Tag Archives: nature

Size matters

Most of us have a sub-conscious understanding of the forces that control the interaction of objects in the size scale in which we exist, i.e. from millimetres through to metres.  In this size scale gravitational and inertial forces dominate the interactions of bodies.  However, at the size scale that we cannot see, even when we use an optical microscope, the forces that the dominate the behaviour of objects interacting with one another are different.  There was a hint of this change in behaviour observed in our studies of the diffusion of nanoparticles [see ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017], when we found that the movement of nanoparticles less than 100 nanometres in diameter was independent of their size.  Last month we published another article in one of the Nature journals, Scientific Reports, on ‘The influence of inter-particle forces on diffusion at the nanoscale‘, in which we have demonstrated by experiment that Van der Waals forces and electrostatic forces are the dominant forces at the nanoscale.  These forces control the diffusion of nanoparticles as well as surface adhesion, friction and colloid stability.  This finding is significant because the ionic strength of the medium in which the particles are moving will influence the strength of these forces and hence the behaviour of the nanopartices.  Since biological fluids contain ions, this will be important in understanding and predicting the behaviour of nanoparticles in biological applications where they might be used for drug delivery, or have a toxicological impact, depending on their composition.

Van der Waals forces are weak attractive forces between uncharged molecules that are distance dependent.  They are named after a Dutch physicist, Johannes Diderik van der Waals (1837-1923).  Electrostatic forces occur between charged particles or molecules and are usually repulsive with the result that van der Waals and electrostatic forces can balance each other, or not depending on the circumstances.


Giorgi F, Coglitore D, Curran JM, Gilliland D, Macko P, Whelan M, Worth A & Patterson EA, The influence of inter-particle forces on diffusion at the nanoscale, Scientific Reports, 9:12689, 2019.

Coglitore D, Edwardson SP, Macko P, Patterson EA, Whelan MP, Transition from fractional to classical Stokes-Einstein behaviour in simple fluids, Royal Society Open Science, 4:170507, 2017. doi: .

Patterson EA & Whelan MP, Tracking nanoparticles in an optical microscope using caustics. Nanotechnology, 19 (10): 105502, 2009.

Image: from Giorgi et al 2019, figure 1 showing a photograph of a caustic (top) generated by a 50 nm gold nanoparticle in water taken with the optical microscope adjusted for Kohler illumination and closing the condenser field aperture to its minimum following method of Patterson and Whelan with its 2d random walk over a period of 3 seconds superimposed and a plot of the same walk (bottom).

Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter?

 Earth's annual global mean energy budget,  from Kiehl and Trenberth 1997

Earth’s annual global mean energy budget, from Kiehl and Trenberth 1997

The dictionary definition of a system is ‘a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole’. So it is easy to see why ‘systems engineering’ has become ubiquitous: because it is difficult to design anything in engineering that is not some kind of system.  Perhaps the earliest concept of a system in post-industrial revolution engineering is the thermodynamic system, which is a well-defined quantity of matter that can exchange energy with its environment.

Engineers define thermodynamic systems by drawing arbitrary boundaries around ‘quantities of matter’ that are of interest, for instance the contents of a refrigerator or the inside of the cylinder of a diesel engine [see my post entitled ‘Drawing Boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012].  These boundaries can be permeable to matter in which case the system is described as an ‘open system’, as in the case of an diesel engine cylinder into which fuel is injected and exhaust gases ejected. Conversely, the boundary of a ‘closed system’ is impermeable to matter, i.e. the refrigerator with the door closed.  The analysis of a closed system is usually much simpler than for an open one.  In his Gaia theory, James Lovelock proposed that the Earth was a self-regulated complex system.  Is it also a closed thermodynamic system?  It is clear that energy exchange occurs between the Earth and its surroundings as a consequence of solar radiation incident on the Earth (about 342 Watts/square meter) and radiation from the Earth as a consequence of reflection of solar radiation (about 107 Watts/square meter) and its temperature (235 Watts/square meter).  This implies that we can consider the Earth as a thermodynamic system.  The Earth’s gravitation field ensures that nothing much leaves; at the same time the vast of emptiness of space means that collisions with matter happen only very occasionally, so the inward flow of matter to Earth is negligible.  So, perhaps we could approximate Earth as a closed thermodynamic system.

Does it matter?  Yes, I believe so, because it influences how we think about our complex life support system, or spaceship Earth that sustains and protects us, as Max Tegmark describes it in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’.  In a closed system there is finite amount of matter that cannot be replenished, which implies that the Earth’s resources are finite.  However, our current western lifestyle is focused on consumption which is incompatible with a sustainable society in a closed system.  Even the Earth’s energy balance appears to be in equilibrium based on the data in the figure and so we should be careful about massive schemes for renewable energy that might disturb the Gaia.


Kiehl, J.T., and Trenberth, K.E., 1997, Earth’s annual global mean energy budget, Bulletin – American Meteorological Society, 78(2):197-208.

Thess, A., The Entropy Principle – Thermodynamics for the Unsatisfied, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2011.

Tegmark, M., Our Mathematical Universe, Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.