After posting the story about the Discovery Channel's DNA lab for kids, I found a couple of links which strongly suggest what the next phase will be.
Scanning Tunneling Microscopes -- STMs -- are the workhorse devices of exploring the world of the very, very, very small. Using a tiny, sharp, electrically-conductive tip moved over a sample at a very, very, very small distance, STMs can survey the shape and structure of molecules, and be used to produce a map of the sample. Under certain conditions, STMs can even be used to shove molecules and atoms around. Some of the earliest experiments in nano-assembly were carried out with Scanning Tunneling Microscopes. Best of all, they can operate under "normal" conditions -- in the air at room temperature.
So how does one get ahold of such a device? If you have the cash -- $8,000 and up (way up) -- you can just buy one. But what if you want to make one yourself? Well, two different sites will help you do just that.
First up is "Getting Started on Home Brewing an STM" by James Logajan. The essay, from 2002, details just what components you'll need, and where to get them. The description is fairly detailed, and the listing of sources for components should be useful; unfortunately, it doesn't look like Mr. Logajan has actually built one.
Of potentially greater use is the "SXM Project" at the University of Muenster. The Interface Physics Group has actually built one (and is currently working on an Atomic Force Microscope, an even more sophisticated and powerful tool) and provides detailed instructions -- including technical diagrams and CAD files -- to anyone interested in duplicating its efforts.
Both are a bit beyond most people's skills as hardware hackers, and still probably out of the price range for casual enthusiasts. Nonetheless, similar thoughts would have been true about tools for sequencing DNA not too many years ago. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Discovery Channel's toy lineup including a $100 STM for kids sometime around 2009... (via Nanobot)