Saturday, December 27, 2008

Where technology meets humanity

And so ends the single worst year in the life of your humble narrator.

But what is that old proverb? "May you live in interesting times."

With that blessing or curse as a criterion, 2008 has fulfilled wishes beyond reckoning. And not only for me, but also for my battered hometown of Detroit.

And it is in times like these that I remember why I enjoy learning and writing about nanotechnology. It leaves the future wide open for imagining. And I choose to imagine a better world. Before nanotech became my obsession beyond reason, I wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No more explanation needed there.

I have alluded before to a better, nano-enabled future for my down-and-out Motown hometown, where the seeds of the new auto industry have already been planted.

The next age of the automotive industry has begun, and nanotech will fuel the innovation that will make possible the long-lasting, safe, affordable batteries that will power our automobiles.

And it is in automotive technology where nanotech will at last have its first real chance at making a difference in the creation of cars that are safer, more comfortable and more fuel-efficient.

In 2009, I plan on making this a major focus of my work and you'll see it reflected more on NanoBot and elsewhere.

The first major "elsewhere" will be back where my nano obsession began back in 2001, when I helped launch one of the first nanotech magazines and Websites. Small Times has asked me to return as a contributing editor and blogger. The focus there is broader -- nanotech and microscale technologies such as MEMS and microfluidics. So that will be reflected in my new blog, which will launch after the New Year.

For NanoBot readers only, here's a sneak peak at my first post, which centers on new signs of hope for U.S. battery makers.

If you could just tune your ears above the recent clatter and racket that passed for debate over a bridge loan for the Big Three, you might have been able to just make out the tiny baby cries of a newborn U.S. auto industry.

I live in Detroit, so I heard the slap on that baby's ass, followed by the opening shrieks of a brat already born into a disadvantaged, dysfunctional family.

You see, in the literal power struggle over the next age of the automotive industry -- the electric age -- the U.S. battery industry is arriving late.

Well, we'll see if they let that through. I'll link to it when it's posted. If not, it wouldn't be the first time my blogging has annoyed my employers.

So, look for signs of a better year in 2009 for nanotech and for me, personally. I will have new writing and editing projects to announce as new life is breathed into this old hack.

Longtime NanoBot readers know that this blog has my name on it for a reason. It's not only about nanotechnology, but also about some of my personal struggles in covering it. I have managed to retain and grow readership over the past 5 1/2 years of blogging despite force-feeding some of my own developing philosophies about technology's impact on culture, society and religion.

In 2008, I had some time -- a great deal of time -- to think about it. So my readers will be forced to endure more of it. The subject ties in perfectly with some of the major nanotech news developments this past year, including new studies on negative religious and cultural attitudes toward nanotech.

Almost four years ago, I wrote: "Religion. Superstition. Ideology. Dogma. Scientists can ignore them, mock them, place themselves above them at their own peril."

In 2009, this blog will take on an even more personal tone, since much of it is also my scratchpad for ideas. Many articles I have written over the years have been part of a larger narrative, with overlapping themes.

I will, eventually, gently ease into explaining why I disappeared for five months and what I accomplished during that time. I alluded to it cryptically here, but more will be explained as I am able to publish what went on that changed my life dramatically between May and October 2008.

In a way, it mirrored our times, since there was incredible pain mixed with a spark of hope.

It had nothing to do with nanotech, but it did follow the narrative of my life's work and solidified some fundamental ideas about technology and society that I have been thinking about for many years.

Here is where I begin to sound like I am completely out of my mind. But perhaps that is only because I lack the academic background to couch these ideas in the proper format.

You've read on these pages before some nonsensical rantings about how we are forcing the digitization of an analog world. When I say this, I mean it in both the literal and metaphorical sense. It is where I part ways with those who advocate molecular manufacturing. We cannot turn waves into particles, mold clay into golems, and mistake the metaphor for the object.

We are analog in a digital age, where we pretend reality can be segmented. I have seen victims of, become the victim of, people who live by machine thinking, who believe the law can handle essential human affairs, who believe they are doing right, who lean back with self-satisfaction that a scientific mind has captured an act, a thought, an emotion and found the proper hole in which to bury it.

What is lost in science, in all our attempts to segment, measure, adjudicate, is an essential humanity.

I have no use for scientists who mock the superstitious public. Superstition, religion, even metaphor, are part of our nature as humans. To deny that fact, or place yourself above it, is not even very scientific since it ignores important data about the people for whom technology is being developed.

In science, in all attempts to segment human affairs, all it takes is a little humanity, where our reactions to situations, to technological change, can be found on a spectrum and not segmented into bits. It is within that spectrum that we can solve misunderstandings between science and society.

Humanity dwells between the digits, between shadow and light, between beach and shore, between madness and sanity, where explanations can be found in the indescribable.

May the coming year be a time of peace, healing, success and humanity for us all. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The science of Hannukah 'miracles'

This Hanukkah, I celebrate my own personal "miracle" -- the simple freedom to be with my wife and children.

Yes, I know. No such thing as miracles, right? Well, I am a believer in science, too, but I choose to believe in miracles, as well.

I know there are rational, prosaic explanations for the "miracle" of my children and my ability to be with them, but I choose to turn on the portion of my brain that calls it a miracle.

What's that Arthur C. Clarke quote? "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Perhaps the Maccabeans were nanoscientists who discovered how to optimize each molecule of oil to make the menorah burn for eight days, rather than one? Miracle? Science? Does it matter? We make our own metaphors, choose our own symbols.

Happy Hanukkah.

Freedom is no small thing
The Case Of God v. Nanotech
Zeno, nano and quantum cwaziness

The B-movie sci-fi future is here

News headline that makes me believe I am living in a B science fiction movie:

British scientist warns we must protect the vulnerable from robots

'Star Trek' warps nanotech news

Sunday, December 21, 2008

NanoBot Defined

Apparently, "nanobot" is a corporate-speak term that has nothing to do with nanotechnology. According to the Wall Street Journal, "A nanobot is someone who operates autonomously from a company, probably telecommuting or on the road. They may have no ‘cultural’ or community tie to the company because they have so little interaction with it."

Yeah, that pretty much describes what I do, too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Future Fowl

In South Carolina, Clemson researchers are using nanoparticles to develop healthier chickens. There's really nothing else I need to say here. I'll let the chickens do the talking. Enjoy.

'Star Trek' warps nanotech news
'Transhuman cybersomething crazy ...'
HP teaches us the 'n' word

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't end up like me; take online nanotech courses


Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is offering two new nanoscience courses on its OpenCourseWare site: Advanced Solid State Physics and Quantum Information Processing.

While I am certain my readers can take advantage of these free online courses, it all sounds too difficult for an undereducated writer like me.

Just this morning, I learned that I left my kids' lunchboxes at their preschool and I had failed to properly read a bottle of baby soap, mistaking it for baby lotion -- thus drying out my two young sons' skin even more during this cold winter.

Quantum information processing? I'd be happy with any information processing in my 43-year-old, ancient senile brain.

Nanotech for undergrads
High School Nails Nano
Penn State's Little Recruiting Video

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nano report tells us what we already don't know

In their 2005 book "Freakonomics," authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner wrote about the symbiotic relationship between journalists and "experts."

"Journalists need experts as badly as experts need journalists," they wrote. "Every day there are newspaper pages and television newscasts to be filled, and an expert who can deliver a jarring piece of wisdom is always welcome."

And the more "jarring," the better for both. Find a piece of news that creates conflict or goes against conventional wisdom or exposes an "outrage," well then the journalists gain readers and the "expert" or his organization gets to bathe in publicity.

Levitt and Dubner pointed out a problem with this relationship, using the example of a self-serving "expert" who cooked up his own "statistics" to be feasted upon by a gullible media.

The good news is that when it comes to nanotechnology, this symbiosis between journalist and expert cannot reach the level of that kind of deceit. The bad news is that it cannot reach that level because nanotech research and commercialization is in its infancy, and neither the "experts" nor the journalists can agree on what constitutes nanotechnology.

Still, the beast must be fed. And the next best thing to a real expert on nanotech is one who claims to be one based on his or her own agenda. So, the stories that see print and make the airwaves are the ones that focus on dreams or nightmares.

If you think politically, the religious right has a problem with "playing God," while the left does not want the corporate world messing with Mother Nature. Both sides take their lessons from science fiction: take a kernal of fact and extrapolate strange, new worlds via acres of "therefores."

And, meanwhile, in the world of real nanotech research, science advisory panels in both the United States and Britain have recently come out with more reports that pretty much say the same thing. We really need to study nanotechnology more.

There was something for everybody in the latest National Research Council report on nanotech.

From a scientific perspective, more study is good since, as British scientist Richard Jones put it so well in Nature, researchers are "fearing the fear of nanotechnology." They all remember the backlash against genetically modified foods in Europe. That's what happens when you let agenda groups claim the early mantle of "expert."

The nanotech business community, in a turnaround from their position a few years ago, is all for increased funding for environmental health and safety of nanomaterials.

Raymond David of BASF told Reuters that it's imperative that the U.S. get a handle on what's safe and what's not.

The alternative "puts a bit of fear in all of us that all of this effort will not be well received or may go the route of genetically modified foods in Europe," David said. "We certainly wouldn't want that."

No, we wouldn't. If we're going to avoid hysteria and ignorance on a massive scale, then we need to quickly fill the void with real knowledge. And quickly, before more "experts" talk to journalists.

The knowledge void: Here there be monsters
How PR 'spins' the atom
Wilson Center's nano numbers racket

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

'Nanocar' assembly worker wins Feynman Prize

Remember the "nanocar?" The guy who built the smallest vehicle in the known universe, James Tour of Rice University, just won a Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. See? We do make small, economy cars in the United States.

Everything is Animated
NanoEngineering Puts On A Happy Face
This little joint is jumping
Thank you, Foresight

Legal corruption will road-trip to Russia

Siemens AG is, no doubt, bringing its Davis Polk & Wardwell lawyers with them to Russia as it invests in nanotechnology.

In Russia, bribery is often simply a built-in cost of doing business, and Davis Polk, among others, appears to be quite proud of helping Siemens get off a little lighter after a decade of corrupt business practices.

Update: At Siemens, bribery was just a line item

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Innovation in Detroit ... yes, Detroit

Lost in all the sickening political posturing in Washington over the lives and livelihoods of millions of human beings is the fact that innovation is indeed occurring in my hometown of Detroit.

It's just not happening at the Big Three.

But it is at companies like A123, which Seeking Alpha recently reported may not have lost out after all to rival battery-maker LG Chem for the coveted contract for GM's new electric hybrid Volt. (I covered the unveiling of the prototype Volt two years ago.)

As I have written before, both companies have ties to Michigan and both are using nanotech to develop safe, long-lasting lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

Japanese companies like Toyota develop technologies like li-ion batteries largely in-house. While in the United States much of the real innovation occurs within smaller companies or groups until it's ready to be bought or gobbled by the big guys.

Motown's old automotive manufacturing and supplier jobs are gone. They won't come back. But automotive innovation, where nanotech plays a key role, is still happening in my poor, maligned, slandered and libeled, blighted, poverty-stricken, homeless, foreclosed and repo'd hometown of Detroit.

Nano Powering The Auto Revolution
Big Three Are Dead; Long Live The Little

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Introducing NanoBot Media

Well, here in Detroit it is impossible to find a job in journalism. So, while I continue my science/technology freelance career, I am also doing some public relations on the side. The story above represents the first success of NanoBot Media (The unofficial name I've given to all my various attempts to pay my mortgage and keep my kids clothed).

I was able to generate some decent coverage for a local coffee shop's campaign to give a free cup of coffee to every customer who promises to buy an American car. More information here. If you look closely in the middle of the video, about the time the reporter talks about Drew Barrymore, you can see me hunched over at a table in the background.

And, speaking of me, tomorrow I'll have another announcement to make -- this one having more to do with nanotechnology. Stay tuned.

My other life as a nanotech pitchman

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nanotech hair treatment just a trich?

The Times of London asks whether a hair-repair product from Nanomax is "Trick or Treatment?" The verdict from a trichologist: Trick.

The Times explains:

What is it? A permanent hair repair treatment that uses nanotechnology - the science of manipulating matter on a molecular level. Healthy hair is made up of 90 per cent keratin and 10 per cent moisture, but environmental or cosmetic damage can leave it split, with craters or minute cracks. Nanomax claims to penetrate the hair, duplicating its natural structure, helping to heal, repair, strengthen, protect and shine.


Trichologist's verdict: "It is not possible to 'heal' or 'repair' a broken hair, although remoisturising it is beneficial. ... There are more effective ways to remoisturise and condition your hair that don't blind you with (pseudo) science,” says Philip Kingsley, a trichologist. More here

The newspaper used a human "guinea-pig" for its nanotech experiments, by the way. I am proud to say that NanoBot and Small Times (back when I was news editor) bravely pioneered this method of using human test subjects.

... and I am a trivial boy
Don't hate me because I'm nano-beautiful
Nerd American Idol
Beauty and the Nano Beat

Monday, December 08, 2008

Putting the tech back into nano

Almost five years ago, in my NanoBot post, Nanotubes and the tale of the rats, I discussed an often-cited Dupont study on the toxicity of carbon nanotubes, the material that will either build us an elevator to the stars or turn into the "next asbestos," depending on whose propaganda you want to believe.

ratIt was a study around which the anti-nanotech movement was built, since at the time it was the only one around that looked at the potential health effects of carbon nanotubes. I questioned whether pumping a rat's lungs full of nanotubes until he suffocated to death really proved anything.

Now, a new study published in the journal Nanotoxicology indeed shows that if you send a nanotube into a cell functionalized with the proper material and in the proper dosage, it does no damage. Increase the dosage, and damage occurs.

This is a point I've been trying to make for years on this blog. Nanotech is not about use of nanoscale materials only. It's also about engineering them to do what you need them to do. Right now, we're only in the beginning stages. Like I wrote back in January 2004:

This is how science works. Small steps, each study building on the conclusions of others. Nanotubes might, as the slogan goes these days, turn out to be the "next asbestos," but it is far too early to convict them of anything except being in the wrong rats at the wrong time.

Nanotubes and the tale of the rats
Nanotech? Nahh, doesn't exist yet

Sunday, December 07, 2008

'Star Trek' warps nanotech news


This report from a Canadian TV station rates a Star Trek NanoWarp Factor of 4 (in a scale I just invented based on the number of times "Star Trek" is mentioned in a single nanotech news story).

The video alongside the news story does not mention "Star Trek" even once, which means one of their news writers decided that Web readers will understand the story better if they sprinkled in a few "Star Trek" references. It's an annoying distraction, since as TV news stories go it actually does a competent job of outlining the hopes and fears of nanotech.

As a former TV Web writer for WDIV Local 4 in Detroit, I understand the attempt to make a connection with the reader. But somebody should inform the writer that the Web no longer appeals only to "Star Trek" geeks, and has not for a number of years.

In fact, if you haven't noticed, local TV news audiences are disappearing. And you know where all your viewers are now? They're getting their news on the Web, where they can find in-depth, substantive stories.

Oh, and this blog post rates a Star Trek NanoWarp Factor of 5.

Antediluvian NanoBots
NanoBots control the horizontal and vertical
NanoBots are Needed

Friday, December 05, 2008

Teen Meets The Nano Clumps

Discover magazine profiles 17-year-old Philip Streich of Platteville, Wis., in its 5 Promising Scientists Under 20 feature. The homeschooled kid started playing with carbon nanotubes in ninth grade, when he met James Hamilton, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville.

Streitch and Hamilton tried to crash through one of the main barriers to marketing nanotubes -- the little buggers tend to clump together. The two tried different kinds of solvents to keep the nanotubes separated without the little guys losing all those superstrong superpowers we all read about. The solution, according to Discover:

geniusStreich custom-built a spectrometer to probe the chemical characteristics of the nanotubes. Using these data, he discovered that the solvent N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidinone would indeed dissolve nanotubes. Streich then went on to find more solvents with the aid of the spectrometer. The project won him more than $100,000 in scholarship money, and he and Hamilton published their results [subscription required] last spring. By June Streich was celebrating an additional $50,000 victory at a state business-plan competition for a nanotech start-up called Graphene Solutions, which he had cofounded with Hamilton. "I never dreamed any of this would be possible," Streich says. “I really credit my parents’ support for allowing me to try homeschooling. If I had been in the regular school system, I doubt any of this would have developed." More here

I'm not so certain I agree with his comments about homeschooling vs. public schools, but I'm impressed with the rest. Gosh, when I was 17 I was reading a lot of Philip Roth and Cervantes, and wondering whether I would grow up to become the world's first Jewish celibate monk.

Nanotech for undergrads
Nano Nerd 2.0
High School Nails Nano

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Penn State's Little Recruiting Video

My daughter's a senior in high school and has already chosen a college. I don't know how many of these videos she's had to sit through. Penn State's Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (say it five times fast, and you've passed half the entrance exam) has a recruiting video out on YouTube. Students, feel the nano love. Parents, grip your wallets. Enjoy.

Jim Carrey and Conan talk quantum physics: Part III
Welcome, Rice University students

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nanotech? Nahh, doesn't exist yet

UT Dallas and Zyvex, the only company I am aware of devoted to true molecular manufacturing, recently announced a partnership to work on a new technique to "build 3D objects atom by atom."

But, wait ... isn't that what nanotech is supposed to be about? And we can't even do it yet? I mean, Merriam-Webster defines nanotechnology as "the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices (as robots)." And just about every news story you read about nanotech informs readers that it's about building new stuff atom by atom.

Well, this is why I've been hesitant to comment any further than I already have on the renewed debate over whether and how to "regulate nanotechnology." In my mind, we're not there yet, and the presence of nanoscale materials in sunscreens, socks and bowling balls does not mean we've entered the nanotech age.

Maybe we're partway there, at best, since the size of these particles does give them new properties that simultaneously create new benefits for the products and raise new fears over "tiny terrors" and other such alliterative nonsense we've been reading about lately.

But, to me, nanotech will have arrived when we not only can dump nanoscale materials into the soup, but we can precisely control their assembly and what they do once they go to work. The sunscreen with nanoscale ingredients you've been reading about is just that -- sunscreen with nanoscale ingredients. Not yet nanotech.

However, count on Zyvex chief James Von Ehr to keep his eyes on the prize during these cave-man days of nano.

"Our goal is to develop the capability to fabricate nanostructures in such a way that we can control position, size, shape and orientation at the nanometer scale, which is not possible today,” said Tom Kenny, DARPA program manager. “If we can demonstrate this, we will be able to truly unlock the potential capabilities of nanotechnology." More here

How PR 'spins' the atom
... and I am a trivial boy
Zyvex's Von Ehr on pixels, bits and stitches