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2017 Issue 3: Science on a small scale

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From the principal: From micro-history to nanotechnology

From the principal: From micro-history to nanotechnology

[leaves and ivy]

Some of you may remember an economics book that became a bestseller in the 1970s, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. Schumacher’s book, and its title, have proved prophetic in ways he couldn’t have imagined over 40 years since his death in 1977. “Small” is in fashion in many spheres of activity and inquiry. In my own discipline, history, scholars have long practised an approach known as ‘micro-history’, seeking an understanding of the past through a detailed, ground-level examination of such things as village life in the 17th century or, even more narrowly, the politics and social assumptions surrounding famous past court cases. Elsewhere in the humanities, art historians and conservators use microscopic means to analyze pieces of art, sometimes to establish authenticity. Linguists study not just languages and texts, but the words, and sounds, that generate both.

The natural sciences have, of course, always been concerned with the small.

  • Chemists and biochemists work with the basic building blocks of matter, atoms and molecules.
  • Microbiologists study viruses and germs.
  • Geneticists focus on the smallest determinant of the shape and structure of life, the gene, both to understand how we work and to identify the genetic causes of diseases and find ways to identify, cure, or eradicate them.
  • Queen’s astrophysicists – ostensibly studying the biggest thing of all, the universe and its contents – do so often through analyzing the smallest types of matter, such as the neutrinos studied by our Particle Astrophysics group.
  • Our computer scientists create ever smaller, and faster, digital processors and even tiny, flexible computers.
  • And our engineers, who also build bridges and roads, set up mines, and construct cities, also now work with the very small, in chemical engineering or engineering chemistry, in electrical and computer engineering, and, increasingly in the emerging area of biomedical engineering where stem cell research connects engineers and medical researchers. Those replacement limbs sported in science fiction by the likes of Luke Skywalker may be closer than that galaxy far, far away; they may be as close as our interdisciplinary Human Mobility Research Centre.

Those replacement limbs sported by the likes of Luke Skywalker may be closer than that galaxy far, far away; they may be as close as our interdisciplinary Human Mobility Research Centre.

[photo of Principal Daniel Woolf]

One of the most exciting developments in recent years is nanotechnology, which extends into a wide variety of traditional disciplines. Kingston and Queen’s are the joint home of NanoFabrication Kingston, a collaborative venture between the university and CMC Microsystems, profiled in this issue of the Review. This facility can build tiny tools for research in engineering, medicine, and physics, and give instruction on how to use them, thereby providing a powerful engine for experiment and innovation. Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find a piece on how our researchers use one of the tiniest and most ephemeral of creatures, the fruit fly, in their research.

Innovation, which has been profiled in these pages a number of times over the past several issues, comes in many forms and in many sizes. Some of it is directly applied and quickly commercializable. A great deal of it occurs in fundamental research, which will often end up having applied outcomes that can’t be anticipated at the start of an experiment. Our students, faculty, and research staff continue to innovate in the natural and human sciences, and many of them have generated spin-off companies, or socially innovative organizations, out of their work. (Think of CleanSlate UV, which cleans cell phones and tablets of infection-causing germs; or Gryllies, which turns crickets into a high-protein food for impoverished countries – just two examples of student startups emerging from the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre.) While “small” is indeed beautiful in many contexts, there is nothing small about our university community’s imagination or its drive to innovate.

Another view of the principal's column, "From micro-history to nanotechnology," which has been engraved on a 2-cm. piece of metal at NanoFabrication Kingston.
[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 3, 2017]