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

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