Science Talk

Looking Into the Future At The World Science Forum; Poetry And Science with Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann

In this episode, Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie talks about the World Science Forum, held in New York City last week. Forum speaker Mike Roco, nanotechnology advisor to the National Science Foundation, shares some thoughts about our tiny tomorrow. Chemist Roald Hoffmann reads his own poetry and discusses the importance of fuzzy thinking in science. And we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;;

Science Talk November 15, 2006 -- World Science Forum and Tiny Tomorrow; Poetry and Fuzziness in Science

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the seven days starting November 15th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, some small talk in multiple senses and a little poetry. Last week I attended the World Science Forum here in New York City and we will have some discussion about that. On Sunday, I went to hear a lecture on poetry and science from chemist Roald Hoffmann and we will have more from him later. Plus, we will test your knowledge about some science in the news. First, the World Science Forum. Scientific American editor in chief John Rennie was there, too, and I asked him about the event.

Steve: Hi John, how are you?

John: Hi Steve.

Steve: So, tell me, what's the World Science Forum?

John: The World Science Forum is an event Scientific American is helping to put on with the company HSM, and it's a gathering of leaders from the world over—science and technology and also business—speaking primarily to an audience of business leaders, and the whole goal is to try to convey how it is that the frontiers of science in the 21st century are likely to change the nature of business, and give people an idea of some of the untapped possibilities as we move forward.

Steve: Anything…you have been at the sessions …anything jump out of you that was particularly memorable, interesting?

John: Well, the sessions have all been really pretty interesting in lots of different ways. I think, of course, Jeff Sachs from The Earth Institute, who is a columnist for the magazine, he gave I think what a lot of people thought was a tremendously stirring talk about the importance of sustainability and needing to address global warming and other issues as a problem, because it is so important to address those as root causes of poverty and lack of economic development throughout the developing world today. Of course, [Ray] Kurzweil gave, you know, [an] always fascinating talk about his view of what the next 50 years are likely to hold. He is extremely optimistic about the kinds of things that are going to come from nanotechnology and other kinds of advances as various sciences become more and more information technologies. So, I think …for example, he ends on a note of talking about how, you know, one can look forward to maybe, just maybe, squeaking out a kind of immortality if you last long enough.

Steve: Yeah, he was saying that we could gain more than one year of life expectancy each year, starting kind of soon, so if you make it to that point you might actually then see your future just stretching out in front of you.

John: Right. Kurzweil had written a book not too long ago that the point of which is that really we need to just try to maintain our health these days, try to live basically as long as we could, because if we could hold that for just few more decades we would probably reach a time where it would not be inconceivable that you could have a kind of immortality of sorts. Maybe that's extremely optimistic, but it's at least his analysis of it.

Steve: Because he is the one talking about downloading consciousness and hoping your friends would continue to copy the files.

John: I believe that was a point that he was making, yes. (laughs) I think actually Marvin Minsky also had a similar comment. It was a recurring threat that Marvin Minsky, an expert on AI and robotics, was speaking about – some of the same kinds of technologies that Kurzweil was speaking of too.

Steve: Right, right, hoping your friends will actually come through and copy your files again once the … make sure there was a backup or something.

John: That's right. You know, it's always be the possibility of trying to improve on your friends a little. They take away those little ticks that have always bugged you about them.

Steve: Such a good idea. Thanks John.

John: Thank you Steve.

Steve: One of the speakers at the World Science Forum was Mike Roco. He is senior advisor on nanotechnology for the National Science Foundation. I caught up with him for a few minutes after his talk.

Steve: Dr. Roco, thanks for your talking to me today.

Roco: It's my pleasure to be with you.

Steve: Tell me, when people talk about nanotechnology, I mean, it's a word that gets all kinds of play, but what do we actually mean today and [what] will we be meaning in the coming years?

Roco: Nanotechnology is the ability to work at the atomic and molecular level in order to obtain new properties and functional materials, devices, and systems. Now we can do basically cuttings with better properties, dispersion of different qualities. We can target drugs inside a human body. In the future, we could do much more. For instance, we could build artificial organs. We could build nanorobotics on surfaces. We could eventually create new system[s] to generate energy, filtrate water, and in principal, once we get the control of the nanoscale, it means as [at] the first level of organization of atoms in larger structures, we will be able to obtain new products and new systems that are not available now.

Steve: One of the key things that you said in your remarks earlier, I think, is most people just think about nanotech in terms of smallest, but we have properties that emerge at those small sizes that are not available at the size as the people are used to. So, how do those properties that become available at those small sizes come into play?

Roco: All the properties and function[s] are established when atoms and molecules create the first level of structures and, for instance, you have carbon nanotubes or graphite or diamond and all the properties can be changed in a fundamental way at that level. We send a small amount of energy, a small amount of material – the issue is to know how to do this.

Steve: And in those carbon examples, the property is the hardness or softness. It's the same materials that you are dealing with, but you get different properties because of the way that the atoms are lined up.

Roco: That means in nature, we have only about 20 to 25 most frequently used atoms that have fixed properties; however, from their arrangement, even from one single atom, we can obtain almost an infinity of properties and function[s], and once we understand better how things work at the nanoscale, we cannot deem what property and what function we would like. For instance, we can obtain systems to better convert materials, to better convert directly solar energy into electricity or we could obtain materials that are much harder or we could build artificial bones or artificial kidney[s] by having this knowledge.

Steve: You talked about the fact that most nanotech knowledge that we have today is empirical. What has to happen before we can go from empirical findings to theoretical creations?

Roco: The main impediment now are [is] the tools – tools for both measurement and simulation. What [this] means is, we can, for instance, see in three dimension[s] only one or two molecules at one time, but we cannot see a domain of engineering or biological relevance with atomic precision. Also we cannot simulate from direct principle these systems. Once we have the tools, we could advance much faster. The tools are in development and we hope in the next years this progress will be made.

Steve: And we can't do those things because we just don't have enough of a foundation of knowledge to know what these entities are going to do next when we arrange them in different ways.

Roco: Yes, the progress [that] remains is very fast; however, cannot be f(unclear),it's not a problem to put more money. One needs new ideas and new concepts, and these are developing certainly by discovery, by supporting interdisciplinary groups, interaction with industry, which is a process of establishing this new technology. And certainly in [the] short term, some people may have high expectations that this will happen tomorrow and this is certainly not the case, but in [the] long term, nanotechnology is probably underestimated. why Nanotechnology will change the way we fabricate and the way we design all the products in pharmaceutics, in materials, in electronics, from their foundation, and so [it] will affect almost all matter-based industries and activities, I think, including the medical field, and will lead to more economical solutions and more sustainable. That means this will satisfy general societal needs – better efficiency, molecular medicine, sustainable environment.

Steve: Do you look at it as sort of just finding a whole new batch of elements or a whole new batch of materials that just weren't available, you know, like you can't imagine a color that you have never seen? But is that how you look at this – like it's finding a whole bunch of new colors and finding a whole bunch of new materials that were actually always inherent in the materials that were around?

Roco: Yes, this is a good metaphor that means we look in one way to make improvements to do more efficient materials that really exist. At the same time, we look to create new molecules or new materials or new assemblies of molecules that have never existed in the environment or never had been identified.

Steve: Dr. Roco, thanks very much. I appreciate your time.

Roco: Well, it is my pleasure. Thank you.

Steve: There's lots more about the World Science Forum on our blog,, and on the 60-Second Science podcasts of November 10th and 13th that's at Also, check out the World Science Forum site at or just google World Science Forum.

On Sunday, Roald Hoffmann gave a talk at Hunter College in Manhattan called, "The Language of Science, the Language of Poetry." Hoffmann is a poet with five published volumes of poetry to his credit. He is [a] decent chemist as well, having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981. Here he is after his talk.

Hoffmann: So, I would like to read a poem about quantum mechanics and it's not easy. The poem was initially stimulated by reading Fritzler's letters about entanglement of photons and led me to think about quantum mechanics in general.


Beginnings are always classical.

It's chemistry after all.

To burn, a log needs to be near another.

It's at its most spooky while growing.

What one may see so does the other.

There being no evidence, entanglement falls off with separation.

Mature, it isn't faced by singularities, a theory that can accommodate boundary tensions.

And how will it end, like a love in a world demonstrably falls in the vacuum its place filled by the new.

Steve: That's the poem "Quantum Mechanics" from Roald Hoffmann's collection, Soliton, published in 2002 by Truman State University Press. Here's a short clip from the Q&A session after his actual talk. The sound quality isn't great, but it's still worth hearing. Hoffmann was asked about fuzziness.

Hoffmann: Fuzziness is a sense of there not being one thing, but there being several alternative causes, reasons, motives, contributions, ways of thinking.

Scientists form for simplicity a simple equation [to] be able to approach [it].

Well, that theory is complex and it operates through mostly an evolution, especially operates through fuzziness. So, I think fuzziness is necessary because in ways of thinking about science, if you have these ready definitions and if you cannot explain it with your approach or something, your theory and I'm thinking of something in chemistry like covalent bonding versus ionic bonding of molecules, what ionic is sodium chloride, covalent is what holds organic molecules together apart. If you can't explain what type of bonding is there, you know, that standard and natural human tendency is to push it aside – what you don't understand you don't find interest in – and then very few allow your bonding, your covalent bonding, includes some ionic bonding. You find one set of explanations to [for] one molecule and another set of explanations for another molecules, then you don't worry about the fact that you should have a coherent explanation, and you stretch the definition so that you use one of them to explain the other. It's all very fuzzy and will drive at last us crazy, but it's the way the things proceed.

Steve: Good stuff. For more Roald Hoffmannania, check out his Web site,

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: In a lot of U.S. areas you can't really locate the pipelines carrying fuel oil, natural gas, and chemicals.

Story number 2: Luck breeds like. Kids who have been blessed with some good luck will be better liked by other little kids.

Story number 3: Going fishing three times a week was associated with a decreased risk of dementia.

Story number 4: Brian May, best known as the guitarist from Queen, has a new book out on astronomy.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. Federal maps of various pipelines aren't too reliable. That's according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. Said one surveyor charged with improving the situation, "We have found pipelines a half mile out of position being run by the wrong company and filled with the wrong product."

Story number 2 is true. A study in the journal Psychological Science found that little kids prefer their luckier little comrades. For more, check out the November 15th episode of 60-Second Science called, "Kids Like Lucky Kids" at

Story number 4 is true. Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, coauthored an astronomy book called, Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, that came out in October. May was a grad student in astronomy studying interplanetary dust before he became a star himself with Queen.

All of which means that story number 3 about going fishing three times a week being associated with a lower risk of dementia was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS, because a study in the Archives of Neurology found that eating fish three times a week was what was associated with dementia, or decreased risk for dementia, that is. Of course, if you go fishing three times a week you might be expected to be eating fish three times a week, but in reality we all know that if you go fishing three times a week you are probably eating baloney sandwiches and beer three times a week.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at Check out science video news and actual written news articles at our Web site,, and sample the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this episode include;;;

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