Thursday, July 31, 2003

Don't hate me because I'm nano-beautiful

This recent New York Post story had me thinking about beauty.

Small Times reported last year that nanomaterials had been used in cosmetics for years (L'Oreal has had them in products since 1995, despite the Post's assertion that, "Even big names like L'Oreal are getting into the act."). So now, with renewed debate surrounding what is not known about nanoparticles, the fact that nanoscale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are used in some brands of cosmetics and sunscreen is continuously juxtaposed with news reports about the controversy.

In this cursed and wonderful age of Google, whose spawn is quick access to information but ad nauseaum repetition of often questionable factoids, the L'Oreal lore has circled the globe more than a few times, ripped from its original context. It's the most-easily-available piece of information about how consumers connect to nanotech today and a reporter doesn't need to expend very much energy to find it, so it gets plopped into a news story about potentially dangerous nanoparticles. Is there any evidence, or even suspicion, that consumers who have used L'Oreal's chock-full-o-nanocapsules line of cosmetics for the past eight years have been harmed in any way? Uh … no … But, you know, they have "nanostuff" in them. Isn't that creepy?

Meanwhile, in the world of real nanoscience, Great Britain just named a panel of advisers to look into potential benefits and problems associated with nanotech. The list of names can be found here.

U.S. News and World Report's James M. Pethokoukis continues his analysis of the Greenpeace nanotech report with another column today, Turning green over nanotech. The controversy is still on the European Union's radar, as you can see in this report, Nanotechnology: Public debate takes off and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology offered what it called a "qualified endorsement" of Greenpeace's report.

Oh, and to those who paid attention to my previous rantings on Shimon Peres and nanotech, CNet ran an interview with the former Israeli leader. He doesn't mention nanotech, but it is a window into how he thinks about technology and its role in national economic health and regional stability: A high-tech bridge to Middle East peace?


Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Domi-Nano Theory

A puzzled reporter called me late last week. Like many nanotech-industry watchers, he was scratching his head over the recent announcement that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was the scheduled keynote speaker at this September's World Nano-Economic Congress in Washington, D.C. He had read my blog entry from last week on this subject, but still wanted to know more. Aside from the cynical view taken by a reader on my message board that Peres was simply available through the Washington Speakers Bureau and that he really knows nothing about the subject (although a quick speaker's search in the bureau's Web site turns up nobody named Shimon Peres), what does the former Israeli leader and Nobel laureate know about nanotech, and why is Israel pushing it?

The reporter wondered aloud whether it had anything to do with what he heard was a kind of nanotech "arms race" going on internationally.

I told him that while the arms race metaphor is being used by nanotech's detractors, he's basically correct: Former President Clinton's creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative was indeed the shot heard 'round the nano world, spurring other nations, large and small, to commit significant amounts of money to nanotechnology research and development. To use another ancient metaphor, the United States knocked over the first domino, setting in motion similar efforts from its international competitors. Government watchdogs, of course, cannot help but hear the clatter, and that's where we are today (see my previous three rantings on Greenpeace).

Nations around the world talk now of the need to "play catch-up" with the United States in nanotech commercialization, turning the issue, inevitably, into one that involves national pride, as Shimon Peres (or his ghost writer) has written previously. In the United States, too, this international competition, or arms race, if you will, is seen as a way to stir an American public that has not been excited about science since the space race. U.S. officials want to use the debate over nanotech at the government level as a bully pulpit to spread the nano word. Some are even suggesting a space-race-style nano challenge to inspire American taxpayers. I'm a bit skeptical that the American people – much more cynical about government and science since the '60s (space shuttle disasters, Three Mile Island, etc.) – can ever again feel that sense of innocent wonder. At best, nanotech breakthroughs will be "one small step" at a time, with very few noticeable "giant leaps" to glue Americans to their TV sets as they did in 1969.

But I also told the reporter that this sense of international competition is something that's meant for internal consumption, to get the voting public to wake up and take notice. In reality, there is a great deal of international cooperation in nanotech research and development – including (shhh, don't tell anybody), between the United States and France!

So, back to Israel and Peres. I really don't know how much Peres knows about nanotechnology. But I do assume that he's aware of the research going on in his country's universities, and the money being invested by the venture capital community. Peres has also used his bully pulpit for a $500 million-$600 million nanotech initiative of his own. Recently, former AOL-Time Warner Chairman Steve Case met with Peres to talk about Israel's nanotech fund. You'd have to assume that Case wasn't just humoring an old man who knows nothing about nanotech.

The Israel angle may interest the press because nobody wants to read another story about how the United States is competing in nanotech with its traditional rivals like Japan. But Israel, usually in the news for far different reasons, devoting its scarce resources to nanotech in order to compete globally? Now, that's more of an interesting story. To me, it shows how nanotech is transforming from a niche, special-interest subject for geeks into a global economic development story.

It's a story that will contain all the color and controversy of the environmental issue, so watch for the clatter of dominoes to soon catch the attention of the anti-globalization movement. It's an interesting time to be covering nanotech.


Monday, July 28, 2003

Subterranean Nano Blues

"Hey, lay off Greenpeace," my wife told me over the weekend. "They're not PETA, and they do a lot of good – more good than you do, just sitting behind your computer and writing."

My wife, of course, is both my biggest fan and my biggest critic and rarely pulls punches.

Aside from the fact that she's my wife (and thus, always right), she does have a very good point. Greenpeace does do a great deal of good in the world, and of course it does not just sit in an office and pontificate. Its members physically place themselves in harm's way to draw attention to important environmental issues. That's the activism my wife grew up with. She was raised by '60s radicals who today have lost none of their youthful idealism (displayed in their home is a great picture of my in-laws, circa '70s, in full hippie regalia, at a no-nukes march in Washington with my future wife by their side).

So, yeah, my in-laws must think their daughter married a total sellout. (To add insult to injury, I was also one of those liberals who was in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but of course that subject goes beyond the mission of this blog).

Like I told my friend and faithful Small Times correspondent Jack Mason, in an interview he conducted with me for an article he's writing for Salon (I'll let you know when it runs. We all need to help that excellent online magazine survive), I feel horrible over the possibility that the industry I'm covering is about to be painted with a broad "polluter" brush – especially when what is known about nanotech's potential benefits to the environment outweigh what is not known.

I have covered local environmental issues during my reporting career, and one thing that I've remained curious about is the idea of risk – the "acceptable" risks we take just commuting to work, vs. the risks associated with, for example, living near a trash incinerator or close to power lines. We make decisions every day about which risks we deem acceptable (or choose to ignore), and which ones we worry about. I've read reports from environmental watchdogs on the local and national levels that assessed various health risks associated with a NIMBY issue, and I've read some ridiculous counterarguments from the "pro-industry side" that compare these risks to the chances of exposure to random horrors by just leaving our house. Usually, both these arguments lack common sense.

What Greenpeace is invoking for nanotech is what they used in previous battles, the Precautionary Principle, which essentially says that we're better safe than sorry. It reduces the possibility of horrible mishaps by limiting scientific exploration when safety is in doubt. In general, I'm in agreement with the principle. It makes perfect sense – if the safety of a technology is in doubt.

The trouble is that Greenpeace is too early on this. Nanotech's safety isn't "in doubt." We don't know enough about the behavior of nanoparticles in our bodies and in the environment to even have a doubt. The Precautionary Principle could reasonably be invoked after we know more about specific nanomaterials under specific conditions. Then, the alarm bells can go off, and Greenpeace can do what they do best: Call attention to the potential problem and demand action.

To Greenepeace's credit, the group did conclude its report with a brief nod to the "number of environmental goods that may arise" from nanotechnology and a call for "a more in-depth analysis of environmental concerns."

A couple of excellent articles on this general topic moved in today's news cycle. Take a look at Fear of the science of the small 'is focused on the wrong things', from the Guardian, and this one from EurekAlert, Nanotechnology: sink or swim?

Now, I hope when we visit this weekend, my in-laws will let me out of the chicken coop and allow me to sleep in the house.


Friday, July 25, 2003

The Greenpeace Report, Part II: NanoWars

It is said that military leaders are perpetually fighting the previous war. The same can be said of the rainbow warriors, Greenpeace, whose recently released opening shot at nanotechnology is really a battle plan for the environmental activist group's previous conflict against genetically modified foods.

It's clear that Greenpeace is choosing to ignore some important landscape differences between the old GM foods battlefield and the theater of operations in the coming war over nanotechnology. In its report, Future Technologies, Today's Choices, Greenpeace misidentifies the conditions under which the science of nanotechnology is now growing.

Greenpeace has decided that the label "nanotechnology" is merely the latest incarnation of an industrial system that allows the very few and very mighty to hand down decisions from on high for the sole purpose of enriching themselves at the expense of the masses. Greenpeace does not see nanotechnology for what it is: a broad label for a very sophisticated kind of science or process that can help accomplish any number of technological goals. Whether those goals include environmental cleanup or more-efficient killing machines is the choice of the broader society.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace's chief scientist, writes in the report that if there are unintended consequences of a new technology, "it is unreasonable to expect collective responsibility if the decision to proceed with the technology was made by an elite few." He goes on to write, "… the interests of those who own and control the new technologies largely determine how a new technology is used."

Who are the "elite few"? He really doesn't say. I suppose that's a wink and nod to his intended audience, which I assume already knows who these elite people are. Later, the report states that nanotech "materials and processes being developed are technology-pushed rather than market-led."

Well, meanwhile, in the world of real nanotechnology, the few products that have been successful in the marketplace (take a look at my previous post) are those that fill a consumer or market need. The oft-repeated examples of stain-free pants and sunscreen are successful not because they are products dictated from on high, but rather are driven by consumer demand.

That's not to say that the "elite few," if given the chance, wouldn't love to tell consumers what's good for them. If by "elite," Greenpeace means the nanotech scientists hatching their evil plans at university and government labs, the group could take comfort in knowing that many of these scientists remain frustrated that investors and consumers are not immediately opening up their wallets to any contraption that emerges from their head and into a prototype.

Greenpeace's report is correct when it asserts that "some new materials may constitute new classes of non-biodegradable pollutant about which we have little understanding," and that "little work has been done to ascertain the possible effects of nanomaterials on the living systems, or the possibility that nanoparticles could slip past the human immune system."

Nanotech researchers will be the first people to admit this, and at institutes like the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, they're eagerly learning the answers to these important questions. If they discover that horrible things happen to the body when nanomaterials are introduced, yet these materials are still placed on the market without consumers' informed consent, then I'll be right there alongside Greenpeace in demanding their removal. In the meantime, let the discovery process continue.

The Greenpeace report does establish a good framework for the debate over societal implications to nanotechnology, especially when it poses important questions that we all should be asking. Among them: "Who is in control? Where do the benefits fall? Who takes responsibility for resulting problems?"

But Greenpeace's implied answers to these questions again can be applied to the old GM foods battlefield, but not universally to nanotechnology.

"Who is in control?" Well, right now, consumers are. They decide what they'll buy, thus influencing what investors will pay to develop. Genetically modified foods, in contrast, were in many cases thrust on consumers without their informed consent. The report contrasts this with the mobile phone industry, where consumers gladly ignored the unknown risks associated with them in favor of the convenience they provided. Mobile phone buyers know what they're doing, know that there is a shortage of research on their long-term health effects, and went ahead and supported the industry, anyway. A cabal of elite companies did not force feed it on anybody.

Where do the benefits fall? That's a political question that has no correct answer. If you believe that it's a bad thing for small companies to become so successful at selling to consumers that they turn into big companies, then you've already answered the question before it's even asked.

Who takes responsibility for resulting problems? I'll translate this question for you: "Who should the angry mob blame when the technology is perceived to have gone awry?"

Throughout the report, a distinction is drawn between "science" and "society," without any definition of who or what those entities are, leaving us with the assumption that they are inherently at odds, rather than enjoy a symbiotic relationship – one influencing the other through changing consumer habits, varying states of war and peace and the pace of scientific discovery. When Greenpeace talks of a possible "dystopian future" where "the shift of the control of nanotechnology" turns toward "military needs," it dismisses the well-established give-and-take relationship between military and consumer technology.

Of course, the message here – with wording tailored to the audience – is that "war is bad." Yes, of course. War is bad. Our military and political leaders should really get together and try to stop all wars. Now, what does that have to do with nanotechnology?

Nanotech is a process, a tool, a way of building and improving practically anything we want. The focus of our worldwide discussion of "societal implications" should be about the way we want to build our society, and not about the inherent evil or goodness of the hammers and nails we're going to use to build it.

Greenpeace asks, rhetorically for internal consumption: "Is the future of nanotechnology then a plaything of the already-rich?" Well, not if the ultimate goals involve better, cheaper, nonpolluting products and energy available to everybody. If that is what consumers, leaders and scientists decide, then nanotech is there to help. The nanotech battle should really be fought for the hearts and minds of consumers and voters, and not against the technology itself.

Greenpeace begins with the assumption that average people are powerless against invisible forces that secretly control society's agenda (it's where the political left always meets the right), without acknowledging that these "forces" cannot remain entrenched in the face of a society that rejects them. America is obese? Don't blame McDonald's. The Golden Arches can't survive without a public willing to march into their death chambers.

You want nanotechnology that doesn't make a mess of what's left of our planet? I think that's a great idea. Let's bring on the global discussions over how we're going to get there. But it's not a question of "good nano" or "bad nano." It's a question of how we're going to use nano.


Thursday, July 24, 2003

Nanotechnology industry takes Greenpeace's bait

Greenpeace's just-released report on nanotechnology is vintage advocacy-group treatment of scientific research: Grab the available facts, then make them conform to your predetermined conclusion. That, after all, is what advocacy groups do. And most intelligent readers are able to keep that in mind when they come across any "study" that comes out of an organization that filters information through its preset worldview.

It's true for Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association or the Save the Bog Turtle Foundation.

Having worked in the news business most of my life, I've read through countless advocacy-group studies and have become fairly adept at separating the slogans and code phrases from the legitimate conclusions. Read enough of these research reports from groups with competing agendas, and a complete picture emerges not only of the facts that govern the issue, but more importantly how the actors involved process information and reach their conclusions.

A report like this one from Greenpeace, no matter its scientific merit, is an important read for everyone concerned about nanotechnology's future because it's a window into how the organization filters its information. Understanding – not necessarily agreeing, but understanding – can go a long way toward developing strategies to avoid ugly public confrontations like the battles over genetically modified foods. Greenpeace is a potentially powerful worldwide thought leader that can have a huge influence over public opinion, and the nanotech industry ignores or belittles it at its own peril.

That's why I was quite surprised at the reaction of NanoBusiness Alliance Executive Director Mark Modzelewski to this report. He attacked it as “industrial terrorism," telling Small Times correspondent Douglas Brown, "It’s a great way to raise new funds and pretend they care about something. The reason these groups care about nanotechnology is because they view it as the next industrial revolution. And, to them, slowing it down, creating fear and upsetting people is their means of creating a choke point on the development of industry and technology. They saw how it worked on genetically modified foods, and so this is a great way for them to do the exact same thing.”

Not a very astute way of representing nanotech as a responsible industry that takes public opinion into account. Modzelewski's comments, in fact, conform perfectly to Greenpeace's hard-wired view of industry – no matter what industry – as inherently irresponsible and self-interested, in need of watchdogs to keep them in check.

In fact, the report states right near the front that nanotech business alliances worldwide have been formed for the sole purpose of translating research into products and to build enough momentum behind the industry that any attempts to put the brakes on it as a result of public debate or input would be irrelevant. Enter Modzelewski, right on cue, seeming to confirm that the nanotech industry is dead set against any kind of slowdown or pause to think about the long-range impact of what it's doing.

That may not have been his intent, but it will be the way Greenpeace interprets the industry's initial reaction to environmental concerns and could set the tone for the debate to come.

In the next post, I'll analyze the Greenpeace report, itself. For now, though, I'll give you a hint: Take out the code words and phrases that are tailored to Greenpeace's audience, and you'll find some sound advice in there for the nanotech industry. As I've written previously, public perception is of paramount concern to anybody who cares about the future of nanotechnology.


Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Buy a Big Bright Green NanoMachine

Reuters quoted me in a story running in today's news cycle: Cutting-edge science creates stain-free pants. Yeah, I know, again with the pants! You'd think it was an obsession of mine. As a bonus, I also managed to weave in a "Star Trek" reference, just to really let my geek flag fly.

Andy Sullivan's report is a decent outline of some of the nanotech products currently available. No, they're not self-assembling particles that will create the fabled Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine (act now, operators are standing by), but the sunscreen, tennis balls and pants do represent the bridge between the old macro economy and the new, more-efficient, accurate and tailored small tech economy. The much-publicized nanopants, for example, is successful because it fills an existing need and fits seamlessly into existing products and markets.

As these small tech products sneak into the macro world, they will lead to increased consumer expectations of quality, accuracy and personalization, pushing more small tech products into the marketplace. So, that's how you get from today's sunscreen and nanopants to tomorrow's products that we can barely even imagine now.

It isn't nanobots in the bloodstream, but the fantastic voyage needs to start somewhere, and right now, the "nano inside" is just in a lot of "stuff.”

Oh, and speaking of green, today's top story on, Nanoparticles prove irresistible for cleanup of industrial waste, is another illustration of how the environmental movement and nanoscience could walk arm-in-arm into the future. Greenpeace and ETC Group would still be skeptical, though. The question remains: What is the long-term impact this "stuff" (in this case, iron oxide nanoparticles developed by the Institute for New Materials in Saarbrucken, Germany) is going to have on the environment? Excellent question, and I'll have more on this soon.

Yes, that was meant to be a teaser …


Monday, July 21, 2003

How Thor the black lab can save the Earth

thorIf the animal kingdom had a Nobel Prize for peace, my friend's black lab, Thor, would have won it – paws down. Thor always played peacemaker at the local dog park, physically placing his body between battling canines – and, like blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, sometimes at the expense of his own well-being.

In the spirit of Thor, who sadly passed away a few months back, I'd like to place a few ideas in between all combatants in the snarling, growling nanotech/environment debate and invite them to take a close look at one area in which they are likely to find some common ground: Biomimicry, sometimes also called biomimetics – literally imitating nature. Just as Thor, the ultimate "good dog," should be a model to world leaders, scientists are using other organic beings and processes as models for products that are in complete harmony with the natural world.

Last night, I caught some of CBC's excellent two-part series on biomimicry, part of the Canadian network's "The Nature of Things" series. The show illustrated, for me, how nanotechnology does not need to be developed and perceived as something wholly unnatural, conceived and executed by humans who glop atoms together to create invisible monsters – not if we imitate the universe's most-perfect nanomachines: living organisms.

Among the show's sources: James E. Guillet of Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories at the University of Toronto, who is designing polymers that mimic the activity of the antennae in leaves to detoxify PCBs, and Geoffrey Coates of Cornell University, who is learning from bacteria how to make plastic using carbon dioxide as a feedstock. A number of researchers are taking a close look at the abalone and how it builds its self-healing shell, molecule by molecule. Scientists are hoping to use the example of this simple sea mollusk to learn how to build self-healing bridges and windows, or self-assembling microprocessors and membranes, or coatings that prevent the body from rejecting life-saving medical devices and implants.

One of my favorites is David Oakey in La Grange, Ga., who is using biomimicry to create carpets and other textiles. What he's really selling, though, is a change in the way industry thinks about what it takes from the earth and what it gives back.

Biomimicry is where nanotech turns green, and where the two sides can carefully watch each other and even play together. Thor would have liked that.

Here's some further reading:

Back to Nature: Biomimicry finds engineering solutions in the natural world

Take a look at the shells of sea mollusks for example of nature's nanotechnology

Bell Labs creates micropatterned crystals inspired by nature

Nanofibers could help bones heal, Northwestern researchers report

UCLA mimics original nanotechnologists

Nanotech, biotech research are converging in Virginia

San Diego's Sailor navigates between bio, inorganic worlds

And here are some patents that take the research to the next level:

Porous tissue scaffoldings for the repair or regeneration of tissue

Foam composite for the repair or regeneration of tissue


Friday, July 18, 2003

Gender selection technology … or infanticide

Disturbing news from India today: Infant girls in India twice as likely to die as boys. The authors of this study ask the extremely rhetorical question, "Could such deaths be an extension into the early neonatal period of female feticide?"

The authors say that while the country's Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994 attempted to alter the adverse sex ratio by banning sex determination tests, "this cannot change the attitudes of people towards female infants."

To me, it sounds like another case of a government using the force of law to ban a piece of technology – merely a tool – rather than doing the harder work of using its influence to change long-held cultural beliefs that male children are more desirable. The law against sex-determination tests merely postponed the abortion of unwanted children until after their births – not a desirable outcome no matter what your position on abortion.

What does this have to do with nanotech? Well, right now, gender-sorting technology falls under the category of microfluidics, and is already being used to choose the genders of livestock, and even humans, along with tackling the problems of male infertility. Further advances in nanofluidics and use of quantum dots as flourescent markers are sure to make the process more reliable.

So, do we ban gender-determination technology, without addressing cultural attitudes, and face an infanticide problem? Or save needless deaths through technology that prevents unwanted conception in the first place?


Nanopants diary

Last year at about this time, my wife called me at work and told me a robot climbed out of a hovercraft and dropped a pair of Eddie Bauer Nano-Care Plain-Front Chinos on our doorstep. In my excitement, I chose to ignore her droll sarcasm. The pants! The pants! The Nanopants were here!

Whenever I'd talk about nanotechnology to friends and family, I'd always mention the pants. In fact, every news story written in the mainstream media about nanotech in the past two years has brought up sunscreen … and THE PANTS! (Never mind that even those who sell them apparently don't know what they are, as we can see from Popular Science's Little Robots In Your Pants.

Not only was Nano-Tex LLC almost single-handedly bringing nanotechnology to the people, it was also one of the few assets that kept its ailing parent company, Burlington Industries, afloat, as you can see in this story: Ailing Burlington textile company pins its hopes on nanotech.

I put it to good use immediately. I glopped yogurt on my pants at work, and wiped it off to avoid embarrassing stains. I slopped cantaloupe on my white shirt. Damn! No nanoshirt … yet (although one is apparently available in India, and a stink-free shirt is on the drawing board). But I brushed the coffee stains right off my pants. A few months later, I accidentally wrote on my pants with a red marker. I made a mental note to send a strongly worded letter to Nano-Tex about Nano-Whiskers meeting their match with Sharpies. Orange juice, luckily, beaded up and fell harmlessly to the floor.

So, I went ahead and ordered about five more, in all different colors. After a year, my original khakis wore out. I guess mowing the lawn was too much for my nanopants. Also, the little nanobots (I'll call them that because I just like to think of my pants as alive) opt for early retirement after about 30 washings. Still, though, a good deal.

What's next for Nano-Tex? First, it needs to lose Burlington. What a drag on its image. Take a look at today's news: Shareholder seeks probe into Burlington's role in Nano-Tex. More to come on that.

Meanwhile, the true engines of creation are in my pants.


Thursday, July 17, 2003

Swords into nanoshares

It's rare that my current focus on nanotech actually melds with my previous incarnation as the managing editor of a wire service that covers issues relating to Judaism and Israel, but today, through some kind of kabbalistic convergence of the molecular and the mystic, we have this announcement that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres will give the keynote address at the World Nano-Economic Conference Sept. 8-10.

I think this announcement illustrates, among other things, how amazingly fast the world can change in one person's lifetime. Peres was born in Poland during the 1920s, an era that scarcely could have imagined a world where nanotech was possible. It was a time when innovative new technologies were being developed that could save lives … or snuff them out, efficiently, by the millions.

Maybe the world hasn't changed so much since then.

Peres, a Nobel laureate, as long been an advocate of the peace process with the Palestinians in part because when it comes to world opinion, the conflict overshadows all of Israel's scientific achievements. Also, quite simply, Israel is using much of its financial and human resources to maintain a security state, rather than developing the science and technology needed to compete in the global marketplace.

For the other reasons why he's a big nanotech advocate, I'll leave it to Peres himself to explain: "Shimon Peres: Nanotechnology holds a key to Israel's future."


Plenty of room before we hit bottom

Technology Innovations LLC and Innovation On Demand Inc. announced today that they have been issued U.S. Patent No. 6,588,208, "Wireless Technique for Microactivation", by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The company says the patent covers microactuators (tiny devices that control microscopic objects) that can be operated wirelessly by focused beams of energy, enabling the devices to control objects in the nanoscale range.

That's all fine, but then the companies' news release goes slightly over the top, claiming that the patent "helps fulfill Feynman's nanotechnology dream." I'm not saying it's sacrilege to take the name of Richard Feynman in vain, but if you're going to invoke the holy name, I at least want to see some atomic manipulation, rather than a new kind of shape-memory alloy. I think it's a great development, but it's nowhere near the vision voiced by the nanotech prophet in 1959.

If every single "step along the way" is pumped up as Feynman-worthy, it's no wonder VCs and the general public are growing more and more skeptical about nanotech. This shape-memory alloy technology allows the baby to rock back and forth. That's great. Honey, get the camera! But don't claim junior is doing a Riverdance.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Self-assembling chew toy too good to be true

Today's Wall Street Journal report on self-healing materials is a rare example of hype-free nanotech reporting. It leads with a reference to the "Terminator" movies, but that's just to get the average reader hooked. Then it quickly loses the sci-fi analogy and goes into real research. Here's my favorite part: "NASA scientists pursuing this research are spending much of their time on the golf course. Instead of playing 18 holes, they are studying the outer-coating of golf balls -- a plastic called surlyn. Surlyn is found in everything from bowling pins to dog-chew toys because of its ability to take a beating. Surlyn … has the ability to heal itself at the nano-level when damaged. For reasons still being studied, surlyn's molecules unite once they are separated." I can't wait to tell my puppy, Thurston, about this! Self-healing chewy toys! We need to get a couch and all our shoes made out of this material right away. But, there's always a catch. The article then goes on to say, "NASA doesn't believe surlyn is the answer for its program because it likely won't be able to handle the ravages of outer space -- including massive radiation … Still, researchers are studying it because they believe any self-healing material they develop will have many of the same properties as surlyn." Here's a link to the WSJ article, but you'll need a subscription to access it. Sorry, I wish all content were free and all journalists highly paid, but I have to respect the rights of publications that want to charge for their online content. But if you want to learn more about self-healing nanomaterials, take a look at these articles. Researchers working to employ nanotechnology in self-healing coatings Will nanotechnology define the next material world? Nanotech is literally coming alive through use of biomaterials Discuss

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

This ain't no party, this ain't no nano

Today's press release from The Freedonia Group, "U.S. Nanomaterials Demand to Reach $35 Billion in 2020" comes from the "You're Soaking In It" school of nanotechnology, and I've found that it only angers people.

Talk about how everyday items like sunscreen and scratch-free surfaces are examples of nanotech products on the market, and the party conversation or chat with your barber always turns from amazement to uncomfortable silence and boredom. Try to keep your audience interested by talking about how these mundane nanoscale products are small stepping stones to the "Star Trek" stuff that their great-grandkids may or may not enjoy, and you're back to discussing the day's temperature fluctuations.

Maybe, if you're a naturally charming person, you'll get them back with news like this breakthrough reported in the July 11Glasgow Herald, "Paint changes color in tiny world of molecular robot."

But, yes, for the most part, nanotech products on the market today sound a lot like glorified chemistry recast as nanotech. In fact, that's what a Wired reporter asked me about a couple of months ago. His story, apparently written before he even began his research, started with the premise that chemical companies are simply renaming their "stuff" nanotechnology, so they can cash in on government grants. Yesterday's story in The Scientist, "Where the funds are," would seem to confirm this.

My answer is, "Of course. That's the idea." Calling nanotechnology an "industry" is very misleading. Much of nanotechnology today IS chemistry, so the chemists are the ones who are going to push it forward right now. We're not even in the "Model-T" phase of nanotech development yet. We're still grunting by firelight, chiseling wheels out of rocks. If chemists decide to crawl, beakers in hand, to the government trough in order to fund research into how materials behave on the nanoscale, the discoveries that result will be added to the long link between nanotube tennis rackets and the "Star Trek" replicator.

Want to really bore your friends? Here are a few more nano products that are around today.

Nanophase Technologies Corp. provides nanomaterials to BASF, which uses them in sunscreen.

L'Oreal's Plenitude line of cosmetics contains nanocapsules, which help active ingredients get to the skin's deeper layers.

Wilson Double Core tennis balls use a nanoclay developed by InMat LLC.

Nanogate supplies nanomaterials for Cerax Nanowax -- a ski wax

Hansa Metallwerke, a kitchen and bathroom fixtures company based in Stuttgart, Germany, uses a nanomaterial for scratchproof coatings.

And, of course, I'm protected from coffee spills as we speak by nanomaterials from Nano-Tex covering my Eddie Bauer pants. If I'm soaking in it, it's just beading up and falling to the floor.


Monday, July 14, 2003

The Nanotech Media Conspiracy

By Howard Lovy

An editor at Newsweek magazine called me late last week asking if I could help him locate some pictures of zinc oxide nanoparticles -- the stuff that goes into some brands of sunscreen. So, I gave him some names of companies, told him what Small Times is all about, and the result was today's Newsweek article: The Next Asbestos?"

This is the third example in a couple of months of a mainstream news outlet using me as a source for background, yet not giving Small Times any credit or mention. Another one was this Wired story, Rage Against the (Green) Machine. Reuters interviewed me, too, for a story about nanotech products, but that has yet to see print. Although I wish they'd mention Small Times, these background interviews are ultimately why the publication I work for exists -- to educate the public about nanotech and to be a resource for mainstream journalists.

Unfortunately, the Newsweek article sounds like the usual "what we don't know will probably hurt us" scenario. "The uncertainty poses a risk for consumers ..." and "it's either the best thing since sliced bread or the next asbestos ..." etc. It gives readers the feeling that nanotech is something evil, without actually giving readers information other than "scientists don't know."

A more-thoughtful article about this subject came out in this news cycle, though. This one from Foreign Policy, "Ethics for a Very Small World."

CNet, too, came out with a profile of Nantero just a couple of days after we published our profile.

Again, I'm glad to be able to spur some story ideas out there.

The Denver Post, however, did manage to credit Small Times today in this article published Sunday: State Urged to Think Small". They cited our survey in the March/April issue of the top states for small tech development. Colorado was number 12.

Oh, and not to brag, but this trend that the San Francisco Business Times noticed this week, "Law Firms Think Small, Bet Big With Nanotech", we spotted last November in our report, "Invasion of the Lawyers."

So, eager young nanocadets, there are two lessons for today:

1. Editors and writers in the mainstream media continue to discover nanotechnology, and that's laying the groundwork for an informed public as nanotech hits the political agenda worldwide;

2. If you want to know what's going on before the mainstream media discover it, read this column.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Hulk, Prince Charles and other scary things


By Howard Lovy

What do The Hulk and Prince Charles have in common?

Fear. Specifically, fear of nanotechnology and its impact on the environment.

I'll let the psychiatrists explain how big, angry bullies are really just masking the fact that they're the fraidy-cats, but I will take a poke at why Britain's royal Luddite is shaking in his crown jewels. It has a great deal to do with the public fear that finds its way into primal-scream movies like "The Hulk" and "Minority Report" or popular fiction like Michael Crichton's "Prey."

In "The Hulk," the name of the evil company, of course, was "Atheon" -- a perfect blend of the reality and fear associated with technology. In reality, military contractor Raytheon creates modern weapons systems that, in themselves, are neutral -- simply clumps of metal ready to mindlessly do the owner's bidding.

But the comic-book movie format allows the director to strip off or add on as many layers of reality as suits the story. So, for the company chosen as the soulless, profit-hungry opportunist interested in the physical above the moral, in short-term gain over ethics -- simply add the prefix, "Ath," and you can see that director Ang Lee is stripping away even any hint of gray here. The Hulk may be a complicated, misunderstood big green man, but "Atheon," is "Godless Raytheon." Cold, hard, high-tech steel guided by what the majority of Americans assume atheism to be -- nothing. There is no higher code of morality, nothing commanding what the company "Shall" or "Shalt Not" do, so in the world of moral relativism, anything can be justified.

At least, that is the cartoon image of atheism, so that view is naturally reflected in the prism of a cartoon movie. But here is where cartoon reality (and for the price of admission, we all enthusiastically enter this reality and accept its impossible rules) meets up with the almost equally cartoonish world of political debate and policymaking. Nanotechnology, and the implied idea that mankind is manipulating creation for his own benefit without a thought to the purpose of the creation itself, bothers many on the left and right -- it goes against God's law (right), or it goes against the laws of nature (left). The closer that manipulation comes to the human body, the louder the protests become. Left and right are joined against genetic manipulation, against the idea of man messing with the makeup of his own humanity -- "Playing God," in the eyes of the dogmatically religious. Of course, for the dogmatically left, you have your unwitting human guinea pig being experimented on by a government lab. Now, you have the absolute evil you need to keep the Hulk story moving.

And keep political futures moving in the other cartoon world of politics -- where exaggeration is fact, worst-case scenarios always happen and what is unknown is always deadly. It's exhilarating in our movies, but fosters ignorance and sets mankind's technological clock running backward in the reality of government oversight, funding and regulation.

The European Union is accepting as truth manipulated "facts" from the Canada-based ETC Group, an activist organization with a specific social agenda as the context with which to begin debate on nanotechnology. The group's recent report, "The Big Down," which drew the attention of Prince Charles and prompted his royal concern, the organization drew on a pool of selected research and came away with the conclusion that social and environmental responsibility is at odds with nanotech research. Now, the debate is beginning with the premise that nanotech is harmful, and the burden is on this relatively young science to disprove its guilt.

The group argues that a moratorium needs to be in place until proper safeguards are established. But the nature of scientific inquiry is to experiment, without shackling the experimenter.

Then, again, it's typical that those on the verge of something new need to work discretely and under pressure of authorities (church, state, the angry villagers with torches, etc.) who fear the unknown. Nanotech came out of left field for environmental activists. The future was supposed to be solar, or wind powered, or powered by thoughts of happiness, yoga and the freedom of Tibet. They were good at tearing down, and suggesting a few lame alternatives -- but when the alternatives really are presented, they turn into the ugly mob because it's something they don't understand and, based on past experience, they assume it's based on lies by scientists and the government.

Why isn't the environmental movement embracing it? Nano is about as "organic" as you can get, with some applications using the elemental building blocks of nature to clean up the mess created over the past century-and-a-half of industrialization.

But, in the words of my ex-hippie father-in-law (a veteran of the "No Nukes" movement), that's what they were told about nuclear power. A good point. There's a mistrust of all involved: big business, the government, researchers.

Next, will come the protests and green party platforms, which will codify nanotech as evil in the mantra of the various movements. Michael Moore will make a documentary; Eddie Vedder will rant at concerts. Expect a big, hulking, angry argument in the coming months and years.


Friday, July 11, 2003

Nanotechnology at a crossroads between hypothesis and hype

As a way of introducing myself and why I began this blog, I'll give you a condensed version of my column in the July/August issue of Small Times Magazine:

Future historians are going to listen to this era and hear the first whispers of the public cacophony to come. The recurring motif can be summed up in a question -- one that seems banal, but nonetheless will color discourse throughout this century: “What is nanotechnology?” The answer, in this age of relativism, will always depend upon whom you ask. Like the technological gods that came before it, nanotech is perpetually being assembled, reassembled (and perhaps self-assembled) in our own images.

Take a look at this continuing correspondence that might seem to average readers as arcane. It isn’t. Nanotech icons Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley are again proving themselves visionaries, arriving at the soul of the dilemma over nanotechnology’s definition ahead of the pack and then commencing fisticuffs in a preview of the bouts to come.

In one corner, the “Drexlerians” who view molecular self-assembly as true nanotech. In the other are the pragmatists, represented by Smalley, who view their work with nanoscale materials as real nanotechnology while forever banishing self-assembling nanobots to science fiction.

When Small Times launched two years ago, the nano definition was an amusing academic argument. Today, it’s very serious. Enough government money is spent on its development for the public to take notice. Now, cue the headlines about opposition from one-issue activists, sci-fi thriller authors, demagogic policymakers and dilettante British royals. Nanotechnologists can now join the likes of Galileo in the parade of scientists on their way to the political food processor. As we’ve seen in other conflicts between science and politics, it doesn’t matter if fears are exaggerated or fictional, since perception is often reality.

Smalley seems to be trying to halt the slide of public perception by defining nanotech based on what is possible now, rather than what might be possible in future generations. In the process, Drexler’s reputation gets banged around. I asked Drexler about this, and he answered by quoting from a letter he wrote to British MP Ian Gibson: “Attempts to calm public fears by simply denying the feasibility of molecular manufacturing will inevitably fail. A better course would be to show that its consequences are manageable and still distant.” Then, as an aside to me, he added: “Of course, this approach doesn’t work so well if its chief spokesman has to make his case over a chorus of false denials and attacks on his reputation.”

What worries Drexler is the public’s perception of what nanotech is, and what it isn’t. His 1986 book, “Engines of Creation,” inspired a generation of nanotech dreamers. But what is called nanotech today seems mundane to the Drexlerians. How can a JFK-style “we choose to go to the moon” challenge emerge from sunscreen and khakis?

Public perception is of paramount concern in framing the debate, and based on a history of government atrocities (plutonium and syphilis experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs, etc.), it's no wonder that government-sponsored nanotech research gets little respect.

And it’s little wonder that a group of activists carried this history of mistrust with them to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on May 8, when they voiced their concerns over a planned “molecular foundry” -- quite loudly, according to a report in the Contra Costa Times. The report indicated that the activists had little idea what nanotech was, only that they had heard it might be hazardous to the environment -- illustrating what the Financial Times of London calls the “culture of protest” against science. As activists lump nanotech in with the anti-globalization and green movements, this “culture” will become more refined and organized, and the protests will turn increasingly shrill. In Europe, you can actually witness the embryonic battle lines developing.

Meanwhile, separate from the bizarre alternate universe of politics and perception, real nanotechnologists hammer away at the boundaries of the possible. Smalley is working toward a future powered by cheap, plentiful energy, and a team of European scientists is developing nanoparticles that can clean industrial waste, and Nanosys founder Larry Bock looks at this moment in nanotech history with the eyes of an entrepreneur. When Bock looks through the microscope at nanowires and quantum dots, he’s not so concerned with whether Drexler or Smalley would call it nanotech. He sees new ways of making solar panels, and another business opportunity.

It’s at this junction between vision and pragmatism -- Drexler and Smalley -- that we now find ourselves. Now, it really gets interesting. Keep reading.