Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The 'Biointelligence Age' really smarts

Smart dust, smart shirts, smart toilets: Some of those Yalees really are smart.


U.K. recognizes importance of perception

Scientists and engineers are talking today with members of the British nanotechnology working group, according to today's progress report. The experts are helping to "define what is meant by nanoscience and nanotechnology" (an argument that could take up the whole day in itself and likely never be resolved), identify specific applications and, probably of most interest to the general public, "start to consider where there might be health, safety and environmental impacts of the technology." The group will also host an Oct. 30 workshop for nongovernmental organizations and will publish the results of both of the meetings.

But what sets the British nanotech advisory process above others, including the United States', is its simultaneous study of public attitudes toward nanotechnology. The group is inviting market research companies to survey "1000-2000 people to establish what is the awareness of nanotechnology amongst members of the public" and to hold "workshops with members of the public to explore their ideas about nanotechnology, and to identify and discuss any potential concerns or questions that might arise." There will also be a monthlong "Web consultation" to allow anyone to (just love the genteel British wording) "engage with the project and inform the working group's thinking."

The British working group should be applauded for recognizing early the importance of public perception -- oftentimes wholly divorced from fact yet just as important a consideration as real science -- when formulating public policy.

The British scientific community has apparently learned from recent history. Its experience with this phenomenon has some rather frightening consequences and implications. I'm working on a Small Times column about this subject and, no, I'm not talking about genetically modified organisms. This is a perception-vs.-reality issue that more directly effects the health of society's most vulnerable, and has even touched me personally. More later.


Water for peace

The International Herald Tribune is noting Israel's new emphasis on nanotechnology not only as a tool of economic recovery, but also of "national importance." I'd probably change that wording to "national survival."

The paper mentions Israel's focus on nanotech for water desalination. Despite the media's almost-complete focus on the religious and nationalist struggles in the Mideast, the Israeli-Arab conflict is also about competition over scarce natural resources such as fresh water.

I'm under no illusions that nanotech could create a true oasis of peace in the Middle East, but it could not hurt for this little-publicized element of the conflict to go away. (My credentials: In a previous journalism incarnation, I was managing editor for JTA, a Jewish news service that covered, among other things, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

Tim Harper of Cientifica told the Herald Tribune that while smaller nations like Israel cannot hope to compete with the U.S., EU and Japan, they can become leaders in specific applications of nanotech by "focusing on solving local issues, water and energy being a case in point."

Here are some of my previous rants on Israel and nanotech, but keep your eyes on Small Times for an upcoming exclusive interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is remaking himself in his golden years from peacemaker to nanotech prophet.


Monday, September 29, 2003

Will Brit buses burn cleaner under the Cerulean sky?

Nanotechnology company Cerulean International is going to try to do to England what it's done to Hong Kong: cut fuel consumption in city buses. Cerulean is a subsidiary of the British nanomaterials company Oxonica. Small Times reported back in 2001 that the company would test its nanoparticle fuel additive on Hong Kong's city buses.

Apparently, the test was a success, although I cannot immediately find any independent confirmation of it. The company says the trial "demonstrated up to 12 percent reduction in fuel consumption," but this June document (PDF, 205 KB) from the World Bank, which helps fund the company through its Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, says Cerulean is "in the process of documenting all of the testing carried out."

The fuel additive is called Envirox, an oxidation catalyst that helps fuel burn cleaner. It's not your father's oxidation catalyst, though, because it doesn't sink to the bottom of your tank and come out as exhaust gunk. That's where the "nano" comes in. As Small Times correspondent Genevieve Oger reported back in 2001, the additive has been chopped down to 5 or 10 nanometers and coated with a fatty acid – small enough to mix with the fuel but big enough to be effective.

British bus company Stagecoach UK has volunteered 1,000 of its buses to go through the full nano treatment and see what happens.

Also watching closely, I'm assuming, will be members of a British nanotechnology working group who are taking a look at the safety of nanoparticles.


Sunday, September 28, 2003

'When Pants Attack'

pantsattackMy 12-year-old link to the nano-generation demanded yesterday that I turn on Nickelodeon and catch an episode of "Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius" called "When Pants Attack."

"There's nano in this episode!"

She was right. In another confluence of fashion fiction and reality, our high-IQ hero decides that picking up and folding his pants is really a waste of time, so he designs "self-folding smart pants" by embedding them with something vaguely called "nanochips" -- yes, "nano" is simply another synonym for anything high-tech.

The pants, of course, have minds of their own and set out to enslave mankind in a self-organizing way ("I'd better stop my pants before they recruit more pants and take over the world") and wacky hijinks ensue, along with a half-hour of pants puns that put even my best (or worst) headlines to shame.

Among the best lines:

Jimmy: "I sense a disturbance in my pants, Ma'am."

Carl: "Hey, Jimmy, can I play with my pants?"
Jimmy: "No, your pants look playful now, but deep down in their pockets,
they are pure evil."

Jimmy (aiming weapon): "Cindy's pants are goin' down"

Cindy: "I've had dreams and plans for my future, and they don't involve living in a land ruled by pants."


Friday, September 26, 2003

Nothing like nano incitement to rouse the masses

It's not very cricket for members of the media to insist on getting in the last word, so I asked Douglas Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, to write a rebuttal to criticism of his organization's July report on nanotechnology. Douglas rose to the task with this well-written commentary I've posted on Small Times.

I've been correctly accused of out-of-proportion obsession over the Greenpeace report, so let me explain why I dwelled on it.

First, the Weblog format allows me to do something that is not always possible at Small Times: React to, and instantly analyze, the increasing media coverage of nanotechnology. This blog is independent and covers a niche that Small Times, as a business-to-business publication, cannot focus on. That's why I've been filling the NanoBot with commentary on broader issues of nanotech perception, ethics and media coverage. These are not issues that Small Times explores in depth, yet I believe that these are areas where nanotechnology could meet a broader audience. The environmental/policy/ethical issues are a kind of "gateway drug" for the curious to seek out more nanotech fixes.

I began this Weblog because I wanted to present some of my thoughts on the larger context behind the ETC Group's anti-nanotechnology activism and the Drexler/Smalley debates. I knew that eventually a higher-profile organization like Greenpeace would weigh in and, in my position as news editor of one of only a few publications that cover nanotechnology, I would have a unique opportunity to help frame the issue. So, part of this site's reason for being was to help guide the debate in a productive way, while also exploiting this transitional moment in media and nanotech history.

I'm in a kind of unique position because, for this brief period of time, nanotechnology is a very hot subject for the mainstream press, and Weblogs are a relatively new phenomenon with a kind of lopsided influence on public debates because they are a quick resource for general-interest reporters who seek instant analysis.

The reaction to the blog was immediate: As soon as it launched, I was fielding calls from newspapers and magazines all over the world -- not only drawing attention to myself, but making more people aware of Small Times. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Reuters, Wired and other publications tell me that they read my blog regularly to get story ideas and to stay abreast of nanotech issues.

Now, I believe, I've done my part to stir things up a bit and arouse the curiosity of the general media and public. In the same way that I believe the ETC Group has been exploiting nanotech to draw attention to its own agenda, I've tried to do the same in picking out a "target of opportunity" like the environmental/policy issue.

By being provocative, I get more of the public engaged, involved or aware of nanotechnology and all its implications -- even if that engagement takes the form of anger against my hair-brained commentaries. Getting citizens all worked up about policy issues and forcing them to clarify their own opinions can only enhance the nanotech debate and shock the industry out of its insularity.

I don't know where Weblogs are headed, or what they will eventually morph into, but right now they're perfect for fomenting an immediate worldwide shouting match on issues both trivial and important. It's in this combination of provocation, anger, emotion and resultant immediate exposure to competing ideas where the Weblog phenomenon can find its home in the general media landscape.


Thursday, September 25, 2003

More small tech mainstreaming

From Nano-Tex to RFID tags, everything you ever wanted to know about emerging small tech without reading Small Times is in this story by Nick Turner. Nice work.


Salt and vinegar moratorium?

An enlightening commentary by Bill Durodié, a senior research fellow at the International Policy Institute, King's College, London, over at Tech Central Station. He comments on proposed European Commission legislation that would require testing, until 2012, of "all existing, unregistered substances." It sounds reasonable, until you look a bit deeper. I'll let Durodié explain:

    But a focus on narrowly political or economic motives misses the broader cultural trend that drives these matters and that will make the debate over chemicals more, rather than less, central in the coming years. That trend is the growing aversion to risk that is now manifest across society as a whole.

    A meeting of science and industry experts recently hosted by the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution in London pointed to some of the more ludicrous consequences of what is being proposed. Salt and vinegar for instance, have been around and in use for quite some time prior to 1981. Under the new proposals, they too would have to be subjected to rigorous testing lest they prove more toxic than we already know, and in order to harmonize procedures. In short, by asking for an across-the-board approach to some 30,000 chemicals, all sense of appropriate prioritization has gone out of the window.

To that, I'd only add that somewhere between recklessness and risk aversion, there needs to be room for reason.

Update: The European Commission is softening the proposed rule.


Wednesday, September 24, 2003

With no malice aforesight

I'm proud to see that Small Times is represented in three out of the four finalists for the 2003 Foresight Institute Prize in Communication. The prize recognizes outstanding journalists or other communicators whose work leads to a better public understanding of molecular nanotechnology or other key emerging technologies with high social or environmental impact. Last year's winner was David Pescovitz, a Small Times correspondent and columnist, co-editor of the unimaginably popular BoingBoing blog and invaluable NanoBot adviser.

This year, Jack Mason's relentless curiosity and dynamic writing style for Small Times and more recently for Salon earned him a finalist position.

Another is Stephan Herrerra, a seasoned veteran writer for Small Times, The Economist and the late Red Herring. In his columns for Small Times and others, Stephan was one of the first writers to slap a dose of reality into nano-euphoria.

Paul Holister and Tim Harper of Cientifica are also finalists. Tim is one of those rare nanotech business leaders and consultants who also slings a pretty mean pen -- an excellent choice by Foresight.

The fourth finalist was me, and while I'm still not certain who nominated me or why, I'm very honored to have my name mentioned alongside these eloquent nanotech communicators.

The winner of the prize will be announced at the 11th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology Oct. 9-12, where I'll be filing Small Times stories, blogging and generally making a nuisance out of myself.


This just in: Holister and Harper were awarded the communications prize "with very little fanfare" during the World Nano-Economic Congress in Washington a few weeks ago. Foresight tells me there will be "a little more fanfare at our conference." The big event, though, will be Foresight's announcement of the coveted Feynman Prize.

News in a Nanosecond

Results of a "nanotechnology" search in Yahoo's new "Products" search engine: Lots of books, few products St. Petersburg's nanorevolutionaries crush the crown jewels This time, my boss sings praises for THE PANTS Lots of reaction to my Crazy Lil Nano post over here, here and here (I'm hoping Blogger gets its act together soon and puts my archives back online) And, finally, the Space Elevator: In this latest flurry of news, you read it here early on, then in other blogs before the New York Times gave the story the green light for journalistic legitimacy, leading to a media elevator-fest Discuss

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

They got some crazy lil nano there

I'm quoted in Monday's Kansas City Star. The report is what is known in journalese as a "localization" of a national or global story. The local angle is NanoScale Materials Inc., of Manhattan, Kan., and its Fast-Act nanomaterials that the company says can neutralize toxic chemicals and biowarfare agents. Reporter Scott Canon sets the local and global scene in a well-written first three paragraphs:

    Ken Klabunde is an explorer in a world only a tad bigger than the atom. He wanders the frontier of nanoscience, where forces like gravity begin to fade before the atomic scale's quantum physics take over. "It's a new realm of matter," said Klabunde, the founder of NanoScale Materials Inc. He hopes to revolutionize industry and maybe make a few bucks along the way. Such is the beauty, and perhaps the peril, of nanotechnology.
Then, in paragraphs that have been repeated like a mantra in news reports around the world, Canon appears to give equal time to the pseudoscience and real science.
    The same scientists who salivate at the most fantastic possibilities sniff danger, too. They wonder whether robots smaller than bacteria will leave a wasteland of "gray goo" as they reproduce and devour all they touch. More realistically, they fear an unleashing of new poisons so small they could slip into the body through your fingertips.
I don't mean to be critical of Canon, whose nanotech reporting was better than most I've seen in the general media. It's simply another illustration of how nanotech's extreme detractors have won a complete victory over the truth. The "gray goo" scenario is almost always used up high in news reports, and sometimes even given equal time with current nanotech reality. The media-savvy ETC Group, Greenpeace and others have so successfully implanted these ideas into the gestalt of mainstream thought that journalists would almost seem to be irresponsible if they did not mention gray goo in the same breath as buckytubes. To Canon's credit, he outlines the arguments against the nightmare scenario, but not until toward the end of the story. Eye-tracking studies by journalism institutes have consistently shown that a minority of readers ever reach that far down in any news report. Again, not the reporter's fault. It's simply the nature of general-interest journalism, and the reason why specialists in any field, from nanotechnology to piano technology, almost always rail against their local newspaper for promoting misconceptions about subjects that they hold dear. My answer to that is that the specialists should relax a bit. News reports pique curiosity, but the truly curious will seek out more specialized information. My quote in the story:
    "With a few exceptions, investors are kind of reluctant to put their money into basically a science project," said Howard Lovy, editor of the nanotech industry journal Small Times. "We're not seeing people scratching a business plan on a napkin and raising a few million bucks."
Canon had asked me whether nanotechnology was attracting a great deal of venture capital investment. My answer was that there is a perception that VCs are rushing to throw money at nanotech, which they see as "the next big thing," when in fact just the opposite is true. There may be a great deal of talk, ink and electrons floating around about nanotech, but except for the brave, most VCs are hanging on to their wallets, having been hoodwinked before by the napkin-scratchers. Discuss

Saturday, September 20, 2003

You say you got a real solution …

tinkertoyNow that some key pieces of the nanotech Tinkertoy set have been dumped out onto the playroom floor, it's time to snap the parts together into airplanes, pirate ships and Ferris wheels. Something like that, in effect, is what University of California, Berkeley professor Arun Majumdar said in Ron Wilson's excellent EE Times piece about a Sept. 17 Stanford University symposium on energy and nanotechnology.

monopolyThe Berkeley professor then threw in his support for the growing list of nanotech scientists and critics alike who want to see this infant industrial revolution grow up to benefit "all humanity," and not just the guys with the top hats and monocles.

"Only about a hundred million people in the world have incomes over $20,000 per year," Wilson quotes Majumdar as saying. "But we direct all of our technology development at this minority, and assure ourselves that the benefit will trickle down to the majority at the bottom, earning less than $2,000 per year. It's time to look at the needs of that majority - with little to spend, but with huge needs and huge numbers."

This echoes a theme espoused, in various ways, by many nanotechnology thought leaders, from Doug Parr of Greenpeace to Tim Harper of CMP Cientifica to Eric Drexler of Foresight. In at least vocalizing the hope that promising new technology will be used for the betterment of mankind rather than the enrichment of a few and the destruction of many, Majumdar joins himself, in spirit, with the likes of Einstein, Oppenheimer and others.

But also remember that these giants of science took to their graves an element of sadness in the circuitous path their life's work had taken between the joy and promise of discovery and ultimate application in the hands of the political and business sectors.

Some world political leaders, at least the democratically elected ones, are currently taking their cues from the fears voiced by their most-vocal constituents and have created forums for economic, ethical and environmental issues to be aired. While nanotech business leaders cannot be characterized with any one sweeping statement, since nanotech itself does not encompass any one business, I have not heard much from them, in words or in deed, that signify that they take seriously the fears of a potential "nanotechnology divide" and environmental impact.

The NanoBusiness Alliance recently formed a safety task force, but this panel came into existence only after the media began paying more attention to these fears. I do hope it's an attempt to take the lead in ensuring that what they are creating is socially responsible, and reassuring the public in a meaningful way, minus dismissive and derisive comments about those who attack nanotech as another tool for the rich.

The nanotech business community should take its own words seriously. Everything is going to change, they say, and everybody will benefit. Yes, We get it. They're not setting out to simply sell more widgets. They're proposing, actually promoting, an incredibly traumatic societal transition. If it is true that nanotechnology is going to shuffle the deck and deal each nation and individual an entirely new hand, then that in itself is reason enough for nanoBUSINESS (yes, my caps) to cool it a bit on the second part of that compound word and explain what exactly is meant by the first and how it will change lives.

Be like our Professor Majumdar, and take the high road.

My criticism of Greenpeace, ETC Group and others is not based on pure disagreement with the spirit of what they are trying to do. It's their methods – use of shoddy pseudoscience that plays to emotion and fear to score political points – that I disagree with. Ultimately, these methods undermine their own agenda because they are seen as unable to transcend the political.

ETC and Greenpeace are easy targets because their biases are so obvious and their conclusions so obviously politically preordained. It's unfortunate that because their methods are so easily mocked and dismissed, so too is their message.

Just gimme some truth.


Friday, September 19, 2003

News in a Nanosecond

First light for one-atom laser

Smalley's iron grid

The European Union's brain trust

And in honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day ...


Thursday, September 18, 2003

Fuzzy Nano Math

Natalie Kostelni of the Philadelphia Business Journal really nailed it in one simple sentence in this report on a recent economic development idea jam session in her city. The idea of a nanotechnology hub was thrown into the pot of proposals. "In the end, one thing was clear -- there are a lot of ambitious ideas but exactly how to turn most of them into reality still seems a bit fuzzy." Bingo. There is a basic assumption that nanotech is going to be a powerful new engine of economic creation, and regions ranging from continents to countries to towns are flinging words and wallets at it, but exactly how and when these benefits will emerge is still unknown. Or, in the words of David Luzzi of the University of Pennsylvania, "It is something that is here and is happening." Perfectly clear? All else is commentary. Discuss

News in a Nanosecond

But are chips really nano?

More nano fear factor

Are 'nanoballs' from Mars proof that we're not alone?

Brush, floss, rinse, spit, nano

Memories made with nano on my mind


Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Swiss miss the mark

First, here's a shameless teaser: There's "booty" at the end of this post.

As I promised at the end of my Kiwi Economics commentary, Swiss correspondent Valerie Thompson's report is up on Small Times today. Valerie writes about how the media in Switzerland, birthplace of the scanning tunneling microscope, are focusing more on claims of nanotech's risks.

Even though much of the recent reporting out of Switzerland repeats, unchallenged, the same old misinformation put out by activists groups, I understand the reasons behind the new focus. I suppose it's the geek version of "if it bleeds, it leads." Nanopollution is a fresh angle, and most general-interest journalists are used to seeking out clear-cut opposing sides to any complicated issue. Now that there are spokesmen for the opposition, look for the general media to fall into this comfortable, lazy format.

One item that came too late to add to Valerie's report is this feature in today's Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper. It leads, predictably, with the environmental issue, but with that out of the way it continues with an informative description of real nanotech research. Valerie points out to me that this is the same newspaper that earlier had run an article that dismissed as unimportant the Swiss invention of the scanning tunneling microscope.

"Interesting, the article is in the Science and Technology section and the journalist seems to be someone who understand physics," Valerie says.

Today's NZZ article includes work being done by Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber. The closest I come to understanding German is a few words of pidgin Yiddish, so I had to run it through the Google translator, which transformed the researcher's name to "Charles dear one." I like that. I think we should all think about the meanings of our names.

More fun with the German-English Google translator: "There the acceptance lies close that that once artificial organisms could be created, which multiply themselves uncontrolled, as this for instance the Science fiction author describes Michael Crichton in its new novel 'booty'."

Don't ask me. I merely did a cut-and-paste.


News in a Nanosecond

Zyvex assembles new partnership

Tubes toughen ceramics

Life sciences take a number, stand in line

Col. Mustard in the kitchen with a pathogen


Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Kiwi Economics

Like a tornado touching down indiscriminately, the nanotech policy debates are now shuffling political trailer parks in New Zealand. The country's Bioethics Council is warning that nanotech could potentially become as polarizing to society as the genetically modified foods controversies. The council called on scientists to "carefully watch international research on its ethical, spiritual and cultural implications," according to a report in the Star-Times of New Zealand. One important thing to note here is that the Bioethics Council concerned itself purely with the impact public perception can have on formation of nanotechnology policy. The implication, of course, is that while public fear may be completely divorced from scientific fact, the fear is no less a potent factor in shaping nanotech regulations and the ability of businesses to sell their products. New Zealand's fledgling nanotechnology industry should pay attention to this debate. Its ability to do businesses could someday be limited by the government. The nano industry could rightly point out that there is no current scientific proof or even suspicion that its products are harmful, but when facts collide with hysteria, guess which usually emerges unscathed? The New Zealand policy debate appears to be textbook, with each side talking slightly past each other: The Greens say it's up to the science community to prove it isn't harmful, scientists say there's an enormous potential for good so leave us alone to develop it, while the politicians calculate which side will earn them the most votes. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Glennda Chui of the San Jose Mercury News filed a report updating the nanotech policy issue in the United States, along with a rundown of how nanotech devices work. Here, as in New Zealand, environmental activists warn of a "regulatory vacuum," while admitting that there have been no scientific studies to back any claim that nanomaterials harm anything. Right now, at least in the United States, reason is winning the day and calls for a moratorium are left on the margins. But regulatory winds can change just as easily as political. As I've noted before, take a look at how the Precautionary Principle is slowly winding its way from the margins to the center. "Do no harm" is a wise creed for every profession, but political expediency could someday produce government mandates to "do nothing." It can happen. It already has. Coming soon in Small Times: The nanotech/policy typhoon makes landfall in Switzerland. Discuss

Time for my close-up

This August pinup looks hot, hot, hot!

Monday, September 15, 2003

News in a Nanosecond

The coolest thing in the universe

Bang, zoom, to the moon!

First thing we do, let's hire all the lawyers

Salaam, Shalom, Peace


For greener planet, remove people; results may vary

From: Robert J. Bradbury
To: Doug Parr
Cc: Howard Lovy
Subject: Greenpeace and HLovy web comments

This is my comment on Doug Parr's comments on Howard Lovy's web log:

You may both want to be aware that Robert Freitas and Landes Bioscience will be releasing Nanomedicine Volume IIA very soon. It is devoted almost entirely to the topic of biocompatibility of nanotechnology. I have reviewed much of it and was also a reviewer for Nanomedicine Volume I.

I would *seriously* doubt that anyone who has not read both of these volumes can comment authoritatively on the biosafety issues of nanotechnology.

I will acknowledge that there are potentially dangerous aspects of nanotechnology -- i.e. the production of fibers of a size smaller than, particularly if stiffer than, asbestos fibers will clearly be dangerous. Some of this Robert Freitas discusses, some of it he says requires further research.

However, any citing of a "strong" version of the "precautionary principle" (I have not read the Greenpeace report, but have read the ETC group report) is completely wrong-headed.

It is absolutely impossible to prove that something is completely safe. For example, to prove the safety of each "drug" (i.e. nanomolecules) produced by extracting them from natural organisms or invented using computer aided drug design one would need to know the complete genomic sequence and genetic mutations for every single human on the planet, potentially every single organism if one goes to the extremes that Greenpeace typically does, and then be able to perform computer simulations of the interactions of those drugs with the products of those genes in those many billions of individuals and species. That cannot be done at this time and not anytime in the near future -- so any proposal regarding a "strong" precautionary principle that delays things like GMO or nanotechnology is essentially passing a death sentence on large numbers of individuals.

Doug (and perhaps Howard) should bear in mind that the annual death count for human beings on the planet is greater than 50 million individuals per year. That is approximately equal to the number of individuals (military and civilian) that died in WWII. It is already reasonably clear that Nanomedicine will eliminate most of those deaths (perhaps > 80-90%).

So for every single year that the ETC Group or Greenpeace delays the development of robust molecular nanotechnology the cost will be nearly the death toll of WWII. And for people who are informed about the technologies it is relatively clear that the deaths will have been unnecessary.

This is the problem of having a focus on the negative side of a technology without also looking at the benefits. For Greenpeace not to have blood on its hands it needs to come out with a very strong statement in support of nanotechnology rather than hiding behind the "precautionary principle."

You two may also want to be aware that the Foresight Institute's Senior Associates group had a meeting last year where individuals got to break off into focus groups. I got to participate in a focus group on environmental topics. The general conclusion that we reached was that the only way to have a really "green" planet Earth was to remove the people from it. This can easily be accomplished using nanotechnology to produce a combination of space elevators and O'Neill type space colonies. That would allow all humans to be removed from the Earth and allow it to return to its natural state. So if Greenpeace is to live up to its name, it seems as if it should be promoting nanotechnology.

In addition, the Earth gets toasted by the sun in a few billion years. The chances of solving that problem (and saving the ecosphere) seem remote using conventional technology. It seems (to me) to be a rather pointless exercise to save the ecosphere now when it is toast in the long run. That problem can be solved but it requires fairly massive engineering capabilities to do so. Those in turn probably require nanotechnology.

So, even though I have not read the Greenpeace report and I am not familiar with the principles on which Greenpeace bases its opinions, I strongly suspect they do not completely understand and have not thought through the implications of robust nanotechnology and what they *really* want to achieve.

Best regards,
Robert Bradbury


What's the frequency, Greenpeace?

Open the channels.

The Straits Story

Malaysia's New Straights Times, one of the oldest papers in the world (founded July 15, 1845, the site says, has witnessed "the age of the bullock cart to the cyber age of the new century. It has seen two world wars, the fall of colonialism, the rise of nationalism and the upheavals of societies and the birth of nations." Sounds like the paper's institutional memory is alive and well as this story places nanotech in its historic context and recognizes it for what it is: technology's "next level" that has the potential to create the next series of societal upheavals. The article concludes: "So as we celebrate the move into the next level of technology, we must also take full cognizance of the fact that there are downsides that must be appropriate handled. This too needs broad public airing right from the start." Wise words from witnesses to history. Discuss

Saturday, September 13, 2003

News in a Nanosecond

Making light of buckyballs

Well, a home DNA test seems quite Handy

Alcor comes in from the cold

More caution against precaution

I quantumplate, therefore I am

The first royal nano progress report


Peres shows up, schmoozes

One of the organizers of the recent World Nano Economic Congress in Washington, D.C., tells me it's a "pity" there was a rumor circulating that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres had canceled his appearance. "I don't know how such a rumor got started and what would motivate anyone to say it since there was never any doubts about his participation," said Conference Director Dexter Johnson. He said Peres met one-on-one with a number of speakers, including: Goran Lindahl, a board member of Sony, DuPont and Ericsson as well as special adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; David Tennenhouse of Intel; and Richard Smalley of Rice University. Discuss

Give me the business

I'm in the process of planning a special issue of Small Times magazine that focuses purely on business. Small Tech Business 101 will be a kind of "so you want to run a nano business" how-to guide. I want to avoid the usual business-guide cliches and useless boxes filled with obvious tips. I'd like to give useful nanotech, MEMS and microsystems business information tailored toward entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, consultants, students, average folks who are interested and, yes, I guess even lawyers. You don't need to be a businessperson, yourself, to have thoughts on this, but I'd like to know what the die-hard nanotech fanatics who read this blog would like to see in a special-issue magazine like this. What would make a nanotech business guide useful for you? Click on the discussion link below, and you can tell me where to go ... with the guide, that is. Discuss

Friday, September 12, 2003

Self-Assembled News

Nanotubes bid for star billing on big screens

Chinese nano plot for world domination?

Nano needles, and no damage done

Chemists unite to make a better living

RPI is NSEC with NSF dough-re-mi

Thai a nano ribbon


Thursday, September 11, 2003

Collecting nano impressions

The Center for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Columbia University has a bare-bones online nanotechnology database. Why is this nanotech Web site different from all others? Well, it isn't. Yet. But if the group follows through on its promise, it could be one of the few information sources devoted specifically to "society’s perceptions of nanotech."

Other nanotech sites, the group argues, "does not concern itself with what the outside world thinks. An outside-looking-in perspective is … not currently available anywhere."

You know, I was beginning to think that I was the only one screaming and ranting and raving that perception is just as important as reality when it comes to emotional public policy issues that deal with the unknown. I'm glad to read that others are just as crazy as I am.


'Science for peace'

Shimon Peres, speaking at a nanotech conference in Washington: "In the Middle East, land for peace is wrong. It should be science for peace." For more background on why the former Israeli prime minister and Nobel laureate is interested in nanotech, read my previous posts. Discuss

Nanotech policy predictions: Part II

Here's another interview excerpt from my reporter's notebook, asking nano-prognosticators to predict what is likely to happen next in the nanotech/policy debates. The first excerpt can be seen here. This next conversation is with Rocky Rawstern, editor of Nanotechnology Now, and a Foresight Institute senior associate.

Rocky recently released a set of enlightening interviews with nanotechnology policy experts in his premium newsletter, including U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., a co-sponsor of nanotech legislation; Neil Gordon, president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance; Tim Harper, founder of CMP Cientifica; Ottilia Saxl of the U.K.'s Institute of Nanotechnology; Bo Varga, founding sponsor of nanoSIG and many others. It's definitely a worthwhile read.

Here's some of my chat with him:

Me: Do you think a system of self-regulation is going to emerge?

Rocky: Yes, and it will likely be based on existing frameworks, such as that for biotech. However, building a system that promotes openness and cooperation will need to be anchored by a much greater understanding (by our elected leaders) of the potential of nanoscale science and technology. Right now we have less than 10 such leaders here in the U.S. who have that understanding – the individuals sponsoring the current legislative efforts (S.189 and HR766).

Optimism? Unanimous optimism from all whom I interviewed, and from everyone I have spoken with in the past year. The only cloud that I have seen is in regards to military uses of nanotech, and the possible suppression of the technologies behind it. Something we need to be aware of, as usual.

Me: Will the recent media attention to nanotech increase the likelihood of some form of regulation in the U.S.?

Rocky: It could certainly play a role, just as it has (and is doing) with stem cell research here in the U.S. (while other countries forge ahead, and will likely develop new medical applications far in advance of us).

Me: Will it become as controversial as stem cell research or cloning?

Rocky: Possibly, and growing more likely as our media hype both the up- and down-sides to nanotech. Getting the nanoboosters together with the anti-techies and modern day Luddites may play a key part in keeping the debate sane. Recently I connected author Bill Atkinson and CRN Director of Research Chris Phoenix - the result of which has been an ongoing debate, which can be seen here. The upshot of this debate is that regardless of their starting mindset, getting the parties to the table, and having them engage in reasoned dialog, we may stem the tide of hype, which will ease the minds of the general public, which will keep our elected leaders from being painted into a corner when it comes time to create (or not create) regulations to govern nanotech.


The Disnification of Science

"The Black Hole" and babies' universes over at Nanodot.

Self-assembled News

Nano, you give me fever UCLA, Raytheon to make beautiful biosensors together ... ... while NIST makes a smart one ... ... and Ohio State finds a way to give them more muscle Spin control recycles cellulose into water and air filters The walls are glowing and talking, man Discuss

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Off Topic

My first daughter was born on Sept. 11, 1991. Absolutely no subsequent event will ever take the joy of this date away from me.

The goal is elevation

Arthur C. Clarke is going to lend his vision to an upcoming Santa Fe, N.M., event on the Space Elevator. Yes, the Space Elevator, a cable to the stars featured in some of Arthur C.'s stories. Nanotubes are going to give us the lift.

Sci-fi aside, there's real research going on here. Scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas have created fibers that are 20 times tougher than steel wire and got them to clump and fall in line. Also, the idea was given a "conceivable" stamp of approval in a recent German government report (PDF) on space nanotech, a NASA division is working on it and a company called Liftport is at least getting some publicity over the idea (T-minus 5420 days, 9 hours, 43 minutes, 49 seconds until the April 12, 2008 "Lift," according to the Bremerton, Wash., company.

Before you dismiss the notion as more nano silliness (a la "Jake 2.0"), remember that it was Arthur C. Clarke who, in 1945, wrote a preposterous story in which extraterrestrial relays enabled instant worldwide communications. Today, some of you are reading this Weblog using satellite-enabled Internet connections.

My luck, I'll be on the one with the kid who pushes the buttons for every floor.


Why Joy doesn't need Sun Nanomix, DuPont partner for nanotube b**b tubes Nano titatium dioxide helps nature clean itself up ... somehow Sticky bacteria under the microscope Discuss

Nanotech Policy Predictions

I recently asked a few nano-contemplators what they thought was going to happen next on the nanotech policy front. I incorporated some of their ideas in my last Small Times column, but I spent so much space spouting my own opinions that some of their best ideas were left on the cutting-room floor. So, here are excerpts from a couple of them in response to a few of my questions. I'll post more of these later, too.


Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston

Me: Do you think a system of self-regulation (along the lines of the Foresight Guidelines) is going to emerge?

Kevin: Probably, though not because of any sense of need. The nanotech community isn't working on the kinds of things that the Foresight Guidelines is trying to protect against, so the community isn't particularly feeling threatened by any such self-regulation, and I have heard discussions of trying to adopt such a system to forestall public concerns.

On the more tangible points of nanomaterial health and safety, we are already seeing positive signs among the research and business communities as business plans, research directions, and funding decisions are all being modified to address these issues. The general consensus (although I am not an expert myself) seems to be that existing regulations pretty-much cover nanomaterials, if the interpretation of these regulations is appropriately handled, and all interested parties are trying to make sure that appropriate precidents are set in such applications of existing regulations.

Me: Is there any consensus yet in the nanotech research and business community? Optimism? Pessimism?

Kevin: Not really. Some (typically the large and medium-sized companies) view this as simply a standard storm to be weathered in the development of new products and technologies. Many smaller companies are worried that nanotechnology as a whole will get tarred by any individual negitive results, even if those results are obviously specific to a particular material rather than an larger class of materials.

Me: Will the recent media attention to what is unknown about nanotech increase the likelihood of some form of U.S. or European regulation being pushed through quickly?

Kevin: I would say that the liklihood in the U.S. is rather low, as environmental regulation here tends to be reactive rather than proactive. Europe has a different tradition in this regard.

Me: Do you have any predictions for what's going to happen in the next couple of months - with the nanotech bill coming up for a vote, the European Parliament paying more attention to nanotech, and advisory groups in the U.S. and U.K. set to meet?

Kevin: I think that the policy-makers, at least in the U.S., will continue to say things along the lines of, "It's hard to regulate an industry until there is an industry to regulate." I think that industry will continue its recent trend to support research to get ahead of the curve in determining health and environmental impacts, largely because its good business to do so. I think that academic researchers will begin to take advantage of the newly available funds for health and environmental impacts research, and that papers of varying quality will begin to get published, to much public fanfare.


Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute:

I have no special insights to offer regarding views in the community or the likely output of the political process, but I think there is a simple, natural message that could influence both.

In brief: 1) Today's nanotechnology is a collection of incremental advances along multiple scientific and technological frontiers, hence existing laws and regulations should either already fit or be easily adapted.

(For example, Intel is already shipping nanotechnology in its standard chips, but this doesn't call for new legislation. Nanoparticles have existed since the dawn of the universe, and treating new nanoparticles as new materials from a toxicology standpoint is a case where the regulatory framework needs a modest extension.)

2) A revolutionary nanotechnology based on molecular machine systems is on the way, but its practical reality is many years away, hence new laws and regulations would be premature. (For example, what I discussed in Engines of Creation and Bill Joy wrote about in Wired will not be a practical reality until after a major systems engineering develops molecular machine systems that are themselves able to build complex products. To regulate such things today would be like regulating Moon bases after some experiments with rocketry but before launching the first satellite.)

The key is to clarify the distinction between long-term and short-term, and to point out that the real revolution is still distant. The best way to engage with calls for a regulatory response is to focus on areas such as nanoparticle toxicology, where existing rules fail to recognize what is different (for better or worse) about the new nanomaterials. The aim should be to extend a regulatory framework that already co-exists with thriving industries, such as fine chemicals.


Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Shanghai Nano

NanoOpto sees 7 mill

What do you want from nanotubes? Quantum cryptography

Siemens chief: Old Europe needs an upgrade

Please don't let nano be misunderstood

Bacterial sugar buzz


Oh the Humanities!

Is the study of ethics the new nano gold rush?

When the National Science Foundation announced two grants late last month to ponder nanotech's impact on society, I turned to Chris MacDonald for some 5-cent philosophical help. Chris is a philosopher and ethicist at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I suppose a great deal of time spent trudging through the tundra would turn anyone's contemplations to the ultimate good or evil inherent in tiny particles that have the potential to self-assemble into a giant mess.

The cold has thankfully not kept Chris' brain in a state of cryonic stasis. He has an insightful collection of nanotech ethics articles on his ethicsweb site.

Not wanting to risk any unethical editing, I decided to post an unfiltered look at what Chris had to say about the topic in an e-mail exchange.

Chris: Seems odd that they’ve chosen to give out just 2 grants, grants that are HUGE by the standards of research in the humanities & social scientists. NSF may be under the misapprehension that ethics/social implications is like the genome project. Unfortunately, I doubt that 2 big, individual research projects will make as much progress as 20 smaller ones would have. Projects on ethics work by generating discussion, which you can’t do with just 2 grantees. Oh, well…I guess it’s better than not funding ANYTHING.

Me: Yes, we were discussing something similar at the office here. There's a perception that the business community - especially in chemicals – sees that there is government money to be had if only they redefine what they do as "nano." The more cynical among us are wondering whether philosophy and social sciences departments in colleges and universities across the country are now putting together their own panels to study the societal and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology in the hopes of government funding. Is that where the money is in your field?

Chris: Up til now, the money’s been in biotech/genetics. Philosophers & others in the social sciences have been handed multi-million dollar grants (and smaller ones, too, of course) to look at social, ethical, & legal implications of biotech. And yes, I suspect that now that nano is coming to the fore, at least some people in ethics etc. will shift their research in that direction in hopes of finding funding. But there’s also a less cynical angle: you go where the funding is, because that’s (often) where the action is; that’s where interesting, cutting-edge stuff is happening. Nano is an interesting & important topic, independent of whether it’s getting funded. But it doesn’t hurt to know that one’s newest interest happens to be attracting funding…"


Monday, September 08, 2003

Nanowax Poetic


If you're simultaneously a nanogeek and a sportsman, you can have fun with e-cards and spread nanonews to the skiier in your life at this site. Just hit the "fun" button. The e-card promotes Cerax Nanowax from Holmenkol Sport-Technologies, a joint venture between German chemicals concern LOBA and Nanogate Technologies.

The high-performance, long-lasting ski wax. is a composite nanocoating, made mostly of alcohol and sand. It's called a “self-organizing structure” because it contains both adhesive and anti-adhesive properties that organize themselves within the material. The adhesive particles naturally move toward the surface on which the coating must stick, while the anti-adhesive nanoparticles move toward the air – preventing dirt and grease from attaching themselves to the ultra-thin protective film.

Nanoparticles with binding qualities keep the outside and inside layers of film together, much like the white part of an Oreo keeps the cookie together. The end result creates a surface that is both hydrophobic and oleophobic – meaning that water and oil slide off, just like water slides off the feathers of a duck.

If you don't care about that, though, just have fun with the little ski guy in the flash movie.


Quantum Dockers

I just love these targeted Google ads. My general nanotech discussion page hosts not only lively debate on the issues, but also will sell you everything from quantum dots to JCPenney Dockers. Another illustration of the range of industries (or at least key words) touched by nanotech. Discuss

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Rebuttal from Greenpeace's scientific adviser

From: Doug Parr
Sent: Tue 9/2/2003 7:01 AM
To: Howard Lovy
Subject: Yr Small Times piece

Dear Howard Lovy,

I was a little surprised by your piece of 29 August because whilst the tone of your coverage of our report in your blog was sceptical it wasn't hostile (unlike some of the commentary in the Small Times article on the Greenpeace report! - still they said it). Indeed others have generally been quite positive about it - Glenn Reynolds, Tim Harper, Dick Smith at Alternative Futures (expressed privately but he's prepared to say so to others) and Chris Phoenix at CRN are the ones I know about. The reason New Scientist magazine was prepared to run a comment piece from me (don't know if you've seen that - let me know) was because they recognised that it was a balanced appraisal and survey of where things were at.

The specific issue around nanoparticles actually 'looks' very similar to other policy issues where we have some experience, and can act as models for the appropriate balance of innovation and safety. Specifically a new proposed law on chemicals places the onus much more on the manufacturer to provide evidence for (not proof because we know that's impossible) of absence of hazard. The importance of this is that it shifts where the onus lies for producing evidence lies in the face of scientific uncertainty. It explicitly recognises the precautionary principle - now a tenet of international law in a variety of fora.

Greenpeace has not called for a ban on nanoparticles but a moratorium until the hazards are characterised & understood. This is pretty much in line with proposed EU regulations and a host of international risk assessment processes with the proviso that hazard characterisation is properly achieved.

I'm not quite sure how this approach is "a masterful dumb show of alchemy and melodramatic cries", which seems to me to be exactly the sort of knee-jerk reaction you're railing against.

Dr. Douglas Parr
Chief Scientific Adviser
Greenpeace UK

From: Howard Lovy
Sent: Sat 9/6/2003 7:11 PM
To: Doug Parr
Subject: RE: Yr Small Times piece

Hello, Doug,

I'm glad you regard my previous commentaries on my Weblog as skeptical, rather than hostile. It's a line I am very careful not to cross. Part of my role as a journalist is to be skeptical (they taught me in journalism school years and years ago: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.") But hostility is never productive. I'm afraid that perhaps my "dumb show" comment was misconstrued as hostile. After talking to some friends and colleagues, I wish I could go back and reword the "dumb show" sentence. It's a relic of a phrase, used by Shakespeare I think, to describe a melodramatic pantomime. The point I was trying to get across was that exaggeration, or illustration of extreme worst-case scenarios, was being used to get the public's attention. Of course, we can disagree about that, and it's all part of honorable discourse, but I think some might have misinterpreted the sentence -- with the outdated phrase -- as name-calling on my part. I hope you did not take it that way, and if you did, I do apologize for my poor choice of phrases.

I've read the other articles you mention -- by Glenn Reynolds, Tim Harper and the folks at CRN. In fact, I asked Chris Phoenix and Mark Treder to write a condensed version for Small Times and it's up on smalltimes.com now. I do, however, still stand behind my statements on the key differences I see between nanotechnology and previous policy issues in which Greenpeace has been active. I also am a believer in use of the Precautionary Principle when it's appropriate, but still argue that it's not yet time to invoke it against the various industries that are delving into nanotechnology. I won't repeat my arguments here, but if you've been reading my blog (and I'm glad to read that you have!) you likely already know them.

I have also been careful -- unlike other members of the media -- not to state or imply that Greenpeace has gone the route of ETC Group in its call for a nanotechnology moratorium, and your organization should be commended for stopping short of taking that step. In fact, I probably need to make it clearer on my Weblog that I believe Greenpeace and ETC should be commended in general for doing more in the past few months to spark interest in nanotechnology among the general public and activist community than any previous group, publication or individual since Eric Drexler published "Engines of Creation." I'm certain that media coverage of the ongoing debate over the future of nanotechnology -- sparked by your report and others -- has inspired many to seek more information. That's why I look forward to covering this issue in depth in both my roles as Small Times news editor and independent commentator.

It's also long been my policy never to try to get the last word in. I'd welcome a rebuttal to my commentary and to run it in the next issue of Small Times magazine (where my column also appeared). It could be a letter to the editor or a longer column -- whichever you choose. If you don't have the time to do that, I could run your letter below in the next issue.

Thanks again for your note, and I look forward to speaking to you further about these important issues.

All the best,

Howard Lovy

Friday, September 05, 2003

Can't You Hear MNT Knocking

stickyAgain, Rick Smalley's "fat fingers" and "sticky fingers" are being given the finger. The father of fullerenes is being hammered a great deal these days by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, and Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (with an influence growing well out of proportion to its two-man operation) make a convincing case for its arrival even earlier than Greenpeace predicted.

Smalley has been accused of creating a "straw Eric Drexler" to place in the stockade for public ridicule, force to sign a confession that the "Prey" scenario is only fiction, then sentence to death for disobeying the laws of physics. Phoenix and Treder are the latest in a line of Drexlerites who seek to tear apart the straw man, finger by finger. Smalley says that a hypothetical manipulator would be too fat and sticky to rearrange atoms. Smalley's critics say that a mechanochemical toolbox would do the job without any need for overweight or oily appendages.

The point of all this? Smalley says gray goo is silly science fiction. Drexler says it's a long, long way off, but is indeed physically possible. Both will have long since decomposed into atoms in the generations it will take to find out who wins the argument. So today's fight is really about two things: Addressing current fears and establishing historical legacies.

The CRN says a limited form of molecular nanotechnology is not only science fact, but it's a coming attraction that needs to be addressed by us today – not by our great-grandkids.

"Some hazards of LMNT may require cooperative international response; such problems, perhaps as little as a decade away, need attention today."

That's why I love my job. Wild Horses couldn't drag me away.


"Eu estou usando calças-nano neste exato momento"

Like gray goo, the new millennium's catch phrase spreads around the globe.

Chip off the ol' blog!

That's my kid!

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Pumping Nano Iron

Here's further evidence of the corporate/government conspiracy to fool the public into believing that nanotechnology can help scare away the ghosts of irresponsibility's past. Nanoscale iron powder can clean Superfund sites and purify contaminated ground water? Don't believe it. File it away under this lie and that lie. We all know that nanoscale oxides are really part of a massive conspiracy to use women as human guinea pigs. Discuss

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Nanoclass warfare dispatch

This just in on Pat Mooney and the ETC Group. I wrote last week that the group plans to increase its anti-nanotech activism at various forums around the world, including a talk at a London event, "Small is Dangerous: The Threat of Nanotechnology." Mooney came through, delivering his usual spiel on how nanotech is the tool of the wealthy and will widen the "gulf between rich and poor." "Every technology wave has a crest and a trough," Reuters quotes Mooney as saying. "The poor stay in the trough. It will happen again with the new wave ... which is being led by the world's largest corporations ... and we are not aware of it," he added. He's right about the world's largest corporations discovering nanotechnology. But it's a recent phenomenon. So recent that Small Times is in the process of planning its 2004 editorial calendar with this trend in mind. So, if the public isn't aware of it now, it will be by the end of next year. Despite what Mooney says, it's really small businesses that are on nanotech's leading edge right now. The sudden interest from multinational corporations will be both a curse and a blessing for these tiny companies -- and of course, the bigger the beast, the wider the disconnect between brain and action. Corporate irresponsibility is sure to result as layers upon layers of accountability and deniability are added. Mooney is correct in identifying that trend for what it is: A predictable pattern. My unabashed cheerleading over nanotechnology's amazing potential aside, I'm not really a nanotech advocate or detractor. That would be akin to staking out a position "for" or "against" the eventual arrival of October. I am certain of its inevitability. But I do possess a naive optimism in our ability to prepare for the changing season based on weather patterns of the past. This Reuters story presents a balance between the nano optimists and pessimists. As I've written before, now is the time to pay attention and make the right decisions to ensure nanotechnology develops in a responsible way. Discuss

Now you know Jack

Small Times Correspondent Jack Mason has a well-written a nanotech story on Salon.com: "Nano Inc. Vs. Nano Think." Jack places the public disagreement between nanotech pioneers Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley in its larger context. "There's a long way between Drexler's dreams and Smalley's reality," Jack writes. "But the very fact that there is some friction between scientists on the ground and visionaries such as Drexler is proof that nanotechnology has made impressive strides over the past decade and a half." One of Small Times' star correspondents, Jack made up for his lack of total devotion to my publication by quoting his Small Times editor: "Real progress in the field is obvious to anyone paying attention. Howard Lovy, news editor at 'Small Times Media,' a 2-year-old magazine and Web site covering the commercialization of nanotechnology, doesn't think Smalley and Drexler are really arguing with each other, or about the particular merits of molecular manufacturing, at all. "He believes the two are really wrestling to shape public perception of, and government policy toward, nanotech. 'They're doing this in a public way, because they're aiming to set the tone for what nanotech will be,' says Lovy. He sees them jockeying for position in a coming battle, a fight that, like the one that continues to smolder around genetically modified food, will probably center on the potential environmental consequences of nanoparticles and materials." "As for the feud fueling the competing visions, Small Times' Lovy says to remember that 'Drexler is a futurist. He's interested in people looking back 50 or 100 years from now and thinking, "Boy, was he right." ' Smalley, from what Lovy knows of him, is more of a businessman." Jack again proves his innate ability to come up with the perfect catch phrase not only through the headline (which he wrote), but through his description of a man-on-the-moon national nanotech goal as a "Nanhattan Project." Discuss

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Why the Nano Generation doesn't need us

Over the Labor Day weekend, my 12-year-old daughter told me, "Dad, nanotech is cool and everything, but your blog is kind of boring." She's probably right, and shame on me for taking an essentially "cool" technology (and my daughter does NOT use that word lightly), and make it seem so painfully uncool. That will be a challenge facing the U.S. National Science Foundation as it begins to introduce nanotech into K-12 schools.

My daughter then told me about all the truly cool ways that nanotech is already being introduced to kids -- completely independent of any formal attempt by the government, school system or news media to dull it down into classroom instruction.

The now-canceled cartoon "Invader Zim", wildly popular with the young (and old) geek set, featured an episode called NanoZIM, in which "nanoships" are piloted inside a character's body. The image above is from that episode. What's especially funny about the plot synopsis I link to is that under "Cultural References," it says: "The whole episode is obviously a reference to the film Innerspace. Ahhh, kids. I suppose Madonna wrote "American Pie," too. "Innerspace," of course, was a horrible imitation of the original Fantastic Voyage, the Isaac Asimov classic and 1966 movie against which every nanotech breakthrough, real and fictional, is measured. More screen shots of NanoZIM can be found here.

It's not only Zim that has made nano cool. "Batman Beyond" featured an episode called The Perfect You, in which teens use nanotechnology to enhance their looks (are you reading this, L'Oreal?). "But when the nanotech becomes sentient, it takes over! Can Batman stop the problem before it gets out of hand?"

And the "Powerpuff Girls" (a little less cool these days, according to my 12-year-old cool-o-meter) featured an episode called Nano of the North, in which, "The Professor shrinks the girls down to microscopic level in order to fight millions of nanobots, creatures so tiny that they are able to come out of a mysterious dark cloud one to a raindrop. But then, when the nanobots join together to form one 'giant' monobot all of six inches high, the girls are too small to stop it." Cutest quote, according to a fan site: "A bunch down, a million to go!"

And an episode of "Jimmy Neutron" called Safety First acts out the ultimate geek fantasy: Using technology to get even with bullies. "A bully has been giving Jimmy a rough time recently, and he's had it. Rather than go to the proper authorities. Jimmy creates an electronic bodyguard piloted by Nanobots." But, in classic Frankenstein/Golem fashion, "the Nanobots get a little overzealous."

I've also seen references to nanotechnology in Dexter's Laboratory, but I can't find a specific episode. Maybe a reader can point me in the right direction.

So, with or without special nanotech curricula, our kids are already getting a way cooler nanotech educaton. But I hold no illusions that this post will suddenly make me seem cool in my daughter's eyes. As she's told me many times before, "Dad, you're way too old to ever be cool."