Bridging the Gaps

Chemist James Tour in his laboratory.

Chemist James Tour in his laboratory. Image courtesy of James Tour.

James Tour of Rice University prays daily for creativity and has imagined tiny Trojan horses, molecule-sized cars, and Girl Scout cookies worth billions—all possible through his work with nanotechnology. This work began even before the word existed. “We were working on a project called molecular electronics long before they were using the term nano,” he says. Since then his 400-plus publications on everything from geology to medicine to physics have been cited so many times that in 2009 he was ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world, based on a survey of citations per publication.

Recently, Tour’s lab has been growing graphene—single sheets of carbon atoms—from everyday items that are carbon based (Girl Scout cookies have been a source). Graphene, with its high electrical conductivity and stronger-than-steel physical properties, is currently worth around $250 per two-inch square. Tour’s group can make it from trash in their lab (including cockroach legs).

In 2005, after almost 10 years of effort, Tour synthesized the first nanocar, research that earned him the title of Innovator of the Year by Small Times Magazine in 2006. His students now work on building and controlling these simple machines. “You can fit 100,000 of them around the circumference of a human hair,” Tour says. Each car is one molecule, but, he adds, “they have fully rotating wheels, axles, motors, and chassis.” Tour’s group now uses light as the fuel; light falling on the molecule spins the motor and drives the car forward.

Nanotechnology has connected many fields and made collaborators out of materials scientists, molecular biologists, and computer scientists. Tour’s own professional titles at Rice show these connections: he is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, as well as a professor of computer science and a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. By bridging gaps between disciplines nanotechnology has invented new fields like nanomedicine. Tour’s research in this area focuses on drugs with a mission to find tumors in the body. His nanoparticle Trojan horses have tumor antigens on their surface and drugs packed inside them. Because of their surface antigens they preferentially attach themselves to a tumor cell and then deliver the drugs to kill the tumor.

The man who studies complex chemical processes and who creates molecular machines believes in a divine creator. Tour admits that he does not understand some of the scientific concepts behind evolution: in fact, he has an open lunch invitation for anyone willing to explain it to him. “It is a rare position in academia to come forth and say this. And there is a cost involved—I’ve paid some prices for it.” Tour does not describe himself as a creationist or an intelligent design proponent. His goal is to bridge the gap; Tour believes that the polarization between different communities further fuels the evolution debate.

Though Tour finished high school in the late 1970s, his habit of bridging disparate areas has taken him back into education. The father of four now interests himself in the successes and failures of science education. Middle school, he believes, is where children are lost. “If I go into my kid’s elementary school and I say, ‘How many of you want to be scientists?’ half the class raises their hands. If I go into a high school and say, ‘How many of you want to be scientists?’ you get one or two nerds raising their hands.” Tour blames in part the required memorization of disjointed masses of information.

A simple comment from his daughter one day provided him with extra incentive. While helping her with high-school chemistry homework, she told him, “I can’t believe you do this for a living.” Tour replied: “This is not what I do—if I had to do that, I wouldn’t be a chemist. What I do is a lot of fun.” To make science education more fun, Tour created SciRave, a project in which core points from science textbooks are transformed into songs for popular video games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. SciRave was tested on students: its lyrics were read out loud to one group of students, while the other played the video-with-music game. The group who played the game remembered the scientific information far better than the group who simply listened to the lyrics being read. Tour is still working to perfect SciRave, but in its current form it is downloadable from his website.

Although Tour is unsure of a few things in both science and Christianity, he has faith in both. Like a kid in a candy store, he lights up with joy when discussing the future possibilities of nanotechnology—transparent computers and completely flexible cell phones, and the fun he had when he shared his research with a Girl Scout troop, while transforming their cookies into carbon cash.

Christy Martin is an editorial intern at Chemical Heritage.