Nanotechnology—in bed with Madonna?

April 25, 2008

If you want proof that nano is mainstream, just pick up the U.S. May edition of fashion magazine “Elle.”   Sharing cover-space with Madonna is the latest article on nanotech and the beauty business.

Elle might not be your first choice of reading for cutting edge science, but Joanne Chen’s article “Small Wonders” is no slouch when it comes to conveying complex ideas in digestible bites.  Using beauty products as examples (from hair dryers to conditioners to anti-wrinkle cream), Chen takes the reader on a journey through the wonders and worries of nano.   As an exercise in making nanotechnology accessible, the article is a must-read.   Read the rest of this entry »

U.S. nanotechnology risk research funding—separating fact from fiction

April 18, 2008

The most recent estimate from the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) puts nanotechnology risk research investment at $68 million for 2006 (the only year complete figures are currently available for—apparently).  Yet theProject on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has just completed its own assessment—and could only find $13 million associated with research projects primarily focused on addressing nanotechnology risk in the same year.  What gives—are the feds indulging in a bit of creative accounting; or have PEN forgotten the basic rules of arithmetic?

Let’s be honest, I’m not a great fan of bean-counting.  Evaluating research in terms of dollars invested (or Pounds or Euros) is a crude tool at the best of times.  But when it comes to assessing investments and returns, the fact is that bottom-line figures count.   Read the rest of this entry »

Of jellybeans and buckyballs…

April 13, 2008

Here’s a small diversion for a slow Sunday afternoon:  Take sixty jellybeans and ninety cocktail sticks, and try to construct a model of a buckyball—a carbon-60 molecule.  It’s tricky, but not impossible.

Constructing a candy buckminster fullerene is one of ten nano “experiments” in a new nanotechnology education kit from nanobits. Designed to enthuse and inform kids in school and at home about nanotechnology, the nanobits kit grew out of Nanovic (Nanotechnology Victoria Ltd.)—an Australian initiative to translate nanotechnology research into commercial applications. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m breathing in nanoparticles, so why aren’t I dead already?

April 5, 2008

Read some accounts of nanotechnology risks, and you might be forgiven for concluding that a single engineered nanoparticle can kill you.  Of course, a little critical thinking soon dispels this notion—we are constantly bombarded with incidental nanoparticles from sources that include cars, incinerators and fires; we have been since birth.  And as critics of “risk extremists” often point out, we seem to be doing just fine in this nano-rich environment.  But does this mean that the potential risks associated with engineered nanoparticles are little more than a myth?

This was the question I faced while writing an opinions piece for the latest issue of Nano Today.  It’s a question that’s constantly popping up, either because someone has forgotten (or never realized) that nanoparticle exposure is a fact of life, or as a justification for not worrying about the engineered varieties of nanoparticles. Read the rest of this entry »

The passing of a science hero

March 19, 2008

On March 18th, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died in his home in Sri Lanka at the age of 90.  A master developer and assembler of ideas, Clarke will be remembered fondly by many for igniting their enthusiasm for science, and how it might be used to better our lives.  His passing leaves a hole in the ranks of science heroes who inspire us to look beyond the obvious, and question the unquestionable.

My early childhood was full of the stories of Clarke, Asimov and others, and without a doubt these writers set me on a path to exploring how the world works and how we can extend our reach with this knowledge.  Clarke had the knack of taking what was known, and pushing it that little bit further into the realms of the “what if…?”.  In doing so, he was the perfect foil to the established scientific community; asking the questions others shied away from and stimulating the process of discovery and development afresh.  But he also excelled at raising scientific consciousness across the board, and sowing the seeds of effective and informed science engagement. Read the rest of this entry »

Communicating nanotechnology: Image counts!

February 8, 2008

What determines your view of nanotechnology—the message, or the messenger?  Most of us would like to think it is the message that governs our internal risk-benefit analysis.  But research published this week suggests other factors may be at work.

Dan Kahan at Yale Law School and his colleagues are shaking up our ideas on effective communication and engagement when it comes to complex issues like emerging nanotechnologies.  They have already demonstrated what many jaded science communicators have learned the hard way—that shouting louder and longer about the facts doesn’t necessarily lead to “right-minded” thinking in the general population.*  In their latest study (available here) they show that when it comes to balancing possible nanotechnology benefits and risks, the messenger is quite possibly as important as the message. Read the rest of this entry »

Labels of contention

February 1, 2008

Labeling – is there anything more contentious in the safe nanotech debate?  Some are fearful that too much knowledge will confuse and worry muddle-headed consumers.  Others can only see the marketing opportunities of a “nano-inside” label. Then you have the nano-doomsday merchants, who seemingly would like nothing better than to slap a bright yellow nano-hazard sticker on all things small.

And of course, we cannot forget those “magic” nano products – not the surface treatment that allegedly messed people’s lungs up (which was neither magic, nor nano) – but those items which miraculously change from “nano-enabled” to “nano-no-more” at the wave of a marketing executive’s wand. Read the rest of this entry »

Synthetic biology and nanotechnology

January 26, 2008

The popular computer game “SimLife” allows users to create and manipulate virtual people.  But what are the chances of us one day being able to do the same with real organisms: building new life-forms out of basic chemicals, so “SimLife” becomes “SynLife”?

This week’s announcement by J. Craig Venter’s team (and the associated paper in Science) that they have successfully synthesized the complete genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium is an important step towards achieving what is becoming known as “synthetic biology”.  By constructing complete DNA sequences from scratch, the door is being opened to transforming common laboratory chemicals into new living organisms; that are engineered with specific purposes in mind.  And perhaps not surprisingly, this manipulation of DNA at the nanoscale is increasingly being seen as part of the “nanotechnology revolution”.

But is synthetic biology really nanotechnology? Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology and the God of Small Things

January 12, 2008

With apologies to Arundhati Roi for “borrowing” the title of her moving book, what—if anything—has nanotechnology got to do with religion?

Barnaby Feder of the New York Times takes on this issue in his latest posting to the Bits blog:

“There may not be a lot of agreement among the world’s religions on exactly what constitutes humans “playing God,” but you never hear a preacher or rabbi suggesting such behavior is wise or laudable. So you would think they might have a lot to say about nanotechnology. After all, nanotech involves rearranging not just DNA and the other building blocks of life — already a source of controversy in biotechnology — but the very atoms and molecules that make up all matter. If that is not messing around in God’s closet, what is?”

The big issue it seems is transhumanism—the use of existing and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, to extend and change what it means to be human.  Will nanotechnology give us the ability to do what only God should?  Can we somehow thwart God’s plans, and take control of our own destiny?  Or is there nano-knowledge that should be forbidden? Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology: The cause, the cure, and the spin-off product

January 11, 2008

What do Alzheimers and body armour have in common?  The answer could lie in the structures formed when proteins self-assemble at the nanoscale.

At the end of last year, The Daily Telegraph Science Editor Roger Highfield wrote in an article:

“The protein linked with Alzheimer’s disease has inspired the design of “nanoyarns” that could be put to a vast range of uses, from body armour to parachutes and super strong nets.”

The research, published in the journal Science by Tuomas Knowles and other members of Mark Welland’s team at the University of Cambridge (U.K.), studied the properties of nanometre-diameter fibrils formed from misfolding proteins.  In tests, these fibrils showed the potential to outperform many conventional natural materials, leading to Knowles and colleagues referring to them as “a class of high performance biomaterials”.  Read the rest of this entry »

$7 billion on nanotech R&D, and what do we have to show for it?

January 4, 2008

In 2004, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) had a strategy – and it was OK.  But what has happened since then?  Has progress been made against planned actions?  What have been the major challenges to progress?  Have effective solutions been found?  And how have the lessons and experiences of the last three years influenced strategic nano-thinking in the government?

You might be forgiven for supposing that the updated Strategic Plan – published this week – holds the answers.  No such luck! Read the rest of this entry »

Nano’s silver lining is… Blue?

December 22, 2007

So you’ve developed an obsessive nano-silver Benny the Bear paw-chewing habit, and on the advice of your hairdresser, you’re quaffing silver nanoparticle suspensions by the pint.  What do you get?

Well, according to a story airing on CNN this week, what you get is… blue skin! Read the rest of this entry »

Benny the Bear, and the case of the disappearing nanoparticles

December 15, 2007

Let me introduce you to Benny the Bear. Benny is a rather cute cuddly toy sold by the U.S. company Pure Plushy—we met at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional Nanotech Caucus a few weeks back. His claim to fame is a resistance to moulds, mites and bacteria. Read the rest of this entry »

Drinking at the champagne bar of modern science

December 8, 2007

A trip through the newly refurbished St. Pancras station in London this week, and home to the widely-proclaimed “longest champagne bar in Europe”, prompted the following thought: At the champagne bar of modern science, are risk researchers the cappuccino drinkers tucked away in the corner? Read the rest of this entry »

Animating the small stuff

December 1, 2007

Are nanotechnology Grand Challenges too grand for you?  Do Strategic Research Frameworks lead to you contemple a strategic withdrawal?  Have you prioritized just one too many research needs?  You are clearly in need of The Adventures of Nanoman—now available on YouTube. Read the rest of this entry »

Are we on a nanotechnology joyride?

November 25, 2007

Are we so caught up in the thrill of nanotechnology, that we are blind to future pitfalls?  Are we having the new technology ride of our lives—with someone else’s future?  Are we living for the nanotech moment, and leaving the consequences to others to deal with?  In short, are we on a nanotechnology joyride? Read the rest of this entry »

Overseeing nanotechnology development

November 18, 2007

If you’ve ever wondered how to deal with the complexities of regulating a twenty first century technology like nanotechnology, wonder no more.  Last week, President Bush’s top advisors on science and the environment published a set of principles for nanotechnology environment, health and safety oversight. Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnologies of humility

November 11, 2007

Some nanotechnology events should come with a health warning, perhaps along the lines of: “This meeting could seriously alter your perspective”.  Because nanotechnology crosses such diverse areas of interest and expertise, there is a danger of being exposed to ideas that are radically different from your own.  And where exposure occurs, “infection” becomes an issue. Read the rest of this entry »

Invest in nano applications, and the risks will take care of themselves?

November 4, 2007

I have on my desk a plastic bag of carbon nanotubes—2 grams of dry, 60% purity single walled carbon nanotubes to be precise—bought from Cheap Tubes Inc. for the princely sum of $80.  And I am wondering what to do with them. Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology in context – Size matter

November 1, 2007

In July 2007, a specially convened task force of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that size does in fact matter (FDA 2007).  The focus of the task force was not on the importance of “largeness”, but rather on the technology of the unimaginably small—nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the technology of manipulating matter at near-atomic levels; typically, but not exclusively, within the size range of 1 – 100 nanometers.  Working at this scale, it becomes possible to combine materials in ways and forms unimaginable more than a few decades ago.  Imagine the contrast between eighteenth century surgery and modern microsurgery, and you begin to get an idea of what this emerging technology offers.

According to the FDA task force, “properties of a material relevant to the safety and (as applicable) effectiveness of FDA-regulated products might change repeatedly as size enters into or varies within the nanoscale range”. But as Professor James Moor and Professor John Wecker point out in the Spring 2007 edition of Medical Ethics [PDF, 805 KB], nanotechnology not only raises safety and regulatory issues, but ethical questions as well (Moor and Wecker 2007). Read the rest of this entry »

“Selling out” on nanotechnology outreach

October 27, 2007

Somewhere, I must have taken a wrong turn in my life.  Three years ago, I was a serious scientist, doing research no-one understood, and writing papers no-one read. Now I find myself making videos about cream cakes.

It all started to go amiss when I got mixed up with a crowd with crazy ideas about engaging people on science.  First it was the small stuff—being interviewed by ten-year-olds about nanotechnology.  Before I knew it I was writing letters to fictional characters about nanotechnology policy (I’m still waiting for an answer from Arthur Weasley by the way…).  But this week I hit rock bottom: a video extolling the educational potential of an American artificial cream-stuffed sponge cake—the Twinkie! Read the rest of this entry »

People breathing in nanoparticles? Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

October 8, 2007

Admit it-deep down, your don’t really believe people will be exposed to engineered nanomaterials.  After all, most nanomaterials will be made in enclosed reactors, handled as precious commodities where not a particle can be spared, and irreversibly incorporated into a bewildering array of products.  And those that do start their life as nanoparticles will clump together in the blink of an eye, becoming nano-no-more before anyone can breathe them, touch them or (goodness forbid) eat them!

At least, that is how the argument goes.  Read the rest of this entry »