by Preston MacDougall
March 16, 2005
Michael Crichton's sci-fi thriller "Prey" put a pretty face on a revolutionary horror for those who are very imaginative, but not terribly incredulous, when it comes to the dangers of technological progress. The new horror is self-replicating, out-of-control "gray goo", and the new technology is nanotechnology.
At first, nanotechnology was going to bring utopia. Cars would self-assemble. Manufactured goods would be so cheap that money itself would become a thing of the past. Then came gray goo.
From my perspective, both the utopian and the gooey scenarios are pure fantasy. But if the longevity of chemophobia (despite the doubling of life expectancy derived from modern chemistry) has taught chemists anything, it is that such platitudes are feeble weapons against fear. Education works best.
Let's start with the word nanotechnology itself. Since governments (not just ours), as well as many forward-thinking companies, are spending billions of dollars on programs that include this magic word, it must mean something.
It should be a relatively straight-forward deconstruction, like "automotive technology" is the science and engineering that is associated with the design, manufacture and maintenance of Oldsmobiles, for instance. But when people hear "nano", they often draw a blank, or wonder if it is just a playful term for futuristic gizmos, perhaps inspired by Mork from Ork. Nanoo, nanoo.
Because the U.S. hasn't yet weaned itself from the British Imperial system of measurement that was favored by Kings and Queens of yore, many people don't know that the prefix nano- simply means "one billionth". And so, a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. In other words, if something is measured in nanometers, it is really, really small.
When it was originally suggested, the term nanotechnology referred to the ultimate in the miniaturization of manufacturing. Any smaller and you just wouldn't have enough atoms to provide the functional fidelity that we associate with "high tech".
To continue with the lesson on the metric system, mixing in some fun with fractions, cells are commonly measured in micrometers - units of measurement that are one million times smaller than a meter, but a thousand times bigger than a nanometer.
Atoms have diameters that are usually quoted in Angstroms, and there are ten Angstroms to a nanometer. Logically then, nanotechnology refers to the science and engineering of designing and manufacturing objects that are in between cells and atoms in size.
The only problem with this definition is that it could also do double-duty as a definition of chemistry, and nanotechnology isn't chemistry, is it?
Familiar molecules such as sucrose and penicillin are about one nanometer in length. We don't usually think of chemists, who can make such compounds in their labs from atomic scratch, or chemical engineers, who can make them from natural resources by the metric ton, as doing nanotechnology. That is, however, exactly what they are doing. Chemists are the masters of the atomic domain, and nanotechnology is just an extension of this skill set to applications that are more technologically dazzling than sweetening breads or killing bacteria.
While too many cooks will spoil the broth, I'm not sure if this applies to bouille-abaisse. I do know, however, that when it comes to reviewing research proposals for the National Science Foundation, a champion for nanotechnology, I have been most impressed with teams of researchers from multiple disciplines. Physicists working with chemists working with physicians, and so on. Like the economy, science has gone global too.
Chemistry yes, but nanotechnology is not your grandfather's chemistry. Perhaps seeing nanotechnology in this light will give us all a better perspective. In the worst-case scenario, two burdening, but distinct fears could morph into one monstrous, crippling fear. To be completely honest, that's what I'm afraid of. An awful lot is riding on education.
Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (www.wmot.org).