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It's a small, small, small world

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Remember how proud you felt when you showed everyone you could ride a two-wheeler? That's how proud Krystyn Van Vliet acts as she opens the door to a large stainless-steel instrument at the NanoMechanical Technology Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This is a nano-indenter," says Ms. Van Vliet, a material science graduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Then she points to a tiny, diamond-tipped needle inside. "We take a sample of the new material we are testing and push that diamond into the sample."

If the material is strong, the diamond will hardly break the surface. If it's soft, the tip might poke a hole in it.

Researchers need to know how strong a new material is before they can use it for soldiers' uniforms, computer chips, cars, or airplanes.

But it isn't easy to test a portion of material that is one hundred-thousandth smaller than a strand of your hair. How small is that? It's a billionth of a meter – a nanometer. Samples are so tiny because scientists need to find out how materials behave at that size. Remember, they are building very small structures.

So Van Vliet, fellow graduate student Yoonjoon Choi, and others study new "nanomaterials" in the new NanoLab.

With its floor-to-ceiling glass walls and two projection screens that display nano-structures to passersby on a busy campus hallway, the lab itself is a teaching aid for students. This new science needs to be better known.

"Many people have never heard of 'material science and engineering,' " Van Vliet says. "When I tell people that I am a material scientist, they sometimes assume that I design fabrics." So what does she do? "I study how materials behave," she says.

How do you test something you can't see?

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