Alexander Wissner-Gross is fascinated by things miniscule. As a 16-year-old in Long Island in 1998, the high school whiz kid shook a box of sand and envisioned the infinitesimal. Where others would see a mass of moving granular particles, he perceived nanowaves — waves on a scale of a billionth of a meter — that could carry billions of carbon molecules and deliver them to specific locations.

His insight caught the attention of leading nanoresearchers because it could lead to the fabrication of pinhead-sized computer circuits that would make the power of today’s supercomputers pale by comparison.

Today a junior at MIT with a triple major — physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering, with a possible minor in biology — Wissner-Gross has since worked on his sandbox insights and developed plausibility arguments and computer simulations that may lead to new frontiers in nanotachnology — a nascent field that focuses on engineering machines, electronic devices, and chemical and biological sensors whose dimensions approach the size of a molecule. With his computer simulations, he has designed, written and successfully tested a novel nanotechnology that applies the physics phenomenon known as patterned granular motion, an area that has created intense scientific excitement in the past 10 years.

For his high school work in the field, Wissner-Gross was awarded 10th place in the prestigious 1999 Intel Science Talent Search, as well as a nanotechnology patent in his name. Such honors were nothing new for Wissner-Gross, who, during high school, had garnered more than 40 major national awards, including first place in the USA Computer Olympiad for student programmers, double wins in the USA Math Talent Search competition in consecutive years, selection as the Lucent Global Science Scholar, and induction into the National Young Inventors Hall of Fame. He also was selected to participate in Mitre Corporation’s elite summer camp for junior scientists, where he hatched his sandbox concepts; more recently, he won the 2001 Intel Research Award for undergraduate students and the National Nanofabrication Users Network 2001 summer research fellowship.

Nanotechnology Center

These days, Wissner-Gross’s passion for nanotechnology includes his involvement in the effort, spearheaded by some MIT engineering faculty, to get the Institute to create an interdisciplinary center of nanotechnology. Such a site “would give students a better opportunity to draw from the interfaces of various fields, which is a hugely promising area.

MIT is tops in every science and engineering field,” he says, “but it would be great if the infrastructure were in place to collaborate on nanotechnology research.” To further this goal, he has helped to devise a sample curriculum and been in discussion with Henry Smith, professor of electrical engineering, Rafael Reif, associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Dick Yue, associate dean of the School of Engineering.

Wishing he could major in more than three disciplines, Wissner-Gross sees nanotechnology as the most promising field for his talents and his desire to leave the world a better place. “One of the wonderful things about science is that it might help us discover the cosmic purpose for being alive. Since no one comes to you when you’re born with a manual of what to do, the next best thing is to try to figure out how everything works and how to make life as good as possible.”

Wissner-Gross’s interest in things miniscule date to his early childhood. “As my parents have pointed out, I had an interest in small things having a large effect since I was small.” He also credits his parents — his mother is a journalist, his father, a corporate lawyer — with sparking his scientific interests: “It’s the exclusion principle,” he explains. “If parents excel in a certain field and gain recognition in it, their children generally want to have nothing to do with it. My chief advantage was having parents who were not famous scientists.”

Opera Star

The same operational principle seems to have held sway with his singing talents, which took a protracted public spotlight at the New York City Opera during Wissner-Gross’s elementary school years. Performing child roles in Carmen and La Boheme until his voice deepened at age 12, Wissner-Gross says the experience was a “blast” and taught him a few lessons. “It was enormously helpful in getting rid of a fear of public speaking” and it primed him for expecting the unexpected. “Everything before was humdrum. The New York City Opera was the first unique and distinguishing thing I had done. Once you get the hang of doing the unexpected, it comes naturally.”

His natural talents and his penchant for the unexpected also led him to fencing, which he took up early in high school. Finding it “exotic and fascinating,” Wissner-Gross was hooked by the sport’s demand for mental acuity. Both fencing and the world of science competitions are a thing of the past for him, however.

Now more focused on nanotechnology, he says, he finds less time to pursue these activities because, “at this point, I’m concentrating on learning enough to hopefully contribute to the next generation of molecular science and engineering.”