magic

Magic is a convenient word to describe something we don’t understand – or for things we simply don’t want to. And to be perfectly honest, I’m kind of fine with that.

Take nanotechnology. Lately I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the concept of growing nanotubes to use as conduits to improve the performance of traditional integrated circuit chips. I’m also learning how to convert information like sound waves into analog and digital formats. See – I sound smart for typing all that. Now do I understand what nanotubes are and how to grow them? Do I know what a DAC is and how it works? Hell no. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying.

Recently I conducted an interview with a researcher building nanodevices. I tried to capture at least half of the information this individual was telling me about his work. Finally I cut him off somewhere between the theory of Moore’s Law and wafer processing saying, “Look. I’m going to be honest. I am a little slow on the uptake with technology. I just got an iPhone three months ago.”

He smiled and pulled out his phone – a plastic device circa 2004 – and laid it on the table: “So am I.”

I relaxed. Surely this would come to me – this man gets it. But as he began explaining converters and scaling I felt my eyes glazing over. I tried to take notes but really I was at a loss. I’d like to think that the diagrams he gave me will come in handy when writing my piece. I’d like to think that in about a week from now I will suddenly comprehend the physics of it all – perhaps after waking from some dream where I’m donning a bunny suit and safety goggles. (The other kind of bunny suit people.)

The truth is I just don’t think my brain operates that way. And that’s a hard pill to swallow – to consider I might not be cut out for a rigorous life of scientific research. (And all this time I thought I had actually chosen not to pursue that career path.) But I do not understand how you can build something you can’t see or touch. I do not know how a chip smaller than my pinky nail can change the world – or at least the speed of my computer. But you can and it will and I still don’t get how.

My explanation: magic. It just sounds more special that way. It’s cleaner. It’s comprehensive. And it captures the awesome feat that it is without the necessary explanation.

Sometimes the moment something becomes accessible it no longer seems quite as impressive. And I don’t know why that is either. I feel the same way about airplanes, carbon paper and rainbow striped pasta. It just works. So while some call it science, I will continue referring to nanotechnology as magic – at least when my editor isn’t reading. And in a way, I guess it is.

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