Universal Constants: A New Foundation of Measurement    >   Innovate - Get Excited


Read about the dynamic relationship between science and technology in innovation. Looking at advances in measurement, imagine the effect that changes in measurement standards will have on future developments, and engage with related Mini-STEM activities.

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Title of Activity: Synergy

Brief Description: This reading explores the dynamic relationship between science and technology in innovation. Looking at advances in measurement, it helps readers imagine the effect that changes in measurement standards will have on tomorrow’s innovation.

Target Grade Level: Grades 8-12

Discipline or Course: Physical Science

Estimated Time Required: One 45-minute session

Individual / Partner / Group Work: Individual

Key Vocabulary:

  • Synergy
  • Constants
  • Innovation

Teacher Prep:

While there is no specific preparation, it is always most motivational if a reading and discussion like this can evolve from a current event in science.


We often joke about the unanswerable question: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” But beneath the question is a deep fact. Sometimes cause and effect can’t be pulled apart. What we learn and how we learn it are intertwined.

That is especially true of the relationship between science and technology. Science is both a body of knowledge and a way of knowing the world. It is the perpetual search for answers. Some of the answers help us build new tools and those tools put new questions within our reach. To “science” we need tools. That’s technology.

Here’s an example from the history of science. In the 17th[a] century, Anton von Leeuwenhoek ground lenses and used them to discover an entirely new world. The physics of glass was science. The microscope was technology. That technology led to a new science, microbiology. But microscopes also helped us learn more about materials, revealing ways to make new technologies our predecessors would never have imagined. That’s synergy—the idea that two separate ideas or efforts can be more powerful than the sum of their individual strengths.

For more modern examples, check out: Web Link - 20 Things We Wouldn't Have Without Space Travel  

Mini-Stem: The Eyes Have It

We build knowledge through our senses, through direct observation or enhanced by technology.

Think quantitatively about the world that we can see. Build a chart that shows the smallest thing that could be seen with:

  • The naked eye 0.1 mm
  • The eye enhanced by a single lens 0.1 mm
  • A double lens (compound microscope) 500 nanometers
  • An electron microscope 5 microns

Then complete your chart by identifying one phenomenon that can be seen by each technology but not the one above it.[b]

Measurement Makes It Possible

Nowhere is the dynamic relationship between science and technology more clear than in metrology. There is no science without measurement. But the accuracy and precision of those measurements depend almost completely on technology.

When historians look for examples of precise technology, the Egyptian pyramids are almost always on the list. The pyramid at Giza had a 13.1 acre base and was leveled to a precision of a fraction of an inch. Their measurement tools were the cubit rod and a knotted rope 100 cubits long; see {{LINK}} for more[c]. It’s hard to imagine how tools so crude could be so precise.

Mini-Stem: Build It

How accurate was the construction of your school? Use the most sensitive measuring tool you have and measure two sides. (A laser measurement tool from your local hardware is ideal.) Measure those walls with a tape measure too. Using Pythagorean theory, calculate whether the school is “square” using both sets of data.Do the same thing with your home. Is it more “square” than the school? Then develop a hypothesis: Is measurement more accurate in very large structures or very small structures?

The largest building in the world is the Boeing Factory in Everett Washington. It covers 399,480 m2 . That’s where the Boeing 747, 767, 777, and 787 are assembled. What measurement tools would you use to make sure that the construction of a building like this was precise?

Use your answer to suggest a procedure to design a building to house a spaceship assembly building on Mars. Assume the .ship would be twice the size of the 787, so the footprint of the assembly building would be twice as large. What tools would you use to make sure it was square?[d]

Size and Speed

Today some of the tiniest structures are offering the biggest paths to discovery. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, physicists have made nanowires with diameters as small as 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter). Because they can measure them accurately, they can use them to create next-generation solar cell designs. These tiny paths provide a very bright, stable laser light. The nanostructures can be used to make devices that can transmit data at light speed. Read more at: Web Link - "Lasers Rewired": Scientists Find a New Way to Make Nanowire Lasers

A fiber that carries laser light can transmit enormous amounts of data at light speed. It might carry 10,000 phone conversions at the same time. Reducing the size of these fibers to nano-scale could make that sort of data capacity available to the device in your hand. But to make that possible, factories must be able to measure what they produce at a precision of billionths of a meter. How do you make tools that make that sort of precision possible? The same processes that make the fibers themselves.

Innovations on the nanoscale are only possible because multiple labs can use consistent standards and precise measurements to work “together apart.” For more exciting nanoscience innovations, check out: Web Link - 5 Nanoscience Research Projects That Could Deliver Big Results

Tiny Cleaners

Pollutants can do enormous harm at incredibly low concentrations. To remove very low concentrations of pollutants, environmental scientists are developing “nano-sponges.” These structures have the capacity of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pollutants from the land and water. Read more about this research here: Web Link - Scientists Take Key Step Toward Custom-made Nanoscale Chemical Factories

The same lab is using a structure found in bacteria as a model to create chambers for micro-chemical reactions. These structures create spaces to isolate toxic or volatile compounds from the surrounding cell, and carry out other chemical reactions. In this research like countless others, the organism that we observe becomes the tool to develop a new technology to mimic and support organisms.

To test the effectiveness of a new nanotechnology, environmental scientists need to measure extremely small concentrations in ponds around the world. Standardization is the key.

Mini-Stem: Cleaning Up Atrazine

Atrazine, the weed killer that causes developmental damage in amphibians and other species, can damage DNA at a concentration of 0.1 μg/mL. See {{LINK}} to learn about Stanford research on atrazine in Lesson 1.[e] 

There are 215.68 g of atrazine per mole. What is the molarity of the most dilute solution of atrazine that could cause developmental damage?

A farm field allows 100 g of atrazine to leach into a pond that is 100 meters across. Assume the pond is shaped like a half sphere. What is the molarity of atrazine in the water?

Volume of water in pond ~ 262000 cubic meters/262000000 liters[f]

What Will We Measure Tomorrow?

Because we now base our metrology on universal constants, your imagination needn’t be limited by communication methods or the problems of equipment. The sky—nor the molecules in it—won’t limit you.