One of those buzzwords that can be hard to pin down is nanotechnology. So, exactly what is it? For instance, how is it different from conventional physics and chemistry? And specifically, what advantages does it provide for neuroscience and brain research? In fact, a lot is the response.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman, gave the well-known 1959 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” which is typically credited as the source of the original concepts and ideas of nanotechnology.The actual term “nanotechnology” was first used in 1974 by Tokyo University professor Norio Taniguchi. It has had a significant impact on how scientists study and interact with the brain over the past twenty or so years, including the development of novel treatments for neurological disorders. Technology and methods for manipulating and controlling devices and materials at the molecular scale through either physical or chemical methods, or both, are the primary focus of nanotechnology, an interdisciplinary field of science and engineering. This typically takes place between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm).

A billionth of a meter is one nanometer. That is less than a meter by nine orders of magnitude. Or 1/1,000,000,000. That amounts to less than 0.00000004 inches. In contrast, one centimeter is the opposite of two times ten, or one-hundredth of a meter, or two orders of magnitude smaller. One-thousandth of a millimeter, or three orders of magnitude, smaller than a meter. It is hard to naturally get a handle on how little of a unit of estimation a nanometer is.

An illustration that will help you understand the size difference, not at spatial but at temporal scales: A walk from New York City to San Diego usually is not attempted. It would simply take too much time. However, a change of one order of magnitude, or being able to walk ten times faster, would be the same as switching from walking to driving. Let’s say you can walk 3 miles per hour, for instance. You can reach speeds of 60 or 70 miles per hour driving. You could now travel across the nation in a few days. Going from walking to flying requires an increase in speed of two orders of magnitude. You can use it in a matter of hours to travel across the country. It is impossible to achieve three orders of magnitude technologically.It would get you quickly from New York to San Diego. And that is only a difference of three orders of magnitude, or a thousand-fold difference, equivalent to changing from meters to millimeters. If you were to increase your speed by a billionth of a second, just picture how long it would take! Now take that gut feeling and reverse it: Consider a meter, which is simply under a yard, and attempt to envision contracting somewhere near a billion times.