It's the little things that count

Here’s something that is geek to the max: IBM has just announced a device that that it is so sensitive it can detect the presence of a single electron dancing about an atom. The most immediate application of biological significance is using it as a way to feel out (sort of like Braille) the three-dimensional shape of proteins; and proteins are the key components of cells that are always involved in biological mishaps like cancer.

The scientists are stoked.

It is largely proteins’ shapes that enable them to carry out the essential functions of the body, and researchers hope that knowing those shapes will help them devise drug therapies. Determining the shape is currently an indirect, arduous process: purifying the protein, assembling it into crystals and deducing the shape from the pattern of X-rays bounced off a crystal.

In the future, a scientist may be able to take a protein, insert it into a molecular magnetic resonance imaging, or M.R.I., machine and “simply take a three-dimensional image of a single molecule,” Dr. Rugar said, just as today’s medical M.R.I. machines provide clear pictures of flesh and blood for doctors to examine.

The images could also directly show how drug molecules interact with proteins, identify viruses or biological weapons and identify the locations of specific atoms in molecular-scale electronic devices. Current atomic-scale instruments like atomic force microscopes can only map the surface, not look at the three-dimensional structure of individual molecules.

Oh, by the way, the technique may also be useful in quantum computers.

For the man on the street all this is a big “So what?” Indeed, the practical application is years away. But the point I want to make is that these are the events—generally flying below the threshold of awareness—that propel scientific and technological progress that guarantee revolutionary economic and social changes down the road. This kind of precision in scientific measurement and manipulation of matter also foreshadows a much deeper understanding of our world at the molecular, atomic, and subatomic scales. It’s the kind of thing that will surely move from these exotic first devices to limited, costly-but-useful instruments and finally to everyday devices that change what we find in our world to deal with. So a couple of decades on, when we’re scratching our heads wondering “where did all this change come from?” we ought to look back at events like this one an say, “I’m not surprised.”