Nan­otech­nology may be an emerging field of study, but it’s actu­ally been around for a number of cen­turies, said Murray Gibson, founding dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence at North­eastern University.

To make swords, black­smiths would bang away at iron in the pres­ence of coal dust — thereby infusing tiny carbon par­ti­cles into the iron to make the sword tips sharp. “They didn’t know how it worked, but they were doing nan­otech­nology thou­sands of years ago,” Gibson told more than 30 fac­ulty and stu­dents in Frost Lounge last Tuesday for a lec­ture pre­sented by PRISM, the Proac­tive Recruit­ment in Intro­duc­tory Sci­ence and Mathematics.

PRISM is an ini­tia­tive that con­nects North­eastern math­e­mati­cians, physi­cists and biol­o­gists with first– and second-​​year stu­dents who want to learn more about math and sci­ence research-​​related co-​​ops and intern­ships. It was devel­oped by mem­bers of Northeastern’s math and sci­ence fac­ulty and is sup­ported by a five-​​year, $1.98 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foundation.

Nanoscience, Gibson said, is a highly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field best described as a con­ver­gence between the phys­ical and life sci­ences. It revolves around the study of tiny objects. A nanometer, for example, is about the size of 10 atoms, or about how much a fin­ger­nail grows in a second.

Much of the sci­ence is explained in the arrange­ment and pat­tern of atoms on the nanoscale. This arrange­ment, Gibson explained, is what dif­fer­en­ti­ates dia­monds from graphite found in pen­cils. How atoms orga­nize and bond with each other also deter­mines the bril­liant colors in ancient stained-​​glass windows.

Nanoscience even occurs in the kitchen. Ear­lier this semester, stu­dents in Northeastern’s chapter of the Amer­ican Chem­ical Society made ice cream using liquid nitrogen. When liquid nitrogen hits the cream and other ingre­di­ents, it imme­di­ately cre­ates crys­tals, which Gibson said directly relates to how the ice cream tastes.

It’s a very expen­sive way to make ice cream, and only a chemist would think that way,” he joked.

Nan­otech­nology, Gibson noted, may lead to a rev­o­lu­tion in the way things are built — from lighter, stronger air­craft wings to cheap solar cells that can solve the world’s energy prob­lems. He said nan­otech­nology might be used in health care to help detect viruses and deliver drugs.

The answers, Gibson said, lie in studying how nature and evo­lu­tion have already built things from the bottom up, and then trans­lating that knowl­edge into inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, which he said can pro­vide fer­tile ground for col­lab­o­ra­tion and discovery.

North­eastern researchers are already exploring the bound­aries of nan­otech­nology through inno­v­a­tive work across numerous research cen­ters and pro­grams, such as the Nanoscale Sci­ence and Engi­neering Center for High-​​rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing, the Elec­tronic Mate­rials Research Insti­tute, the Center for Trans­la­tional Cancer Nanomed­i­cine and the Inte­gra­tive Grad­uate Edu­ca­tion and Research Trainee­ship pro­gram in nanomed­i­cine.

Gibson said it’s crit­ical for stu­dents inter­ested in pur­suing research to develop exper­tise in a par­tic­ular dis­ci­pline. This, he said, will pro­vide a strong foun­da­tion for designing sci­ence exper­i­ments and posi­tion stu­dents to con­duct inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, which he called a crit­ical com­po­nent in the future of nanotechnology.

The great thing about sci­ence is you’re always dis­cov­ering like you did as a child,” he said.