Published: June 2006
Mark Thiessen

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

The best part of working on this story was working with the scientists. These men and women are engineering at a level that is beyond what most people can comprehend. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and at that level there's a new physics where gravity doesn't play a part at all. The scientists are able to get into an abstract world that they can't see and leverage the physics to develop new products. A lot of these products might not come to market for five to ten years, but the researchers are still working tirelessly. I never ceased to be amazed by these very interesting people and what they do.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I photographed Rick Smalley, a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology and winner of the Nobel Prize. The first time we tried to take his picture, we had to postpone because he was too sick. Rick had been battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for a long time. When he felt better, though, he made it a priority to be available. A month later we made a portrait of him. He was very cooperative as we had him stand in cold water on a cold night without a jacket (pages 118-19 in the June issue). Sadly, Rick died before he could see his picture in the magazine.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Fire-resistant glass is nanotechnology we can see and experiment with. It's two sheets of tempered glass with a thin layer of film between that allows the glass to withstand temperatures up to 1800 degrees F (982 degrees C). Most tempered glass would break at 400 degrees F (204 degrees C).

In National Geographic's photo equipment welding room, we had a model standing on one side of the glass and propane torches firing big flames on the other side (page 112 in the June issue). The sheets of glass would bubble, turn opaque, expand, and swell out, but they wouldn't break. We were a little worried at first, but the model was a pro. Each picture was a ten-second exposure while the glass on the other side of her was painted with flames. The fact that the glass didn't break defied all the laws of physics as we know them. It was a strange thing to see.