Having written in this space about the (possibly) good and the (possibly) bad of food nanotechnology before, here is now a scientific approach to assessing how the public perceives nanotechnology in food and food packaging. Swiss social psychologist Michael Siegrist has looked into the issues of trust, risk and the public acceptance of nanotechnology before. Now, he and his colleagues have taken the area of nanofoods and tried to understand what factors influence the willingness to buy food that has been produced, processed or packaged with nanotechnology. Their conclusion: Perceived benefits seems to be the most important predictor for willingness to buy.
For centuries, man has searched for miracle cures to end suffering caused by disease and injury. Many researchers believe nanotechnology may be mankind's first "giant step" toward this goal. Whether these beliefs are based on facts or hope, many corporations and governments are willing to invest a great deal of money to find out what happens when nanotechnology is used for medical applications - the emerging field of nanomedicine. Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars have been invested by governments, such as the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and the private sector in nanomedicine research and nanotech-related life sciences ventures. The 2008 budget of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative provides more than $200 million for the National Institutes of Health. The European Union, particularly Germany and the UK, and Japan are also investing heavily in this field. It is difficult to find fault with a technology that promises to cure cancer almost before it starts and prevent the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases. Scientists around the globe are searching for ways to exploit nanoparticles to improve human health. However, there are toxicological concerns and ethical issues that come with nanomedicine and they have to be addressed alongside the benefits.
Experts and the public generally differ in their perceptions of risk. While this might be due to social and demographic factors, it is generally assumed by scientists who conduct risk research that experts' risk assessments are based more strongly on actual or perceived knowledge about a technology than lay people's risk assessments. In the case of nanotechnology, surveys show that most people are not familiar with it. The public perception of an emerging technology will have a major influence on the acceptance of this technology and its commercial success. If the public perception turns negative, potentially beneficial technologies will be severely constrained as is the case for instance with gene technology. It seems plausible that the evaluation of new technologies, such as nanotechnologies, is guided by people's theories and values. For instance, people for whom the technological revolution is associated with positive outcomes - and who are not afraid of possible negative side effects of technological progress - may assess nanotechnology applications more positively than people for whom negative effects outweigh positive effects. Researchers in Switzerland conducted two studies which examined how lay people and experts perceived various nanotechnology applications and how companies address the public's concerns.
As we reported today in our news coverage, the UK and the U.S. are to work together to develop a global science portal, making scientific information from many countries available via the internet. In contrast to the various national databases that already exist today, the new portal, to be known as "science.world", will build on the U.S. portal science.gov. The project has the goal of making the science offerings of all nations searchable in one global gateway. Given this comprehensive goal, and the rapidly gaining importance and wealth of nanotechnology related information, anything nanotech will have to be a significant part of this new library. One can't help but ask, though, if this effort by various nations' government agencies, led by the U.S. Department of Energy, is tax money well spent. Google, after all, is already developing such a service, called Google Scholar, and it beats all the existing government portals hands down.
The nanoworld cannot be portrayed with a camera, nor can it be seen even with the most powerful optical microscope. Only special instruments have access to images of the nanoworld. A fascinating new exhibition "Blow-up: images from the nanoworld" in Modena/Italy shows the work of scientists associated with the National Center on Nanostructures and Biosystems at Surfaces in Modena, Italy, headed by Elisa Molinari. The images have been manipulated in a variety of ways by photographer, Lucia Covi. Covi is particularly sensible to the aesthetic paradigms of scientists: her gaze thus grasps essential aspects of the portrayed objects and allows her to shine them with a new light, as they are revealed now. This exhibition brings to the public images that are usually accessible to few, because they remain confined in the research laboratories, on the scientists' desks. The images are stills that, over time, have been put together from different framings, and that we can look at thanks to the mediation of machines. Some of them represent exceptional events, outstanding results that ended on the cover of scientific journals. Others were born from everyday research. All of them show a landscape that is being unraveled by scientists, scenery that is very different from the one we can see in the media, largely obtained through computer graphics and "artistic" interpretations, when not directly borrowed from science fiction.
Nano-this and nano-that. Nanotechnology moves into the public consciousness. This 'nanotrend' has assumed 'mega' proportions: Patent offices around the world are swamped with nanotechnology-related applications; investment advisors compile nanotechnology stock indices and predict a coming boom in nanotechnology stocks with estimates floating around of a trillion-dollar industry within 10 years; pundits promise a new world with radically different medical procedures, manufacturing technologies and solutions to environmental problems; nano conferences and trade shows are thriving all over the world; scientific journals are awash in articles dealing with nanoscience discoveries and nanotechnology breakthroughs. Nanotechnology has been plagued by a lot of hype, but cynicism and criticism have not been far behind. The media can run amok when news about potential health problems with nanoproducts surface (as recently happened with a product recall for a bathroom cleaner in Germany). These discussions around nanotechnology epitomize the contemporary processes of making the future present. An interesting approach to dealing with the lack of consensus in the views on nanotechnology identifies eight main nodes of nanotechnology discourse and describes these "islands" of discussion, examines their interactions and degrees of isolation from each other.
You might have seen our recent Nanowerk Spotlight on modern military nanotechnology (Military nanotechnology - how worried should we be?) and read about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. military pours into nanotech research every year. Well, it turns out that metalsmiths in India perhaps as early as 300 AD, and presumably with a much lower budget, developed a new technique known as wootz steel that produced a high-carbon steel of unusually high purity. Wootz, which are small steel ingots, was widely exported and became particularly famous in the Middle East, where it became known as Damascus steel. This steel had extraordinary mechanical properties and an exceptionally sharp cutting edge. The original Damascus steel swords were made possibly as early as 500 AD to as late as 1750 AD. What's so interesting about this? It turns out that the secret of Damascus steel is carbon nanotubes. Recently discovered in the nanostructure of a 17th century Damascus saber, the nanotubes could have encapsulated iron-carbide (cementite) nanowires that might give clues to the mechanical strength and sharpness of these swords.
Nanotechnology has recently found practical applications in the conservation and restoration of the world's cultural heritage. Nanoparticles of calcium and magnesium hydroxide and carbonate have been used to restore and protect wall paints, such as Maya paintings in Mexico or 15th century Italian masterpieces. Nanoparticle applications were also used to restore old paper documents, where acidic inks have caused the cellulose fibers to break up, and to treat acidic wood from a 400-year-old shipwreck.