Sunday, June 29, 2014

Self-Assembly: The Science of Things That Put Themselves Together

(Self-Assembly, the science of things that put themselves together.)

Self-Assembly is a sub-field of Nanotechnology, as it is about inducing change at the molecular level to produce desired structures.

Things that put themselves together are already a reality on a small scale. In the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, there are fascinating examples of self-assembly. Here is a link to a set of videos from Ted.com Skylar Tibbits of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT.

Like many of Mankind's inventions, Self-Assembly was inspired by Mother Nature. The engineered self-assembling systems we have, were constructed based on
the same principles and forces that drive self-assembly in Nature.

There is nothing magical about self-assembly. When the right conditions exist, molecules can self-assemble.Self-assembly is when molecules form bonds according to a set of information (instructions or memory). Some of the forces that drive self-assembly are magnetism, capillary action, thermal noise, and the introduction of a catalyst. Examples of self-assembly in Nature: (1) when you blow bubbles in water through a drinking straw, the bubbles will arrange themselves into a pattern (2) When you drop Cheerio breakfast cereal into a bowl of milk, they will arrange themselves into a pattern [see Comic below) (3)Crystals self-assemble into structures of distinct shapes according to their chemical properties (4)polymers of hydrocarbons self-assemble into intricate molecular chains to give us the many types of petrochemicals and plastics.
(5) The Ribosome in our human body cells not only self-assemble but go on to replicate itself.

So the Transformium and Programmable Matter in the Transformer movie are not 100% fantasy.

Self-assembly may also be one of the reasons why random molecules bouncing about, or a primeval soup of gases can form Amino acids and go on to be cells of organic matter.

To explain Self-Assembly to the layman is a difficult task involving lots of math. But I think Saul T. Griffith, one of the pioneers in this field does it best with his Comic illustration of how Cheerio breakfast cereals self-assemble to form patterns in the milk.

As I am an Agnostic, I can't help but very much like the self-assembler's credo, " Nobody put you together. You put yourself together. " 

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