Sunday, May 15, 2005

What, Prey tell, are you talking about?

I know what they say about people who live in glass houses, and that's why I'm ordinarily reluctant to pick apart the work of other journalists, especially those who are forced by an editor to learn all there is about nanotechnology in one day so they can cover a speech by a visiting lecturer. I feel their pain. So, I hope this writer from the East Valley Tribune will forgive me, but this story perfectly illustrates a few issues I've been thinking about lately.

First of all, somebody on the copy desk should have caught this first sentence right out of the gate: "Nanotechnology is all about small objects — less than 100 microns ..." Yeah, that's correct. Also less than 100 parsecs, kilometers and light years. But if you want to be more precise, go smaller into the nanometer range. Hey, is that why they call it "nanotechnology?"

But that's not really what drew my attention. This did:

    The reason these particles have so much potential is their size and the fact they don’t always follow conventional laws of physics.

    "That’s a double-edged sword," said Michael Moffitt, vice president of environmental services for Western Technologies, a Phoenix consulting firm. Moffitt was speaking to a group at the Semiconductor Environmental, Safety Association convention in Scottsdale last week.

    ... Moffitt says nanotechnology poses a couple of challenges for the cleaning crews. The first is detecting and measuring the hazards. Not that much is known about how some of these particles might interact with living tissue. More here

It's difficult to say whether Moffitt got it wrong or the reporter misunderstood what he said. But this illustrates perfectly a discussion started by Richard Jones at Soft Machines, called The Quantum Bridge of Asses (Apparently, my friend Richard feels the need to compete with me when it comes to important search-engine words. I ran pictures of asses, so he needs to put the word in a headline).

In any case, I've interviewed some of the researchers working on the effect of nanoparticles on living cells, and quantum physics never comes into play. They're not checking to see whether the particle turns into a wave, or whether there's a dead cell in this universe and a live one in a different dimension or any of that craziness that even left Einstein scratching his head and muttering about God not playing dice. No, they're using old-fashioned techniques grounded in classical physics to see what happens when you let a dendrimer or a buckyball loose in your body.

An then, the story kicks me in the ... um ... tushie on the way out with this one:

    Anyway "Prey" is going to be made into a movie. And Moffitt fears this will frame public debate.
I've heard these vague "Prey" movie references ever since the day the book came out. Over the past few years, I even assigned a couple of Tinseltown reporters to find out more about this "film." People who know people who know people say that there's no director and no cast, which means that everybody in the nano business can just calm down for a while. Your worst nightmare will not come true anytime soon. Unless somebody out there has more information on this, let's give the "movie version of 'Prey' is coming soon" stuff a rest.

Goo-be-gone, but keep that cwazy quantum
Love in the Time of Crichton

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