On nanotechnology

The public’s view of science always seems weird to me. On the one hand, despite the incredible impact that science has on everyone’s lives, all the time, most of the time we are ignored. This is probably a good thing, because the few times we’re noticed, what we’re said to do seems to be so far removed from either reality or context as to be unrecognizable. The recent dust-up with Creationism, Inc. was a good example of this. So, too, was Ted Kaczynski’s manifest and worldview, which posited that modern technology was driving the world (not just Ted himself) mad.

Most recently we find the same strain of anti-intellectual terrorism in the bombing of Mexican scientists who were loosely associated with the catch-all term ‘nanotechnology’ (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/americas/package-bomb-explodes-injures-2-professors-at-university-campus-in-suburb-of-mexico-city/2011/08/08/gIQAldeM3I_story.html). The accompnaying manifesto (there’s always a need to explain why you’re a homicidal maniac, isn’t there? It’s not just enough that you’re a homicidal maniac) says that:

“The manifesto expressed fears that that nanoparticles could reproduce uncontrollably and form a “gray goo” that would snuff out life on Earth.

“When these modified viruses affect the way we live through a nano-bacteriological war, unleashed by some laboratory error or by the explosion of nano-pollution that affects the air, food, water, transport, in short the entire world, then all of those who defend nanotechnology and don’t think it is a threat will realize that it was a grave error to let it grow out of control,” according to statement.”

Now, I’m used to the notion that the scion of England is inbred enough to believe that gray goo is going to begin to drip out of his faucet and invade his orifices (and incidentally: way to go, Prince Charles; I hope you’re so proud). But I expect better from anarchists. Heck, my friend Antonio Lazcano recently examined this topic on his radio show in Mexico City, and he expects better from anarchists, too.

Here’s my beef with the manifesto (the beef with homicidal maniacs being obvious). What does it even mean? What is a “nano-bacteriological war?” All bacteria live at the nanoscale, so we’ve been under nano-bacteriological attack since the dawn of human history. And the engineering of biology began well in advance of any appreciation of physics at the nanoscale. Is using yeast to make beer an example of a nano-bacteriological attack on human consciousness? Or can we just down one in the local pub without fear of reprisal?

But I’m coming from the biological side of the fence, and Dexter Johnson got at this underlying confusion way before I did (http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/semiconductors/nanotechnology/nanotech-terrorists-apparently-dont-know-what-nanotechnology-is):

“It seems to me there might be much to be radical about in this day and age, but focusing your frustration and outrage at a bunch of material scientists who ride their bikes to work and spend their days focusing atomic force microscopes hardly seems like it’s well directed or helpful.

It’s even worse when you clearly have no idea of what you’re talking about. You need to know what nanotechnology is before you can be outraged by it.”

So, between Dr. Johnson and I maybe we can bat the exploding packages back-and-forth between the nanotechnology and synthetic biology communities. Or maybe we can just agree that making the Andromeda Strain is not really within the realm of possibility, and move on? These folks could perhaps save their ire for, I dunno, some sort of Che-versus-Trotsky cage match?

The real issue is that while the gap between the rich and the poor grows increasingly wider (Middle class? What’s that?), the gap between the technosavvy and the ignorant also gapes. Here’s a clue for our anarchist pals: if you don’t understand what you’re talking about, then don’t bomb it. There was a time, not so long ago, when scientists helped determine the outcome of a Very Big War. In that Very Big War some Very Smart Scientists who truly understood the impact of their work said “Hell no, we ain’t workin’ for the Nazis, where’s the door” (seriously, this is a direct quote from Einstein, look it up). The technosavvy voted with their feet, voted for an alternative social and political system. You anarchists got anyone like that? Anyone at all who actually, say, has a Nobel prize or even an advanced degree? No? Then kindly realize that you have no idea what you’re talking about and go back to visiting your homicidal tendencies on your internecine political squabbles. You’re making yourself look worse than ethically deranged; you’re making yourself look ethically deranged *and* stupid.

And for the rest of the populace who may have a similar level of technological knowledge: we scientists do appreciate being left alone, for the most part, but if it’s going to lead to a general backsliding into a new Dark Ages, then perhaps we (scientists and the public) should all take our games up several notches. As the classics say:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – - that’s all.”

We scientists indeed know what we mean, and the mechanistic underpinning, as well. Just screaming “Nanotechnology!” and lighting a fuse does not make the notion that some materials scientist is making a chemical replicator any more likely than it does that a synthetic biologist can make a crystal with a metabolism. We really are more than happy to explain these things to you, as the incredibly free distribution of scientific knowledge attests. You just have to be willing to listen, and not so inclined to blow us up.


- originally posted on Sunday, August 14th, 2011