Age of nanotechnology: Queen of carbon

Natalie Angier

Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, a professor of physics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walks with a very large carbon footprint, and in her case it's a good thing. For more than half a century, Dresselhaus has studied the fundamental properties of carbonócarbon as graphite, the dark, flaky mineral with which our pencils are pointed, and carbon as liquid, the element with the highest melting point in nature; carbon that is insulator one moment, superconductor the next.

She invented breakthrough techniques for studying individual layers of carbon atoms. She discovered ways to capture the thermal energy of vibrating particles at well-defined "boundaries", and then to use that heat to make electricity. She devised carbon fibres that are stronger than steel at a fraction of steel's weight. Her research helped usher in the age of nanotechnology, the wildly popular effort to downsize electronic circuits, medical devices and a host of other products to molecular dimensions.

Dresselhaus recently won the 2012 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, a $1 million honour that matches the purse size and Scandinavian provenance of a Nobel, if not quite the status. The new award joins a very long list of laurels, among them the National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award, the presidencies of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 28 honorary doctorates and a stint in the Department of Energy under US President Bill Clinton.

Dresselhaus has also been a prominent advocate for women in physics and engineering, disciplines that are still short on high-ranking female faces and that were outright hostile to women when she began her career in the late 1950s. Today, at 81, the woman nicknamed the Queen of Carbon still works long hours in the lab, publishes prolifically, gives talks around the world and plays violin and viola in chamber groups.

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