Do you have any thoughts on the nano-WMD article? Given the length and timing of these columns as well as the detail I try to devote to them, I usually can't write much on nano controversies, most of which are either:
- a) brush fires that don't lend
themselves well to a detailed 1,000-word analysis
weeks to months after the fact,
b) do not yet have enough quantitative data for me to write an analysis-dense story on, or
c) subjects I've already written on.
In addition to your insights, Howard, I'd be interested in what anyone else in the nanotech community thought of this. Had the possibility of these nano-enabled WMDs occurred yet to any industry or academic nano folks reading this blog? Because it didn't occur to me before I ran across the story.
Charles Q. Choi
Careful what you ask for. You want an honest opinion from the nanotech blogosphere, you're sure to get it from all angles and sides. (Sorry about the headline. Kind of harsh, but I'm not blaming you. As you get more experience and more sources, your nanotech stories will improve. Your letter shows that you possess an intellectual honesty that's rare and precious in our business).
But before I go into my thoughts on your WMD article, let me first tell you that I understand exactly what you're going through as a reporter. As you've already discovered, nanotechnology is still a series of enabling technologies, processes, materials in search of routes inside some real-world products -- no matter whether the product is a weapon or cure. The people who invent these materials might not even know yet how they will eventually find their way into the marketplace.
It was even worse when I started assigning nanotech stories four years ago. Even less of it was on the market, and so what you had were a lot of press releases guessing that someday this nanomaterial or process will be used in medicine, weapons detection or wastewater treatment, or all of the above, or none of the above. So, that leaves the way free for think-tank types to extrapolate, well, pretty much anything they want.
And that brings me to your story. To me, your main source, Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, seems to be another example of a thinker who can take the kernel of what is possible today -- targeted drug delivery -- give it a good shake over the flames and see what issues the Jiffy Pop ... um ... pops up (bad metaphor, but blogging is sometimes stream of consciousness, so I'm not going to backtrack and fix it). That's nothing against theorists, of course -- as regular readers of this blog know, I think theorists play an important role in technology development. However, Pardo-Guerra should have been one of many voices in the story (yes, I do understand time considerations).
Maybe I'm revealing too much of my personal politics here, but frankly I don't even know what is meant by Weapons of Mass Destruction. To me, anything that can kill more than one person is a WMD. And, if you want to get away from theory and delve into current research and products, the biggest developer of WMDs is the U.S. Department of Defense. That is not a political statement. It's simply a statement of fact. You can tag that with your own political ... um ... biomarkers (shit, another bad metaphor), and decide for yourself whether that's good or bad.
The specter of a Dr. Mengele of the nano age turning targeted drug delivery into targeted death delivery (that phrase is for sale, for any headline writer who wants it) is somewhat misleading in that there's no real danger of that happening anytime soon. Chalk that up as somewhere between "buckyballs kill fish" and "gray goo will kill us all."
I'd check out nano-energetics, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and some of the scary-sounding stuff on the U.S. Defense budget. These things can be, and are being, developed right now. And nanotech startups in search of funding are going the military route because -- like the criminal Willie Sutton famously said about banks -- that's where the money is.