything started accelerating. Three years later, in 1986, the inventors of this new family of instruments were recognized at the highest level when they received the Nobel Prize in Physics. This rapid success contrasts dramatically with that of Ernst Ruska, their co-winner, who shared the Nobel with them for his 1933 invention of the transmission electron microscope. By winning this award, STM broke out of the margins and a ‘gold rush’ was on for physicists from very different backgrounds.

In 1985, Gerd Binnig, working at Stanford University in collaboration with Calvin Quate and Christoph Gerber, developed the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). The difference between the AFM and the STM is very important: the STM is limited to inorganic and cryogenic environments, while the AFM operates in almost any environment. The number of publications with each instrument shows the magnitude of their amazing growth:

  • STM : 1983 : 2 articles ; 1990 : 208 ; 2000 : 1429 ; 2012 : 1540 (en tout 34.000) ;
  • AFM : 1987, 13 articles ; 995 : 886 ; 2005 : 398 ; 2012 : près de 6000 (en tout 83.000).

These figures reveal the extraordinary acceleration of the use of these instruments in fields as diverse as the physics of oxide surfaces, molecular mechanics, or crystallographic architecture at the nanoscale, and in biology, protein function or configuration of certain membranes. These instruments were truly able to reach their potential thanks to their interface between computers and the recent development of epitaxy.

Creating Custom Objects: A Break in Epistemology

Since the work of Niels Bohr’s group and the findings of Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Schrödinger from 1910-1940, the atom was strictly understood non-deterministically and described mathematically. In 1989, an epistemological break occurred. Donald Eigler published an article with IBM’s logo, written using 63 xenon atoms. One could now legitimately speak of atomic logos—a turning point in the history of physics! Now we can ‘see’ atoms, their spatial configuration, and even control their position.

  • Peu après, des chercheurs tels que James Gimzewski (UCLA) et Christian Joachim (CEMES-CNRS Toulouse) assemblent des atomes et construisent des molécules aux configurations de plus en plus complexes. Dans le champ de la biologie, les travaux de Simon Weiss (UCLA) permettent de contrôler et de placer très précisément sur des sites définis d’une molécule d’ADN, des quantumdots (cristaux nanométriques) qui servent ensuite de détecteurs.


CC Flickr Thomas Hawk

CC Flickr Thomas Hawk

Soon after, researchers such as James Gimzewski (UCLA) and Christian Joachim (CEMES-CNRS Toulouse) assembled atoms and built molecules with increasingly complex configurations. In biology, the work of Simon Weiss (UCLA) enabled quantum dots (nano crystals) to be moved and placed very precisely on defined parts of a DNA molecule, which then served as detectors.

Yet seeing, controlling, and understanding nature at the nanoscale necessarily involves representing information and results as images. Unlike numerical data sets, images allow for a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the phenomena studied. They also offer another advantage: an increasing number of numerical simulation specialists work on the nanoscale due to the increasing power of computers and the introduction of programs tailored to this field, such as Density Functional Theory. Very frequent comparisons of data are organized between the results of experiments by simulation and those obtained by metrology.

The revolution caused by nanoscale research would not have occurred without the help of new techniques for manufacturing materials that began in the 1930s: epitaxy. The term epitaxy comes from the Greek roots epi, meaning ‘above’ and taxis, meaning ‘arranged’. It can be translated as ‘arranged on’ and refers to the production of objects characterized by their size, shape, and properties: they are materials by design. The combination of epitaxy and near-field microscopy triggered the epistemological break mentioned above.

CC Pixabay OpenClipartVectors

CC Pixabay OpenClipartVectors

In the 1980s, physicists and chemists learned to make objects that do not exist in nature and have novel properties. Before then, scientists depended on the materials provided by Nature; and so Nature dictated the possibilities. With the advent of Nano-objects, one is now free to decide what to ask and to manufacture materials according to the properties desired. We are witnessing the birth of a new paradigm: the possibility for the first time in the history of science to transcend the limits of Nature.

Toward a ‘New Disciplinarity’

For at least thirty years, there has been a partisan and sometimes virulent debate between supporters of the traditional disciplinary approach and those of interdisciplinarity. For the former, science is constructed within the boundaries of a defined discipline, giving it both opportunities for internal transformation and stability (a closed world). For the latter, the constantly increasing complexity of knowledge requires cooperation and communication among people from different disciplines. They believe that borders are disappearing and that traditional disciplines are collapsing. Our observations of research at the nanoscale lead us to propose a third model of the social and intellectual organization of knowledge differing from the first two.

CC Flickr Eliz.avery

CC Flickr Eliz.avery

Our multiple interviews highlight research practices that are rooted as much in the stability of the traditional disciplinary approach as in the flexibility of interdisciplinarity. As with the traditional approach, the new approach has borders, but they are fortified borders. While remaining within their respective fields and talking to each other across the fence, researchers from different fields can create joint projects, while remaining within the defined space of their own discipline. This kind of organization makes the need for rootedness in one main discipline compatible with openness to other horizons.

CC Flickr Justin Mazza

CC Flickr Justin Mazza

In this view, the new disciplinarity approach provides the core (education and conceptual references) of the mother discipline, plus the borders mentioned above. It is based on movements between center and periphery, which also implies a two kinds of time: often long at the center working in one’s main field, and shorter excursions toward the frontiers where meetings are organized with other researchers from different backgrounds and joint projects are created. This new disciplinarity also shows that this dual movement and this double grounding are necessary. In this way, certain traits of the traditional disciplinary approach co-exist with those of fluidity, so highly by interdisciplinarity.
Our study suggests that the repertoire of instruments (such as STMs and AFMs) shared and used in different disciplines within nanoscience promotes this new disciplinarity approach, as these instruments are the vehicle for crossing disciplines. They foster the practice of a common language and the development of projects that render researchers complementary. It would be interesting to see the extent to which this model of new disciplinarity works in fields other than nanosciences.

To conclude, we would say that the birth of and developments in nanoscience research reveal the contrast between two opposing forces: the fragmentation and the cohesion of research practices. Here, fragmentation can be seen in the diversity of the questions asked by researchers, by the technologies used, and by the disciplinary communities consulted. Cohesion, however, is reveals in the persistence of research subjects and ways to analyze them. Our study shows a unique relationship between two forces that are usually perceived as contradictory. Their co-existence may be explained by the revolution in instruments and the new freedom given to researchers through radical breaks in epistemology.

Crédits images à la Une : CC Pexels Splitshire

To read the French version, clic here

Anne Marcovich et Terry Shinn


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1 réponse

  1. 24/09/2017

    […] Nanosciences: New Tools and New Scientific Research – Mondes Sociaux. Can we understand contemporary nanoscience research through its equipment? That is the challenge of this study. Noting that scientific revolutions have accelerated, we found that new instruments open up new fields of investigation, thus creating a break in epistemology. Historically, the questions asked by researchers have always been guided by the limitations imposed by Nature. But in nanoscience, thanks to new instrumentation, researchers are in a position to ‘shape nature’ to their will. […]

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