Sprezzatura is a term from the Italian Renaissance that denotes the art of making the difficult look easy, a kind of non-chalance. Examples are the Mona Lisa or Michael Jordan at work. In science, some extraordinarily difficult experiments are made to look easy when described in a paper. But we are not so easily fooled; we know what went into them.
I have two recent examples in mind.
One is the report that the genome sequence of single bacterial cells can be determined, at least in part. This is being attempted by several other labs, as well, and it is likely that several approaches will become available soon. The one in this report makes use of microfluidics, a fancy way to make test tubes smaller and smaller, each with its own ports for the addition and removal of reactants. The possible uses of such a methodology are open to everyone's imagination.
The second example deals with the fabrication of an ultrasensitive balance capable of measuring the mass of an object in the femtogram range. That's a couple of orders of magnitude smaller than the weight of one E. coli. Their trick is to use an ultraminute cantilever-shaped chamber through which they pump fluids. The chamber with the item to be measured is suspended within a vacuum chamber, a trick which permits measurement of extremely small displacements. How small is extremely small? Single bacteria are no problem, and neither are tiny monolayers of proteins. Again, sit back and let your imagination roam freely – all the questions you could answer with such a device! For a commentary, click here. To offer your own suggestions, post a comment.
Earlier in my life, such feats were in the province of science fiction tales, and even there would have stretched the credulity of the reader.