If you belong to the sizeable number of flag-waving, hand-on-the-bible type of Americans who believe that America has assumed it's god-given role as leader of the free world (if you don't live in this country, don't laugh; unfortunately this is not a joke) you probably haven't read Thomas L. Friedman's book 'The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century' (but then of course you wouldn't read something from an East Coast liberal columnist for the New York Times). In a chapter titled 'The Quiet Crisis' Friedman quotes Shirley Ann Jackson, the 2004 president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute since 1999: "The sky is not falling, nothing horrible is going to happen today" says Jackson. "The U.S. is still the leading engine for innovation in the world. It has the best graduate programs, the best scientific infrastructure, and the capital markets to exploit it. But there is a quiet crisis in U.S. science and technology that we have to wake up to. The U.S. today is in a truly global environment, and those competitor countries are not only wide awake, they are running a marathon while we are running sprints. If left unchecked, this could challenge our preeminence and capacity to innovate. "A roadmap project on the future of engineering in the U.S. is coming pretty much to the same conclusion. The fundamental knowledge undergirding engineering practice increasingly requires research at the extremes, from nanotechnology to the mega level of global systems such as civil infrastructure, energy, and climate change as well as the mastery of new tools such as cyber infrastructure and quantum engineering. The report urges that this requires far greater attention by government and industry to the support of the long-term basic engineering research necessary to build the knowledge base key to addressing society's needs. This is increasingly challenged both by the relentless pace of new technologies and their declining ability to attract a diverse cadre of the most capable students compared to other professional programs such as law, medicine, and business administration.
One of the more interesting concerns of nanotechnology is 'grey goo.' The term was invented by Eric Drexler to describe one of the dangerous issues that must be faced as nanotechnology capabilities evolve. Here's how it works. 1. Pretend that nanotechnology truly exists to the point where we can fabricate machines of arbitrary complexity using individual atoms or molecules. 2. Pretend that these machines have sufficient complexity and computational means that they can make copies of themselves using whatever happens to be lying within their reach. 3. Pretend that their fabrication systems are such that they can make a copy of themselves about once an hour. 4. Pretend that one of these machines decides to do nothing except make copies of itself.
As Bubba in Forrest Gump pointed out, there are lots of possibilities with shrimps: "You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it ... there's ah... pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich...that's about it." It sounds pretty much the same when you listen to researchers talking about the numerous strategies for synthesizing nanoparticles - you can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it (well, kind of) ... there's ah... sonochemical processing, cavitation processing, microemulsion processing, and high-energy ball milling. The problem is that, no matter what route you choose, nanoparticle synthesis is normally quite a tricky process that requires a lot of skill and expertise on the part of the chemist to obtain good quality particles of well controlled size and shape. Researchers in the UK tried to see if they could automate the whole procedure by preparing the nanoparticles in automated chemical reactors under the direct control of a computer. If successful, such reactors would find numerous applications in nanoscience and nanotechnology, especially in the areas of photonics, optoelectronics, bio-analysis and targeted drug delivery.
Having just re-read Richard Feynman's 20-year old autobiography titled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) I thought it makes for a great little Nanowerk Spotlight leading into the weekend - and it won't be about nanotechnology. Feynman's 1959 lecture "Plenty of room at the bottom" is probably the most famous and most quoted physics speech ever and it is the one thing that most non-scientists associate with his name. Feynman, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on on quantum electrodynamics, participated in the Manhattan Project and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. He taught physics, first at Cornell and later at the California Institute of Technology. In typical Feynman fashion, a major factor in his decision of chosing CalTech over other institutions was a desire to live in a mild climate, a goal he chose while having to put snow chains on his car's wheels in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca, New York. What makes this book such a gem is the weird and wacky collection of anecdotes that Feynman serves up when leading us through his childhood, education and career. Whether he learns how to pick locks and crack safes, plays the bongo drums in an orchestra, gets a commission to paint a naked female toreadore, or competes in a samba competition during Carnival in Rio, the book is not about physics, but the physicist. Underneath all these hilarious stories, though, are recurring leitmotifs of curiosity, tenacity, and total disrespect for ideas that have no grounding in science. For everyone who is quoting Feynman's speech, or who is reading it, this autobiography goes a long way explaining the unconventional mind behind his revolutionary ideas.
Forecasting technological developments is notoriously tricky. Many futurologists choose a safe 50 to 100 years timeframe to make sure they are dead, and the book royalties spent, when the forecasts are due (or they skip the science part altogether and write science fiction). A few months ago we introduced you to a "Detailed Roadmap of the 21st Century", a year by year bullet point list of notable advances expected to happen in the 21st century. There is no wiggling out - the names of the people or organization making a forecast is attached to it. Already there are some missed forecasts - 8 out of 13 since 2001. Then there is another type of forecast, favored by some consultants and investment advisors, that attempts to predict the dollar value of product markets within a timeframe much shorter than that of futurologists and sci-fi writers. Although this group of forecasters develops elaborate models and methodologies, the outcome is equally dubious. A third type of forecast might be the most useful; here, the input comes from the group of people who live and breath the technology every day - the companies developing, building and selling products and services. Of course, the focus of this type of forecast necessarily becomes increasingly blurry as well as it looks into the future, but it tends to avoid the hyperbole and a lot of the speculative nature of other types of forecast. A recent UK study provides a purely industry-led forecast for nanotechnologies and examines industry's existing opinion of the economic potential for nanotechnologies.
"Canadians spy on U.S. with nanotechnology coins!" You might remember this hilarious story that made the rounds a few weeks ago. The U.S. Defense Department had issued an espionage warning after U.S. Army contractors traveling in Canada had filed confidential espionage accounts about Canadian coins as "anomalous" and "filled with something man-made that looked like nanotechnology." It just exemplifies how the term "nanotechnology" gets thrown around and misused for all kinds of purposes. Just because something is really small doesn't mean it has to do with nanotechnology. Of course, here at Nanowerk we sometimes fall into the same trap and use "nanotechnology" in a story headline just to make it catchier, even if the underlying story is not so much about a "technology" but rather a nanoscale phenomenon. Today's Spotlight therefore takes a step back and looks some of the various nanoscale phenomena that make new technologies - nanotechnologies - possible and that hold the key to many technological advances that lie ahead of us.
Nano-this and nano-that. These days it seems you need the prefix "nano" for products or applications if you want to be either very trendy or incredibly scary. 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 misleading 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 nano- technology breakthroughs. Nanotechnology has been plagued by a lot of hype, but cynicism and criticism have not been far behind. Science fiction writers exploit fears of nanorobots turning into killers; the media can run amok when news about potential health problems with nanoproducts surface (as happened last year with a product recall for a bathroom cleaner in Germany). Some see doomsday scenarios of molecular self-assembly turning the world into "grey goo." The emerging polarization of opinions on nanotechnology is reminiscent of controversies about genetically modified plants or nuclear energy. Vague promises of a better life are met by equally vague, generalized fears about a worse future. These debates have some aspects in common: the subject is complex and not easy to explain; there is no consensus on risks and benefits; scientists and corporations seem able to proceed unchecked, and it is unclear who is in control.
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.