6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair

It's practically dogma in today's technological age that everything has to be smaller. It wasn't too long ago that you needed a backpack to carry your cellphone, and now one can almost fit inside your ear. But the next frontier is all about making things "nano" size -- devices so tiny that they're invisible to the naked eye. And we're telling you, this stuff is going to make the future seriously weird. Already we've got ...

#6. A Hard Drive Made from Only 12 Atoms


Conventionally, researchers make stuff smaller by taking the smallest thing we have already and seeing if they can shrink it a little bit. But IBM decided to just skip to the end and figure out what was the smallest possible thing that they could make work, starting with one goddamn atom. Eventually they wound up with a bit of computer memory storage constructed out of just 12 atoms:

That, or it's a picture of a black light sex toy. Our files aren't labelled especially well.

To put it in context, your iPod can hold around 10,000 songs, give or take. This thing is about a million times denser than an iPod hard drive. So if you equipped an iPod with a bunch of these, you could store around 10 billion songs, assuming that scaling it up to that size wouldn't, we don't know, create a supernova (the dangers of nanotechnology are poorly understood, at least by us). We can say that the researchers were able to stick eight of these together to create one byte of memory, so there's that.

This can store roughly 1/3rd of a nipple.

Otherwise, the only problem (despite the fact that no Chinese sweatshop kids have hands small enough to assemble them) is that right now this thing requires something called a scanning tunneling microscope to operate, which is a device that most people don't have readily on hand. The atoms also have to be kept incredibly cold, or else it opens up a rift in the space-time continuum or something.

Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images
Keeping things cold to avert disaster is a field we have some experience in.

Either way, the experiment shows that data can be stored at a size way, way smaller than science once thought possible, so maybe we're not far from a smartphone so tiny that you could lose it forever with a hard sneeze.

#5. Nanovolcanoes


Don't be alarmed, but researchers at North Carolina State University have successfully created tiny volcanoes. And they want to put them inside your body.

Chih-Hao Chang/North Carolina State University
Was that a pickup line?

See the scale there that shows what 500 nanometers looks like compared to the volcano? Well, an average flea is about 2 million nanometers long. So what we're saying is that an average flea penis would crush that shit like Godzilla.

So what's the point of a tiny little nanovolcano? Fortunately, these aren't mad scientists, and they don't plan on holding the world to ransom with the threat of unleashing a natural disaster inside your intestines. Nanovolcanoes are here to help. Specifically, they're designed to release drugs into your system, instead of horrible, horrible magma. The insides can hold little particles of medicine:

Chih-Hao Chang/North Carolina State University
Tiny amounts of vinegar and baking soda optional.

Nobody likes having to remember to take pills, so why not let a tiny volcanic eruption do all the work for you? By regulating the size of the cavity and the opening at the tip, scientists think they can custom make a volcano that will release a specific, regulated amount of a drug into your body, hopefully without the risk of it going all Mount Vesuvius on your insides.

According to science, the volcanoes are created by shining light through a crystal ball made of synthetic polymer onto nanoparticles that have been placed on a thin film. We're going to have to take their word for it. The only thing we're taking away from this is the image of tiny viruses running screaming as their virus-towns get leveled like a tiny Pompeii.

Chih-Hao Chang/North Carolina State University
If you look really closely, you can see a tiny virus Tommy Lee Jones collecting a paycheck.

#4. LEGO Bricks Made of DNA


As if scientists aren't accused of playing God often enough, the crazy guys at the Wyss Institute at Harvard have gone right ahead and created what might be the building blocks of life. And we do mean building blocks -- what they've basically done is make a LEGO set out of DNA.

Yonggang Ke/Wyss Institute/Harvard University
Don't be fooled by the size: They're still insanely painful to step on.

Using a lot of science that we're hardly qualified to understand, the Wyss team engineered certain types of DNA in certain ways, and they have managed to create a bunch of 25-nanometer cubes that interlock to build bigger DNA structures. If you can't picture 25 nanometers, just pluck a hair from your head. That hair is 4,000 times thicker than one of these blocks.

As for what they could be used for, the scientists are notably vague on that point, and we can probably assume that they did it just to see if they could. But they speculate that the technology mostly has applications in medicine -- theoretically, it could lead to designer drugs that could be driven right to where the body needs them.

Yonggang Ke/Wyss Institute/Harvard University
Nothing says "legitimate medical applications" like tiny LSD sheets.

Aside from this futuristic robo bacteria, there is more to the shape of genetic nanostructures than mere ease of transportation. Enzymes work by integrating and breaking down proteins of a certain shape, for example. These building blocks may allow scientists to restructure the shape of proteins to make them more easily digestible.

Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
"Half our grants came from the Arby's corporation."

Sure, it's not as much fun as building a 1:33 scale model of an X-Wing fighter, but Harvard nerds are much nerdier than the standard nerd.

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