Discovery Centre exhibit highlights the small stuff

An up-close look at the wonders of science

- August 10, 2011

Ian Hill, with the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, explores the 'Too Small to See' exhibit. (Danny Abriel photo)
Ian Hill, with the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, explores the 'Too Small to See' exhibit. (Danny Abriel photo)

The Discovery Centre’s latest exhibit, 'Too Small to See,' packs a big punch.

You can zoom in on a butterfly wing and each tiny scale, then dive down even deeper to the molecular level. You can magnify a computer chip 100,000 times. You can walk through a silicon crystal structure and see atoms arranged in amazing repeating patterns. There are hands-on activities to explore on two levels of the downtown science centre.

It’s more than a teensy bit interesting, even for an old nano hat like Ian Hill, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science. His field of research is nanotechnology—creating new electronic materials and devices at the molecular scale, things like transistors, microprocessors, computer chips and batteries.

His main interest is in using nature to help create nanotechnology. Learning from nature, nanotechnology promises ways of making systems that are smaller, lighter, stronger, more efficient, but cheaper to produce. In his lab in the Dunn building, Dr. Hill grows carbon nanotubes—atoms bonded together to form a long, tubelike structures—for solar cell applications.

In the Discovery Centre exhibition, the carbon nano tubes are blown up to the size of tree trunks so visitors can understand their structure. On a recent visit, kids were racing around around them in a exuberant game of hide and seek.

“Right now we’ve got solar walls made of silicon; they’re efficient but still too expensive,” remarks Dr. Hill, who just returned from Princeton University where he spent a sabbatical as a visiting research scientist. “I’m trying to make solar cells efficient enough but much less expensive to produce.”

There wasn’t a Discovery Centre when Dr. Hill was a kid growing up in Dartmouth, but he says play and experimentation are key to getting kids to love science.

'Too Small to See' is presented by Dalhousie University. It will be on display at the Discovery Centre, 1593 Barrington Street, until December. The centre is open daily from 10-5.


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