Friday, October 31, 2003

Nano on the tube?

Michael Shermer's illuminating idea for a 24/7 "all science all the time" network deserves support. He, along with the widow of Carl Sagan -- who endured near excommunication from the hallowed sanctuaries of science for the sin of sparking curiosity among the unwashed masses -- and others are trying to set up a Cable Science Network. What they're thinking of is a combination CNN and C-SPAN for science. So, along with documentaries and news reports, you'll see congressional hearings on, for example, the nanotechnology bill awaiting approval. I'd subscribe.

Weapons of Nano Destruction

The search for weapons of mass destruction has ended. They're located on Taos Pueblo Native American land in New Mexico. And they're nano-size.

I've covered this piece of news before over here. The difference now, is the European Commission is being asked by an anti-erosion advocacy group to put a halt to new technology that can prevent erosion. Yes, you read that correctly.

But the last sentence in that press release reveals the next phase of the plan to impose a new Dark Age:

    The ETC group is working with partners to draw up an international convention for the evaluation of new technologies, which it hopes to put before the United Nations in 2004.

Next phase: International inspectors?


Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Golems of our Era

Here's a new take on the old thespian question: "What's my motivation?" Actor John Oglevee, who plays the Frankenstein monster in a new stage interpretation of Mary Shelley's nightmare, told "Existential questions surfaced: Are the brain and the soul the same, are they connected? And more: Is nanotechnology a good thing, is it a dangerous thing?"

Something must have been left on the cutting-room floor because the article does not elaborate on what he means. But the nanotechnology connection seems obvious. The Frankenstein story is so timeless, every generation can pump that monster full of fresh cultural blood.

I, too, am a child of Frankenstein. According to literary lore, Shelley dreamed up the beast while operating a pen under the influence of golems -- clay creatures of Jewish legend brought to "life" by rabbis who can master the correct Kabbalistic incantations. The most famous of these legendary beasts was the 17th century Golem of Prague, created out of clay and brought to life with one word, "emet" ("truth"), placed on its forehead by Rabbi Jehudah Loew, of whom I am a descendant.

Each era has had its golems, created by humans yet difficult to control once released into the world. Old Great-Grandpa would not be surprised by my fascination with nanotechnology.


Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Settle a little bet for me

Here we are, through the looking glass, where we ponder the impact of molecular nanotechnology upon the ethical fiber of our society, when we have yet to settle a cosmic bar bet on whether it's possible at all.

Let me explain: The U.S. government is paying for a University of South Carolina effort to study the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. The university is jumping enthusiastically into the project and will examine issues like what exactly our culture thinks of when it pictures "nanotechnology." It's going to hold what sounds like a fascinating conference in March to explore how nanotech images in the movies, visual arts and other media influence public understanding, and they'll look at how "self-replication and cascading effects" (translation: "gray goo") is becoming an immovable feature of that image.

As we saw from early 20th-century images of space travel, reality and popular myth often diverge in entertaining ways. In today's mythology, molecular manufacturing is often given a biological analogy, even though it's more likely that an exponentially growing nanosystem – whose individual components would lack the sophistication of a biological molecule – would be easier to predict and control than any mythical monster we've created.

Great stuff. All worthy of study. One problem. One … big … problem:

We're told that true molecular manufacturing is impossible. That's what eminent scientists have told Congress, anyway, and that's the focus of many spirited debates among the nanorati. The National Science Foundation can't seem to make up its mind, labeling large-scale self-replication "very speculative, more like science fiction," yet also part of its vision for the future.

Do you think it's time to settle the bet?


Play 'Freebird'!



Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Recipe for elephant sandwich

From: Chris Phoenix
Sent: Wednesday, October 01, 2003 9:51 AM
To: Howard Lovy

Sometime in the next few weeks we'll be announcing publication of a big peer-reviewed paper that demonstrates just how easy it is to build a human-scale nanofactory from a single fabricator/assembler. This indicates that MNT may be far more valuable, and happen quite a bit sooner and more abruptly, than most people expect.

From: Howard Lovy
Sent: Wednesday, October 01, 2003 9:55 AM
To: Chris Phoenix

Sounds great! Now, be careful you don't get too detailed on that nanofactory. We don't want it to turn into another "Anarchists' Cookbook," with teenagers building assemblers in their parents' basements!


From: Chris Phoenix
Sent: Wednesday, October 01, 2003 10:52 AM
To: Howard Lovy

The paper is like the recipe for "Elephant sandwich."

1) One elephant
2) Two slices bread...

The paper doesn't say how to build the fabricator, just that once you get one built, bootstrapping the nanofactory isn't too hard -- assuming some serious but straightforward design work has been done in advance.

In most cases, I'm not too worried about spreading information about how to do MNT. Those who have any hope of funding an MNT effort can figure out anything I can. And it's better for the rest of us to know what they could be up to. By the time a fabricator is developed, the stuff I'm writing about will be pretty trivial, and -- like all information -- very hard to keep out of the hands of teenagers.

Eventually, of course, it will be easy for teenagers to bootstrap MNT in the basement. Before that happens, we'd better be ready to deal with it. But much earlier than that, we will have faced another danger that I think is just as bad if not worse: some totalitarian government developing MNT and taking over the world. If I'm right about how quickly MNT (including products) can be developed once a certain level is reached, whoever gets it first will become immensely powerful almost immediately.

Chris Discuss

Monday, October 27, 2003

Bloggers in the dead-tree edition

I apologize for the blog drought. I needed to focus on my other job for a few days -- the one that pays me. The next issue of Small Times Magazine is a great one, though. Blog watchers will want to read new columns from BoingBoing's David Pescovitz and me, plus Glenn Reynolds is recognized for mixing nano in with his instapunditry (not mentioned: he links often to yours truly in nano posts), and our annual Best of Small Tech Awards (here are last year's winners). Small Times will announce the 2003 winners in mid-November.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Journalism from the bottom up

I've been thinking lately about what exactly it is I'm trying to do here, and I've decided, after a brisk walk around this bland office complex, that I'm simply practicing bottom-up journalism -- I suppose a fitting endeavor for a nanotechnology writer. Stay with me, and I'll explain.

I rarely find the time to post messages on other people's blogs, but my fingers seemed to move on their own accord on this Poynter Institute journalism site. I lecture a bit about how gadget-equipped citizens might think themselves journalists by catching a news event on a Webcam and immediately beaming it to their blogs, but there will always be a place for journalists who can skillfully place the event in context through the old-fashioned art of newswriting and storytelling.

I think the cool Michigan air might have knocked a bit of sense into me, because I realized that what I'm doing on this Weblog, and attempting to do at Small Times with very limited success, is experimenting with molecular-level storytelling. That's why you'll see some silly stuff here like pictures of naked men running (see previous post) and other images or analogies that you don't ordinarily find on a science or technology news site. Sometimes, it's just plain silly, but with any luck maybe a few readers can latch onto just one molecule of understanding and be prepared for the next phase of their own self-assembly process.

Serious science writers can legitimately call it kids' stuff, but take a look at the way important science policy issues are being presented right now (including some of the nanotech writing I've pointed out on this site), and you're forced to think that maybe it's time to ... well, start small. The way the public is being "educated" about genetically modified foods, cloning, global warming and the possible dangers of childhood vaccinations (more on that later), is through the mainstream press seeking out extremes on the issues, then giving them both equal weight. The papers and TV news can't really be blamed because it's conflict that will get readers into the story in the first place. I've gone on ad nauseam about that on these pages every time the "gray goo" scenario is given equal time with reality.

But this miscommunication of science is really all my fault.

Well, not mine, specifically, but all of us in science/technology niche media who are so impressed with ourselves and our knowledge that we fail to do our jobs: properly communicate these complex and nuanced ideas to the public, and to the mainstream journalists who read us as they try to get a grasp on the issues before they write about it. The more I learn about how a misunderstanding of basic science has lead to backward laws and misplaced boycotts, the more I see how serious this issue is, and how we are failing in our basic mission to help create an informed citizenry.

During my recent experience at the Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, I spoke to scientists who could accomplish in their sleep more than I was ever able to achieve during my lackluster academic days. So, I usually opened my interviews with a little speech about how I'm probably going to ask dumb and obvious questions, but I want to make sure I understand what they're telling me so I can effectively communicate it to a lay audience. Rather than the reaction that I expected -- a roll of the eyes, and a "who sent this bozo" -- I caught some delighted smiles. These nanotech geniuses love what they're doing so much that they want the entire world to know and understand it, but cannot necessarily communicate it effectively, themselves. Turns out, they love dumb writers like me, as long as they know how to put their ideas in simple terms without oversimplifying.

This kind of storytelling is difficult. The danger of telling a story by assembling one anecdote and analogy on top of another is similar to what I was railing against in my post on the Poynter Institute site: creating a montage of simple snapshots that fails to illuminate the front, the back and the spaces in between.

My father is a Vietnam veteran who served as a surgeon during the TET offensive in 1968. He gets a bit upset when he sees that famous picture of a Viet Cong soldier's summary street execution -- an icon of photojournalism as well as the war. The photographer did not capture what went on just before that scene, when the VC soldier had killed the gunman's family.

That's the kind of internal and external battle I often face as an editor and writer. If you're going to tell the small stories, the human stories, the ones that attempt to form a connection with readers through horror or humor (or attempts at it), the ones that tell a very complicated story by beginning with a human-level connection, then you better make sure you leave no molecule behind.

Despite its flaws, I still find bottom-up preferable to the top-down method of science and technology journalism, where we'll dazzle you with our supposed grasp of the words and concepts, yet utterly fail to communicate.

Yeah, I know, I'm rambling a bit too much off the topic of nanotechnology. But it's my blog, and I'll cry if I want to.


Streaking on ahead


Now that the Foresight Institute is finally getting its props, who's going to inherit the nano-madmen mantle? Even the cult of cryonics is getting a stamp of respectability.

Well, last week, I met Chris Phoenix, half of the dynamic duo that make up the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), and he seems like a very quiet, intelligent man, with not an outward hint of mouth-foaming madness. But I'm sure he and henchman Mike Treder's just-released Systems of Ethics for administration of molecular nanotechnology will evoke little more than an amused chuckle from most of the world's current nanobusinesses.

Like Foresight, which studied the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology a decade before the U.S. government began doling out millions of dollars for the same purpose, CRN is leapfrogging beyond details like the actual invention of nanofactories (even a tabletop model is envisioned in this report), and is cutting directly to the subject for which the government will likely dole out grants a quarter-century from now: a system of principles to guide the way in which governments, businesses and individuals use this powerful technology.

    Development and application of MNT policy cannot be reactive. The problems, individually and collectively, could spiral out of control before today's institutions have time to react. Prior to the advent of MNT, a collaborative international administrative council of some kind will have to be designed and created. However, at worldwide levels, where things move slowly, this might take as long as twenty years. If advanced nanotechnology could arrive within ten or fifteen years, urgent action is called for now.
I believe you, Chris and Mike, but like Will Farrell streaking on ahead in "Old School," (video clip), you should probably look behind you.


Monday, October 20, 2003

Nano 'crackpots' seem downright respectable

In case you missed it, here's my initial report on the Foresight conference.


Nano good, nano bad

I'm back, rested and ready. Amid challenges at the print magazine, I'll follow up here and on with some of the interesting nanopeople and ideas I picked up at Foresight. Be patient with me, as I multitask. Meanwhile, great to see nano is making more inroads into the mainstream media. Just a quick search this evening turned up nano good, nano bad, nano good, nano bad. I love it. The next thing somebody needs to do is create a publication that can be used as a resource for journalists and others who are interested in learning how to transmit complex scientific and policy ideas, nuances and all, to citizens around the world. They'll soon be asked to give their elected representatives some guidance on nanotechnology policy, so I believe they deserve access to information that has so far been hidden to them amid scientific jargon, get-rich nanobusiness propaganda and sky-is-falling scenarios.


Monday, October 13, 2003

Postscript on Foresight

I just filed a report on the weekend's Foresight conference for Small Times, so look for it on on Tuesday. Of course, one story and a few blog entries barely scratch the surface of what I've gained from this gathering, so readers here and at Small Times will continue to see reports based on some of the insights I've collected.

Most importantly for me personally, though, was a chance to meet and have detailed conversations with nanotechnology visionaries Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle. Even those who consider these figures to be far from the mainstream (read tomorrow's Small Times report, and you'll see how this is changing), recognize their influence on a whole generation of nanotechnology's top thinkers.

And Drexler has left me with more than a few things to think about. The author of the 1986 book, "Engines of Creation," considered by many to be the inspirational blueprint for molecular nanotechnology, has granted few interviews to the media these days, just when nanotechnology is entering an important new phase in public consciousness and demand for interviews are high. Based on what he's read in this blog, Drexler decided that he'd grant me an exclusive. He sought me out at this conference, where we had a wide-ranging discussion that I'll ponder on a weeklong vacation amid the woods and cliffs of Big Sur.

The spiritual father of nanotechnology had some surprising things to tell me about the State of the Vision, and about his renewed mission.

See you next week.


Sunday, October 12, 2003

Cave Capitalists

To: 2 grunts & 1 cluck
From: 3 clucks & 2 funny back-of-throat noises
Re: Your invention

We over here in the Land North of the Tar Pits Venture Capital Cave were both amused and inspired by your request of funds for your "wheel" project.

Yes, we certainly believe that perpetuation of our species is linked to a wider range of migration patterns, thus the need for development of faster-than-foot technologies. But while your vision of a future in which humans routinely "ride" upon round things have certainly made for some sensational wall paintings that please our herd very much, we simply cannot provide the capital investment your company requires.

Your project is too high-risk, with little promise of return on investment within five cycles of really hot and really, really cold time periods. Plus, what you're proposing is not simply investment in a technology, but would require massive infrastructure changes that would alter transportation as we know it. A complex system of "paths" would need to be dug into the brush to accommodate the "wheels" and other related inventions you say they would enable ("carts," "bicycles" and – we were especially amused by this concept – "Hummers.")

You tell many fanciful stories about what your technology may someday do, yet this "wheel" concept is still just a theory. I realize your team believes it is close to chiseling a proper shape for such a device, but even if a prototype leaves the laboracave, it would need to undergo a series of tests required by the Herd Council before approval could be granted. And we haven't even mentioned mass-production and standardization.

Also, have you ever even considered the societal and ethical implications of such a "wheel" on our society as a whole? Those things could rip up our hunting and grazing land, and even "roll" out of control, destroying all living things in its path.

We recommend you take your funding proposal to the council's high-risk Advanced Technology Program and see if they'll be willing to dip into the herd's banana fund to pay for these far-fetched ideas.

We also recommend you study a project that our firm has decided to back: 4 Oogs and 5 Funny Sqeaky Noises recently discovered that vertical faster-than-foot travel is possible when one jumps off the rocky ledges that lie between our land and the Tar Pits. Surviving members of his company are confident that further tests will achieve sufficient horizontal escape velocity.

Thank you for contacting us, but please confine your dimwitted ideas to the three or four people who read your "clog" (cave log).


Draped Fish and Jerky's Sons LLC

Saturday, October 11, 2003

and ... action!

Since all the nanoworld's a stage, I'm glad I met David M. Berube yesterday at Foresight. The University of South Carolina debate director and associate professor of speech communication and film is gladly helping his school spend about a million bucks handed out by the government to study the societal implications of nanotechnology.

I plan on talking to him a bit more today, but watch out for a paper he's releasing early next week that looks at ... well, the ethics of handing out money for these ethical studies programs. I like him already.

Oh, and Berube jets off to Texas tomorrow to use his considerable conciliatory powers to help moderate a debate at Rice University's NanoDays 2003 on the Societal, Ethical and Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology. Among the panelists at the Rice event will be Pat Mooney of ETC Group. I'll refrain from more Mooney-bashing here. An influential nanoperson yesterday confirmed for me something that Mooney has said before in other contexts. Does Mooney really believe in a moratorium on all nanotech research? Well ... um ... er ... it sure does attract a lot of attention to ETC, anyway.

... and we are merely players.


Friday, October 10, 2003

Some Foresight Insights

foresightJust attended a venture capital forum at the Foresight Conference, featuring a discussion by some of the top VCs interested in spending money on such a high-risk technology. The panelists were Jim Von Ehr of Zyvex, Alex Wong of Apax, Alan Marty of JP Morgan and Steve Jurvetson of DFJ, one of the earliest investors in nanotech. I'm still going through my notes and I'll have more to say on it later, but here are a couple of quick impressions before I head off to a policy forum in about 15 minutes:

Most nanotech companies are not ready for VC money, so forget about it, and try the government's Advanced Technology Program grants before it falls prey to politics.

Nobody cares if you have a great idea. Build a prototype, then you'll see some VC excitement (if the prototype works, of course).

These money guys will not fund your long-range vision to completely reinvent the felt-tip pen industry (or whatever). Find a near-term business opportunity with an already-existing market and manufacturing technique, then you might get funded to take your vision to the next level.

Wong: "We love product companies."

Jurvetson: "Revenue is all the rage again."

Marty: (I'm paraphrasing here) Don't make a product. Make a product that will become the building block of somebody else's product.

One more thought from Marty: The stuff you're reading the press right now: You know, the nanobots and nano-enhanced weapons and paint that changes color according to your mood, and the cure for cancer and pollution? None of that exists right now, and none of it is being funded by VCs. They're looking at products like nanocoatings that enhance existing products -- not the stuff that inspires social revolution or sensational headlines, but does inspire real money from these guys.

OK. Gotta go.

Wait, one more thing: A nano businessguy arrives late: "I just got here this nanosecond!" Bunch of real nanocards here. Bye for now.


Thursday, October 09, 2003

Punditry by the Bay

Thanks again to Glenn Reynolds for his encouraging words. I'm but a puny nanopundit in your presence.

I was getting a bit stale in my cubicle, so Small Times decided to let me freshen up and air out across the continent in San Francisco, where I'll rub elbow patches with the nanorati at the 11th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.

As my comparitively nanosized brain strains to grow new synapses, I'll be gathering material for Small Times and hope to do a bit of blogging. Send me a note if there's anything you'd like me to ask these greatest minds of the nano generation.


Getting better all the time

Betterhumans is staying true to its name in this report on Northwestern University researcher Chad Mirkin's use of nanoparticles to detect Alzheimer's. I've recently noticed some better original nanotech reporting on I can admit that because there's still nobody who covers this stuff quite like Small Times, which is more of a So, read about Chad Mirkin's business side here.


Risky Business

I just listened to an excellent NPR Morning Edition commentary by David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. He talks about use of the Precautionary Principle in formulating government policy on science, and asks the all-important question of when exactly enough proof exists that a product or technology is safe, and when are we being so safe that we're sorry and risk sacrificing the potential health benefits of genetically modified foods, among other technologies.

Those in time zones west of Michigan might still be able to catch the commentary on the air. If not, NPR usually posts sound clips from Morning Edition later in the day.

If you want to know what an idea as seemingly abstract as the Precautionary Principle might mean to you, or to the nanotech industry, take a look at this news out of Britain. If enough people believe a technology is harmful, why, then it must be true, right?


Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Nanowar across the Taiwan Straits?

An American English teacher in Taiwan sent me this article from the Taipei Times. The teacher writes:

    "Taiwan is using nanotechnology to produce weapons to defend against a possible China attack. I have no idea what kind of weapon can be produced with nanotechnology."
I don't know, either. A great deal of what's been reported so far on nanotech and weapons reads like a comic book. A few applications of MEMS and nanotech saw action in Iraq, but nothing close to Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century.

The Taipei Times article claims China is developing "paralysis warfare." Yikes. Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Lev Navrozov as a crank.


New nano environment/policy papers

I haven't had a chance to review the material thoroughly yet, but the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is in the process of posting a series of papers and video clips on nanotechnology and the environment.

I'm especially interested in this paper (PDF, 398 KB): "Nanotechnology and Regulation: A Case Study Using the Toxic Substances Control Act." It's been argued that existing regulations, with only slight modifications, can be used to regulate nanomaterials. This paper asks the question: "How would an existing regulatory framework, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, apply to nanotechnology?"

Can't wait to read it, and congratulations to the Wilson Center for taking the lead in presenting this scenario. The presentations came out of the center's "Dialogue on Nanotechnology and Federal Regulation" on Oct. 2.


Three R's and an N

Three cheers for members of the Delta Kappa Gamma International Society of Women Educators, who, according to the Waukon Standard of Northeast Iowa, recently discussed "new rules for teachers, current brain research as it pertains to education, and nano-technology."


Come on, Congress, light our fire

Pejman Yousefzadeh, in his Tech Central Station column today, urges Congress to stop treating nanotech legislation "like a secondary issue." He writes:

    Not many people know about nanotech, and some fear that the creation of self-replicating systems might cross certain ethical and security boundaries. Putting aside legislation that affects the development of nanotechnology means putting aside the opportunity to debate the ethical and security issues that accompany nanotech research and development. This leads to an impoverished public debate on the issue of nanotech, and a less informed public -- a state of affairs that is inexcusable given nanotech's tremendous potential to change lives, and change the economy for the better.

Not much I can add to that, except my strong agreement.

If you want more background on pending nanotech legislation and the advisory process, go here and here. For other opinions and predictions on nanotech policy, take a look at these previous posts. If you want to look at a model nanotech policy process that addresses many of Yousefzadeh's concerns, look across the pond.


Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Who will save Silicon Valley?

guvA slower, steady, nanotechnology wave (not a bubble) will help rescue Silicon Valley, nano evangelist and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson told The Sacramento Bee. So, does it matter who wins the governor's office today? Small Times correspondent Michael Fitzgerald reports on some nano nail-biting in the Bay Area.


Monday, October 06, 2003

Unfolding Philly's road map

The Inquirer focused on Philly's nano road map and, like me, found it a bit fuzzy.


The nano-brain barrier

fireIt's amazing to me how the Action Group on EROSION, Technology and Concentration  can come out in immediate opposition to a technology that prevents ... EROSION. Why is the group opposed to a new way of attacking a problem it was created to solve? Because the technology is nanosize, and ETC Group leader Pat Mooney will never fail to jerk his knee against the 'n' word, even if it's being used to advance his own organization's mission.

Mooney is quoted in Sunday's Toronto Star:

    A long-time Canadian advocate for the strict regulation of biotechnology, Mooney says he is worried about an experiment now underway on the fire-ravaged slope of a hill considered sacred by an unidentified First Nations group.

    A U.S. chemical company is treating the slope with a novel nanotech chemical that binds at the atomic level with silicate particles already in the soil, he says. That creates a tight cover over the hill, much like a porous plastic wrap. It is supposed to prevent erosion by rainfall for as long as a year.

    Because the chemical involved is well-known, regulatory agencies have allowed the experiment to go ahead without health or environmental screening, he told a recent gathering here.

    However, principles of nanotechnology show that even the most common elements, such as carbon, act much differently — chemically and physically — at the ultra-small scale. Mooney says in this case the nanoparticles are small enough to pass right through the membrane that normally protects the brain from contaminants in the blood."

    It may be wonderful technology," he says, "but they haven't investigated how it operates at the atomic level."

The "unidentified First Nations group" and the "U.S. chemical company" were both identified by the Albuquerque Journal on Aug. 14, then by Small Times in its Aug. 21 report on Sequoia Pacific Research Co. and the Taos Pueblo Native American tribe. Small Times staff writer Jeff Karoub reported that a July fire scorched more than 5,000 acres of forest and the Bureau of Indian Affairs  selected Sequoia's nanoengineered organic material to drop on 1,400 acres of charred land. The agency hopes the material will bind to the soil to protect it from erosion and stimulate growth. Karoub reported:

    (Sequoia President Richard) Maile said this is the first major application of Sequoia's soil binder, a nanostructured matrix of organic, biodegradable concentrate called SoilSET (PDF, 103 KB). Once the concentrate has been mixed with water, an electrochemical reaction creates an organic binder at the nanoscale, which sticks to soil to retain water. It also reduces runoff and helps germinate seeds.
Karoub also quotes a forest hydrologist at California's Mendocino National Forest, where the product was field-tested in 2002, as saying that the material had done its job of sticking to the soil and preventing erosion before dissolving after one year. He also quotes Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University, as saying that the product "sounds like a very safe application, and probably very good for the field."

For now, I'll take Ausman's word for it over Mooney's, since the CBEN institution is among the leaders in current research into the biological effects of nanomaterials. The issue here is, again, risk vs. benefit. Should the fact that SoilSET -- made up completely of organic material and under no current suspicion of toxicity -- has not been tested specifically for adverse effects through the blood-brain barrier prevent it from going into action in an area where it has proven itself useful: preventing erosion? Is it reasonable to tell the Taos Pueblo Native Americans that technology exists to make your land usable after a devastating forest fire, but you're out of luck? We're not clear yet on how particles behave on the nanoscale, so we still need to test it against a few thousand other scenarios. Call us in a decade or so.

Here's another tactic: Let's make some decisions based on what we do know, rather than what we don't. Here's one thing we know: Texas Tech professor David D. Allen recently demonstrated "no adverse effects" of nanomaterials "on blood-brain barrier baseline parameters." Yes, it's one study of a few varieties of nanoparticles and not by a long shot the final word on the toxicity of nanoparticles. But it is something that the "nanotech is bad for you" crowd lacks: actual scientific data.

What's seems especially surreal to me is the way Mooney and others take the issue of size, the very property that sets nano apart as such a promising technology, and create the impression that this scale is a force to be feared rather than looked upon with hope. Nanoparticles' nanosize is what gives each of them the ability to target individual cells, or clumps of them to cover larger surface areas (and in the case of SoilSET, apparently prevent erosion).

And it's in this breach of the blood-brain barrier that, for me anyway, inspires the most hope. This barrier is one of the human body's final frontiers, beyond which might lie a key to longer life, a way to make drugs more effective or even a cure for Alzheimer's.

But while they're working on that, we'll just have to settle for nanomaterials that restore Native American land that otherwise would have been lost to forest fire.


Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Napster of Nano


I've written before about Tim Harper's efforts to fight not only the perception that nanotechnology will widen the gap between the developing and developed worlds, but also to prevent this "nano divide" from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, his latest idea: Nanotech file sharing.

Harper, chief executive of the nanotech business research firm Cientifica, has been advising smaller nations, from Afghanistan to Israel, that they can develop their own nanotech industries that fit their local needs. While the United States, Japan and European Union might be spending huge amounts of money on nano, it's not a technology to which the developed world can claim exclusive rights, then use to bully or bribe nations with fewer resources. This is where the anti-globalism and environmental movements are in danger of going astray and undermining their own causes -- by mislabeling nanotech as simply the latest technological tool to keep the poor continuously dependent on the rich.

As the Environmental Research Foundation wrote in its August Newsletter:

    The very latest corporate "solution" is nanotechnology, whose advocates assure us that environment-related diseases such as cancer will one day be cured by tiny "nanobots." ... All these new approaches like genes and nanobots share one common feature: they will all increase our dependence on corporate "experts" who will hold our lives in their hands, for which we will, no doubt, be required to pay dearly. (Those who cannot afford to pay are presumably lazy good-for-nothings whom we can profitably allow to expire, preferably somewhere out of public view.)
They're fighting yesterday's battles. Nanotechnology is not nuclear technology, and it's not akin to genetically modified organisms.

First of all, right now, "nanobots" don't exist except in the minds of science fiction writers and unimaginative, unoriginal Weblogging journalists. Harper and others who understand the real potential of nanotech as a great equalizer are telling nations and communities, rich and poor, that the ability to create and manipulate nanoscale materials can be achieved by any local economy and tailored to solve local problems. The big bullies have no secret formula that they can use to play keep-away from the weaker kids.

But there is a problem when it comes to equal access to information. The rich can pay for it, and the poor cannot. This digital divide and economic disparity was not created by nanotechnology, and Harper's company is doing its small part to try to correct it by making nanotechnology white papers, usually fairly costly, available for free. He's started with a group of 15 of them, available for free download here, from fullerenes to quantum dots.

Granted, the availability of free PDF files (a kind of nano Kazaa?) is not exactly forgiveness of Third-World debt, but Tim tells me there will be more information available later, plus I believe the free flow of information and ideas is an encouraging beginning -- and a move that others should emulate.

Here's some of what Harper had to say about it in his latest column:
    While many can afford to pay for technical research and market analysis, many others who have an interest in, or will be affected by, nanotechnology cannot. In the past I have discussed the applications of nanotechnology to the developing world, and how providing solutions to local problems is the best way for developing countries to become a partner in nanotechnology rather than simply a consumer. But if business and government leaders around the world think that nanotechnology is all about tiny robots, confuse it with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or feel that the developed world already has a stranglehold on the technologies, will they feel that it merits further investigation? We are already seeing the application of nanotechnology addressing issues of global concern, such as health, energy and water. We hope that by making these white papers available we can help to stimulate some real progress on these key topics.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Consumer Reports reaches into the nanopants

pantsWRAL-TV in Raleigh, Durham, and Fayetteville, N.C., home state of Nano-Tex's troubled parent company, Burlington Industries, is running a synopsis of a Consumer Reports review of stain-resistant pants (more popularly known simply as "nanopants").

A team of testers slopped all sorts of stuff on Lee Performance Khakis, Dockers Stain Defenders and Eddie Bauer's Nano-Care Chinos. The results? "Coffee beaded up and did not soak in at all." This, of course, conforms with my own far-less scientific study. But if you're careless with spaghetti sauce, grape jelly or vinaigrette salad dressing, the consumer magazine says, you'd better keep the napkin on your lap.

"All in all," the report says, "the stain-resistant pants perform well enough that they might be worth the higher price, especially if you are a little on the sloppy side."

P.S.: Welcome back, Instapundit readers! Here's an update: Stain-resistant pants are so 'last week.' NanoBot buddy David Pescovitz has a column about the nano couture of tomorrow over at Small Times.


Red nano, green nano

The China Daily reports today that its nanotechnology patents have grown to 2,400, or 12 percent of the world's total, making it number three behind the United States and Japan. This news might make Lev Navrozov nervous, but I think it's still premature to start crying Cold War. China is continuing its Great Leapfrog Forward with some wonderful contributions to worldwide nanotech development in medicine, microscopy, research and development, and even partnerships with card-carrying capitalist corporations.


Thursday, October 02, 2003

'Old school' medicine meets the modern

This week's news from the U.S. National Institutes of Health might have been underplayed a bit. The NIH's new roadmap has been called an enabler of "personalized medicine," but it seems to be a bit more than that phrase implies (i.e. designer health care for the rich).

A "molecular library," new organizational structure and streamlined drug discovery process represent an acknowledgment by the NIH that the current system is cumbersome and so ... well, 20th century. The NIH plan is also an official recognition that nanotechnology is really going to revolutionize health care -- from the way doctors communicate with one another to the knowledge and tools available to the patients themselves to, most importantly, the length of time it takes from drug discovery to medications on the market.

But these technologies, themselves, are useless if the structure of the health care system remains "old school," and does not reconfigure itself to take full advantage of the these faster and more accurate methods of developing new drugs, and diagnosing and treating diseases.

The next step: Introduce the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to the 21st century.


Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Do you know where your children are?

You thought New Math was hard? Wait until your kids come home talking nanotech. For parents who are worried that their kids' exposure to nanotechnology will go no further than The Hulk, Invader Zim or Jimmy Neutron (just chill, by the way), the nonprofit National Science & Technology Education Partnership and the NanoBusiness Alliance are getting together to introduce real nanotechnology instruction into K-12 classrooms.

Educators and parents might also want to take a look at what The NanoTechnology Group is doing. The nonprofit education consortium is putting together pilot schools for its "Nano Science Modules" and "Interactive Virtual Nano-Labs," looking at NSF funding proposals and sponsoring a student essay contest.

"We are submitting many proposals this year to get the funding for our education prototypes," says Judith Light Feather, the group's founder and president. "In the meantime, kids are introduced to the negative side of nanotechnology in 'Spiderman' and 'Space Kids II.' I attempt to combat this by putting many educational links on the site specifically to interest kids."

Well, it's certainly a start, anyway. You want to really reach them, though, grab them where they live.


Display this

OLEDIf you were drooling over TechNewsWorld 's roundup of future display technologies and are thirsty for more on the nanotech component, take a look at this and this and at today's Small Times for more on carbon nanotube field emission displays.