The Foresight Institute Feynman Prizes, announced at the 10th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, are given in honor of Richard Feynman, the physicist who sparked interest in manipulating atoms and molecules at the nanometer scale in 1959, during a presentation titled, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom."
A nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles.
Chad Mirkin, a professor of chemistry and director of Northwestern University's Institute for Nanotechnology in Evanston, Ill., won the Feynman Experimental Nanotechnology Prize for his work in using nanoparticles of gold and silver to accurately detect a handful of DNA molecules much more rapidly than current medical tests.
"Nanotechnology is probably the most interdisciplinary field ever created," Mirkin told United Press International. "It requires contributions from experimentalists and theoreticians to really push the cutting edge and propose what might be possible."
Mirkin attributed much of his success to working with several noted theoreticians at Northwestern. "This is a club of 800-pound gorillas in the theoretical world (of nanotech) that can look at what you develop, try to explain what you're seeing and try to push you to look for other things you didn't think of," he said.
Donald Brenner, a professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, won the Feynman Theoretical Nanotechnology Prize for modeling machines made of only a few molecules. Brenner said his interest in the field came from reading descriptions of nanoscale interactions and realizing physical models of the activity were possible.
"(Researchers like me) didn't get into it to make a big change or generate a lot of funding," Brenner said in accepting the award. "I really enjoy the research ... it's kind of like a hobby, like stamp collecting."
Yi Cui, a graduate student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., won the Foresight Institute Distinguished Student Award for his work with nanoscale wires of carbon. By proving silicon atoms can be placed repeatedly and reliably in the nanowires, Cui has shown the carbon structures' electronic properties can be tuned for use in electronic circuits or even as biosensors.
David Pescovitz, writer-in-residence at the University of California-Berkeley's College of Engineering and a columnist with Small Times, a magazine covering nanotech developments, won the Foresight Institute Communication Award for his writing.
"At the intersection (of computers and nanotech) lies our ability to engineer our world from the bottom up, and that pretty much blows my mind every time I think about it," Pescovitz said in accepting the award.
Nanotech's ability to shape the future to meet society's future needs goes beyond altering physical properties and creating new ones, Pescovitz told United Press International after the ceremony.
"In many ways, nanotechnology is attracting young people to the sciences in ways we haven't seen, really, since the space race," Pescovitz said. "The understanding of pure science is necessary for this field, and it is amazing that it can excite a new generation, whether they're scientists already, turn out to be scientists or just want to know more about how our world works."
The conference organizer, the Foresight Institute of Palo Alto, Calif., is a nonprofit organization working to ensure the proper development of nanotech and other emerging applications. The conference's primary sponsors include computer systems manufacturer Sun Microsystems of Santa Clara, Calif., and Zyvex, of Richardson, Texas, a company exploring methods of assembling devices molecule by molecule.
Another conference sponsor, the nonprofit Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in Los Altos, Calif., handed out the first iteration of the IMM Prizes in Computational Nanotechnology. The winners are automatically eligible for next year's Feynman Theoretical Nanotechnology Prize. The IMM Prize for designing a new molecular machine went to a team from the California Institute of Technology, while the IMM Prize for a rendering -- or static illustration -- of a molecular machine went to Carlo Montemagno, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California in Los Angeles.