Thursday, November 30, 2006

Discerning Nanotech's Identiry

This was posted a month or so ago on the CNS web site. I'm not sure how long it was on the home page before it was displaced. So, here it is again:

Will the real nano please stand up? As scholars and policy makers from a variety of fields grapple with the potential societal implications of nanotechnology, one of the first hurdles they must overcome is definitional. Indeed, the term “nanotechnology” itself is problematic. Nanotech isn’t a particular thing or process. It is more accurate (although less convenient) to speak of nanotechnologies.

Nanotechnologies already span a wide range of materials, processes, and devices. Most commonly considered of late are passive nanoscale particles incorporated into commercial products. When the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released an inventory earlier this year of nano-products, nearly 60 percent related to health and fitness. While hardly novel – humans have been able to make and manipulate nanosize particles for centuries – the types of materials and their presence in quotidian products like cosmetics has generated considerable amount of recent media attention when nano’s possible risks are discussed.

The second major category in the Woodrow Wilson inventory covers products which integrate nanoscale features into actual devices such as computer chips. Unfortunately, the category masks the ubiquity of these products in everyday life. Downhill skis and tennis rackets with embedded nanoparticles receive the same analytical weight as electronic goods already in homes and offices around the globe. Such inventories also often neglect devices made via nanofabrication techniques such as 700 million or so diode lasers made annually via epitaxial deposition. While the Woodrow Wilson catalog is an excellent first stage, more information about the economic impact of these various products and independent verification of their ‘nano-ness’ might provide nano-and-society researchers with a more refined sense of perspective and scale.

A third aspect of nanotechnology, far removed from the realm of passive nanoscale particles, is what, for many, galvanized their initial interest, enthusiasm, and even dread about the possibilities of nanotechnology. Not yet represented in commercial inventories, active nanostructures, nanobots, and self-guided molecular assemblers stood at the heart of the whole Drexlerian vision of building a future world, or at least future products, from the bottom up.

In late September 2006, the National Research Council (NRC) released its triennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The report, titled A Matter of Size, discusses these different facets of the nano-enterprise. Over twenty experts from industry, national laboratories, and universities prepared it while dozens more offered input on topics ranging from “Responsible Development of Nanotechnology” to “Technology Transfer and Economic Impacts.” The NRC report praises the interagency collaboration that has enabled funding more than twenty centers for research on nanotechnology. Interestingly, the two national Centers for Nanotechnology in Society – funded more than a year ago at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Arizona State University – were not included in the report’s list of national centers nor mentioned in the chapter devoted to “Responsible Development of Nanotechnology.”

Substantial press coverage accompanied the report’s release. On September 26, for instance, The New York Times’s business section (where the Times presents most of its nano news) reported how the NRC panel offered a “hopeful but guarded analysis” of the U.S.’s broad performance in nanotechnology research. A close reading of A Matter of Size provides some valuable insights into the state of nanoscale research in development in the United States. Included in its 143 pages are evaluations of the effectiveness of federal agencies in coordinating nanotech research, comparative information on national publication and patenting rates, and the environmental, health, and safety issues associated with nano.

The authors of A Matter of Size are quite explicit in their opinion that, rather than a discrete thing or technique, nanotechnology is an enabling technology. Much like rocket developments enabled the exploration of the space frontier and the exploitation of space for military and commercial uses, nanotechnologies have the potential to open up the nano frontier. In fact, one might think of the NNI’s focus on building up, as the NRC report says, a “robust R&D infrastructure” in the same manner that NASA’s creation in 1958 helped catalyze capabilities in aerospace and aeronautics technologies.

Different aspects of nano’s identity emerge in the report’s chapter on economic impact. Referencing a 2004 report from Lux Research, the NRC panel concludes that “the nanotechnology value chain cuts from nano-materials to nano-intermediates to nano-enabled products.” This fact is often missing in generalized discussion regarding nano’s potential benefits and risks – when one talks nano, which nano is it? Is it low-tech nanoparticles in food and cosmetics? Or electronics with nanoscale features? Obviously both. However, it is the former flavor that has received the bulk of the attention public opinion surveys, NGO reports, and testimony to Congress about nanotech’s potential risks.

When scientists and policy makers introduced the NNI in 2000, they did so with bold rhetorical flourishes that highlighted nano’s transformative potential for the U.S. economy. In fact, the multi-agency report that first presented the NNI was subtitled “Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution.” Inside, readers were told that sometime in the “early 21st century” nano “will have a profound impact on our economy and society.”

As federal funding for nanotechnology increased and then stabilized, policy makers tempered this rhetoric somewhat. A 2003 report accompanying President Bush’s FY 2004 budget request for the NNI included the phrase “research and development supporting the next industrial revolution” in its title with little focus in the text given to the time scale on which this transformation might occur.

The new NRC report follows this trend and offers a measured assessment of how far in the distance the nano-revolution appears. Just like the “20-40 year period for the development of computing and communications technologies,” nano is a “long-term undertaking whose goals and benefits will take time to realize.” While less dramatic than initial pronouncements regarding nano’s implications for the U.S. economy, the NRC report accurately notes that technological “revolutions” are rarely simple or swift.

When Congress passed Public Law 108-153, it specifically asked the NRC to do a one-time study of “the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly.” The fifth chapter of the NRC report, although not discussed in The New York Times, returns to some of nano’s historical roots as it dutifully fulfills the Congressional mandate.

The inclusion of molecular self-assembly references a third flavor of nanotechnology and one that, arguably, stimulated much of the original interest in nanotechnology. The concept of molecular assemblers harks back to the relatively early days of nano, at least in terms of its promotion and presentation to the public. In the 1980s, K. Eric Drexler forcefully advocated for the idea that new materials and devices could be fabricated from the bottom-up using atoms and molecules as basic building blocks. It was this vision of “molecule-by-molecule” control that Drexler described, for example, in 1992 at a Congressional hearing convened by then-Senator Albert Gore.

Drexler’s vision of hypothetical autonomous assemblers was taken up and elaborated on by scores of science-fiction writers. It also is the vision of nanotechnology that the public thinks of first according to a forthcoming article by Waldron et al. in The Journal of Nanoparticle Research. If nothing else, scenarios of nanobots either running amok or working productively to “manufacture complex, large-scale industrial objects” sit at the heart of the nano-vision. Drexler’s vision represents another part of nanotechnology’s identity and one that has received considerable hostility from the mainstream scientific community – witness the infamous ‘debate’ between Drexler and the late Richard Smalley in 2003 in the pages of Chemical and Engineering News.

Few studies of nano have carefully considered the role of the more fantastical portrayals of nanotechnology in shaping the public’s perception. A 2004 study by Cobb and Macoubrie did look at the possible effects of Michael Crichton’s novel Prey but the results were inconclusive. Only about 10% of the people polled had read it. Here, I suggest, analogies with the early days of space exploration or the decades before nuclear fission was a scientific reality may be more important than recognized.

While the NRC panel did not dismiss the Drexlerian vision entirely, it concluded that it was best relegated to “visionary engineering analysis” for now. In making its point, the panel drew a historical analogy with space exploration. This was an interesting departure as GMOs and biotech are invoked most frequently as potential analogs for understanding nano’s benefits and risks. The idea of molecular self-assembly was akin, the report said, to the early 20th century writings of visionaries like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and those researchers today who are designing space elevators based on “hypothetical carbon nanotube composite materials.”

Another useful analogy can be drawn from the history of space flight, as well. During the Cold War, the government supported space technologies as instruments of state power and prestige. Concomitantly, the American public mobilized behind a vision of space travel that matched what movies and fiction presented – moon bases, trips to Mars, and so forth. It is doubtful that a vision based on the current state of affairs – a science-shorn space station or a space-capable SUV (otherwise known as the Space Shuttle) – could have galvanized such wide support.

When he testified to Congress in 1999 in support of the NNI, Richard Smalley noted that exploring the nano-frontier could inspire a new cohort of youngsters just as space exploration had motivated his generation. With federal support of nano research and development running at over a billion dollars per year, will the American public be satisfied with “low-tech nano?” Does toothpaste-with-nanoparticles have the ability to inspire future engineers and scientists?

Giving more attention to how “visionary engineering analyses” can shape people’s current perceptions and future expectations could add a valuable extra dimension to the nano-and-society research plan. Along similar lines, despite its mandate to carry out a one-time evaluation of molecular self-assembly, perhaps the NRC will revisit the topic again and consider how this over-the-horizon aspect of nanotechnology stimulates, if not the economy, then the public’s imagination.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Economic Development of Nanotechnology

The following popped up on my homepage today ( (I like to change my hompage to different nano groups every so often for a change of perspective.

"29 November 2006, CORDIS

The economic development of nanotechnology

After the two predecessors "Some figures about nanotechnology R&D in Europe and beyond", published in December 2005 and "Results of the informal collection of inputs for nanotechnology R&D in the field of (eco) toxicology", published in June 2006, this article analyses the economic development of nanotechnology.

The present analyses are based on indicators of the economic development of nanotechnology that can be publicly accessed. A focus has been put on the analysis of Europe compared to its main competitors".

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Visit to the Foresight Institute

I'm in the midst of a "reconnaissance trip" to the Foresight Institute in Menlo Park, CA. My purpose here is two-fold: one is to begin a formal oral history interview with Christine Peterson. I started this today despite a tape recorder that wanted to add its own voice to the interview. Word of advice: always bring a spare recorder; in this case, I had my iPod with a microphone attachment and this seems to have worked fine.

Second, I wanted to survey any historically relevant materials that Foresight has. Christine and the Foresight staff have been very welcoming and I had a chance to look through some 30 odd boxes of papers, books, etc. in storage. Most of these were either books or financial materials. However, there are some very interesting materials pertaining to the Foresight conferences from 1989 onwards as well as copies of hard to find articles and lectures authored by Peterson, Eric Drexler, et al.. Many of these I never would have known about without taking this trip.

An added bonus to my visit is getting the chance to look through the extensive collection of media clippings that mention nano, Foresight, or Drexler. These go back to 1986 and fill two tightly packed file drawers. The sheer number of articles etc. point to two things. One is that the history of nano, with its connections to space exploration and so forth, are firmly rooted in the 1980s with Drexler's initial work in this area going back to the mid-1970s. Also, worth noting is the extreme level of interest the media had in nano, Foresight, and Drexler. Through a myriad array of articles, editorials and so forth, both specialized communities as well as the public in general had the opportunity to read about nano long before the federal government and the NNI moved into the picture.

This media coverage (and accompanying business/VC interest) created a fertile ground for the NNI to grow. Perhaps, more importantly, the role of public imagination and interest in supporting science/technology policy is not to be underestimated. For a historical analogy, think of the decades of "pump priming" on the part of Walt Disney, Hugo Gernsback, Chesley Bonestell, Werner von Braun, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, David Lasser, and many others in the years and decades before Sputnik. For another example that might appeal to chemists, check out Frederick Soddy's The Interpretation of Radium and consider the interplay of science and futurist speculation it contains.

Angela Belcher to Speak at UCSB Dec 4th

Prof Belcher's work really highlights some of the nuances we are trying to understand in our study of the process of innovation. This should be an excellent program.

Angela Belcher

Germehausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, MIT

Monday, December 4, 2006
2:00 pm / Refreshments at 1:40 pm
1001 Engineering Science Building

A Biological Tool-Kit for the Synthesis and Assembly of Materials for Electronics and Energy

The Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies is honored to present a seminar by Angela Belcher. Professor Belcher is an alumna of UCSB, with a B.S. in biology from the College Creative Studies, and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. In June 2006, the UCSB Alumni Association presented her with a Distinguished Achievement Award.

Professor Belcher serves as the MIT coordinator for the ICB. Her research uses nature as a guide in making novel materials for electronics and energy. She was named “Research Leader of the Year” by Scientific American in 2006 for "the use of custom-evolved viruses to advance nanotechnology.” She has received many national awards, including a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship for her extraordinary work in bionanotechnology.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Regulating Nanotechnology in Cleaning Products

Slashdot has posted at least three stories about regulating nanotechnology in the past month. The most recent is titled Regulating Nanotechnology in Cleansers and comes after Facing the Dangers of Nanotech and FDA Gets Mixed Advice About Nanotechnology. I agree with a post on slashdot that calls nanoparticles the new asbestos. Even if they are harmeless, they may carry the stigma that asbestos has.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Other Frontier Areas

Nanoscience has recieved a lot of attention and funding. What discipline do you think will recieve the next big wave of funding and attention? I suspect that systems biology, neuroscience, immunology, environmental remediation, drug design, and genetics will be a really big deal, and there may be renewed enthusiasm for aerospace engineering thanks to private space exploration giants like Scaled Composites in Mojave, California and Virgin Atlantic, their partner for space tourism. Rapid and inexpensive sequencing is an enabling technology for understanding a host of tricky genetic diseases. Nanoassays may lower the nearly 800 million dollar price tag on developing small molecule drugs and put it within the reach of botique companies that will attempt to tackle neglected diseases in the third world as well as maladies of the affluent that affect far too many people to lure large and frugal pharmaceutical giants toward finding a cure. Transgenic plants and animals for may become a cottage industry, but will probably remain a part of the private sector. Computing will remain within the realm of industry as well. Since humans have such a hard time overcoming the inertia of preparing for or reacting to subtle threats, I suspect that there will be a time in the near future where some extremely scary environmental disasters spur the public support for a massive campaign to combat global warming and pollution. It could even mean a massive propaganda campaign intended to change the lifestyle of those in the developing world to be more in line with the needs of the environment.

Kissing Cousins

I have felt for quite some time that the greatest overlap between nanoscience and any other discipline is the large border it shares with materials science. The central dogma of materials science is that there is a complex interplay between the properties of a material, its microstructure, and how it was processed. Perhaps a fitting definition of nanoscience, or at least one that effectively separates it from chemistry, is the study of things that have precisely and artificially controlled features on the scale of nanometers. This is essentially the same as materials science, except that there is a much greater emphasis on standalone particles in nanoscience. Many of the same tools, scanning tunneling microscopes, scanning electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes, photolithography, organic synthesis, and diffraction are used by materials scientists and nanoscientists. While the most practical applications of this that have reached the consumer are almost exclusively found in eletronic products, and thus nanoscience could be labeled as a subdiscipline of electrical engineering, one could also argue that it is the processing of semiconductor materials that all of these innovations rely upon. Perhaps the most important reason to identify this relationship is so that students with an interest in nanoscience will know what major to choose in college. In the absence of nanoscience undergraduate programs, there are several options on the table. While electrical engineering would be a good decision, materials science or biochemistry may have a much greater overlap with what they want to learn.

Interviewing Nano, Pt. One

I just received the first set of final edits for an oral history I did back in June. The interview was with Tom Kalil (former Clinton administration staff member and one of the advocates of the NNI back in the late 1990s). He is now at UC-Berkeley working on several tech initiatives; he's also on or National Advisory Board.

Anyway, I thought this might be a good time to talk a little about my interview protocols and how they might differ from what other CNS folks are doing. It also might help explain why it takes so long to get an oral history interview "done."

The process I use is thus:

1. Prepare for the interview. I tend to follow a general set of questions and am primarily interested in eliciting people's recollections about events, their memories, and so forth. I usually work from a person's CV and follow a somewhat biographical approach. A general rule of thumb is that, for about every hour of interview time, roughly 2-3 hours of preparation goes into setting out questions and doing background research on your subject. Nothing is worse than showing up to interview someone and realizing you haven't taken the time to learn the basics of their research or career. It wastes time and is unprofessional. Also, at the beginning of the interview, I explain the process and what is involved. I find it useful, especially when dealing with people who have been interviewed by reporters, to explain that historians work differently and have differing professional practices than journalists. I often find it useful to make this explicit by pointing out that nothing they say can be used by me without their permission, etc..

2. Conduct the interview. More on this some other time. Once the interview is done - Kalil's lasted about 2 hours - the interview is transcribed. Mary Ingram did this one; other interviews I did are transcribed by the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

3. Once I have the transcript, I listen to the interview again and read the transcript simultaneously. This is my chance to correct major mistakes, correct spelling of tech terms, etc..

4. The interview then goes to the interviewee to review. This is often a major bottleneck as interviewees are busy and don't often have time to edit the transcript. Kalil, happily, turned his transcript around quickly. But this is their chance to add more detail, correct errors, etc.. It is also a chance for them to note any passages they deem controversial and want sealed. They can stipulate these terms in their consent form.

5. I receive the edited transcript and read over it once more. I also request that the interviewee sign a consent form giving permission to use the interview for scholarly purposes, etc.. Without a proper consent form or some written agreement as to use of the interview, the oral history is worthless except for background information. Verbal assent is OK as a temporary measure but should be followed up with a written form.

6. At this point, I consider the interview essentially done. I send a copy of the final transcript to the interviewee for their files; they keep a copy of signed consent form as well. It is only at this point - unless I've made some other interim arrangement - that the interview can be used for research purposes. Hopefully, the interview will go to a formal scholarly repository where it will be available for others to use. I am sending copies of mine to AIP; Cyrus Mody (one of my collaborators) has a similar arrangement with the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Few things are more frustrating than knowing that someone did some fabulous interviews for their own book etc. but that they were never transcribed, cannot be consulted, and in essence aren't available for others to use. This is akin to having a private stash of historically relevant documents that others cannot use to confirm or refute any points made with them.

It's a lengthy process. Thus far, for CNS, I've interviewed about 8 people. All of these are in various stages of completion. As interviews are done, we'll post them on the CNS web site and they are, according to the terms of the consent form, available for general use provided people follow the guidelines and rules set out at the beginning of the transcript.

At a later time - I'll talk some about preparing a good and cogent set of interview questions.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Berube's Nano-Hype Blog

Happy Thanksgiving...while I wait for the pumpkin pie to finish baking and (regretfully) watch Dallas beat Tampa Bay, I thought I'd put this out for your inspection.

David Berube (U. South Carolina) has a nano-oriented blog:

Those of you interested in issues of risk perception, regulation, etc. might find it of interest.

Germ-killing nanoparticles to be regulated in the United States

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reversed an earlier decision and will now be regulating silver nanoparticles under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. The Washington-based Daily Environment Report reported the ruling on Tuesday, with stories following by the Washington Post and Associated Press. Nanosilver coatings are used to kill microorganisms in refrigerators, washing machines, and other consumer products. The EPA will now treat such nanoparticles as pesticides.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Nano in the workplace

Yesterday, I heard a presentation by the authors of a recent report on environmental health and safety practices in the nanotechnology workplace. The study was conducted by several University of California Santa Barbara Bren School students with mentoring from UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society faculty. Several of the advisors on the project are contributors to this blog, and they undoubtedly can do the report better justice. Hopefully, they'll post their perspectives soon. Until then, here are a few of my notes from the presentation:

337 organizations worldwide were contacted, 64 responded.
Telephone interviews, written and web-based surveys. Responses were self-reported and not independently verified.

Respondents believe that there are special risks related to nanomaterials. However, their actual environmental health and safety practices did not significantly depart from standard hazardous material handling.

Few monitored the workplace for airborne nanoparticles or provided guidance to consumers regarding disposal.

Nearly half of organizations implementing nano-specific environmental health and safety programs described the practices as a precaution against unknown hazards.

The entire report text is available online, as well as a two page executive summary (link).

Scanning electron micrograph of a prototype 'nanoknife' shows a single carbon nanotube stretched between two tungsten needles. Triangular probe is the tip of an atomic force cantilever used to determine the breaking point of the knife. (Color added for clarity) Image: Courtesy NIST/CU

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Open source software for molecular machine design

A few months ago, before beginning my tenure at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, I attended a meeting with Eric Drexler. He spoke about an ongoing Nanorex project to create open source software for molecular machine design. I was particularly impressed by his gallery of nanomachines (gallery link). As a spatial information scientist, I look forward to exploring the program code and possibly uncovering specialist insights about nanoscale space.

The Nanorex website describes the software:

NanoEngineer-1™ is a 3-D molecular engineering program. It includes both a sophisticated CAD module for the design and modeling of atomically precise components and assemblies, and a molecular dynamics module for simulating the movement and operation of mechanical nanodevices. NanoEngineer-1 is currently under development and is scheduled for release in spring 2007.

Image source: Copyright 2006, Nanorex

Within the site's download area, you can find specifications for the various machines shown in the gallery, including length, width, and number of atoms.

Monday, November 20, 2006

American Institute of Physics Forum

The American Institute of Physics Forum was held last week in San Francisco with the theme, "Nanotechnology in Society and Manufacturing" (program). For those who missed it, Physics Today apparently hired Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics to blog the event. Since the conference spanned topics from emerging technologies, risk, to industry economics, her coverage does likewise. I examined their archives, and arranged the links in chronological order:

Nano Fever Hits the Bay Area
Jennifer introduces the conference, nanotechnology and its significance.

Cancer-Fighting "Molecular Velcro"
Work towards a nano-based "smart cancer sensor" therapy

Rate Your Favorite Nanotech Start-Up!
Comments on the Lux Research report on nanotech startup strategies.

Quote of the Day
An entry on Intel's Michael Mayberry talk. His main point was that the most promising R&D on nanoelectronics focuses on the less complex.

...But He Didn't Inhale
Coverage of the Woodrow Wilson Institute's Andrew Maynard talk on overseeing nanotechnology risk.

It's All About the Wireless
Wireless power transmission.

Where To Get Your Nano On
Jennifer enumerates the nano blogs of note.

Founding Father
Richard Feynman's optimism for nanotechnology stemmed from the tiny workings of nature.

Here Comes the Sun
About colloidal nanocrystals and photovoltaics

That's a Wrap!
A summary of a few other interesting items from the conference:

  • inorganic colloidal nanocrystals as an alternative to quantum dots in fluorescent biological labeling applications

  • environmental remediation with zero-valent iron nanoparticles

  • recent advances in laser wakefield accelerators. Applications include drivers for light sources and high-energy particle acceleration.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Nanoscience that looks like Physical Chemistry

The Biomolecular Science and Engineering seminar that was given yesterday by Naomi Halas from Rice University looked a lot like physical chemistry. Indeed, there were a lot of physical chemists in the audience. It seems like one of the most exciting things about nanoparticles is that their length is ideal for studying electron behavior. Physical chemists and solid state physicists can experimentally observe electrons sort of sloshing around in a tiny container. In other words, nanoparticles, especially metal and ceramic ones, often with some sort of organic decorations on the surface, are really fun toys for physics oriented people to play with.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Angela Belcher Named Top Scientist

While I detest top X lists, a very legalistic way of looking at the world. It is worthy to note that Angela Belcher, a nanotechnologist trained at UCSB and now a professor at MIT was identified as the top scientific leader of the year by Scientific American magazine.

The article makes the mistake of saying that abalone shells are made from calcium carbonate, the same thing that chalk is made from. This is a lot like saying that pencil lead is made from carbon, the same thing that diamonds are made from. If the top scientific magazine in the country can not get simple materials science right, how can the general public be expected to learn anything? While the chemical composition of calcium carbonate in chalk and abalone shells is the same, the microstructure is very different, and this is an article about materials science so they should at least make an attempt to get it right.

I also find it interesting that she took two of the hottest areas of science, phage display and quantum dots, and combined them to yield some highly cited scientific publications. This sort of synthetic thinking, gets scientists with the right public relations machinery behind them a long way.

Self improvement is rarely talked about in the mainstream media today. I find it quite admirable that Professor Belcher intends to familiarize and involve herself with a new field every five years.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Neo-Sputnik Anyone?

America's most doctrinaire Ricardian free-trader strikes again. Of course I mean New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, but this time he makes real sense.

In a recent column (November 10) called "China: Scapegoat or Sputnik?" Friedman first offers a good one-sentence summary of his giant bestseller "The World is Flat": "Technology and globalization are flattening the global economic playing field today, enabling many more developing nations to compete for white-collar and blue-collar jobs once reserved for the developed world." He then notes that this might be correlated with "median wage stagnation" in the U.S. - wages for the vast majority of American workers (perhaps 80%) have barely increased, corrected for inflation, for 30 years (my numbers, not his). Friedman concludes with the following: "The big question for me is, how will President Bush and the Democratic Congress use China: as a scapegoat or a Sputnik? Will they use it as an excuse to avoid doing the hard things, because it's all just China'’s fault, or as an excuse to rally the country - as we did after the Soviets leapt ahead of us in the space race and launched Sputnik - to make the kind of comprehensive changes in health care, portability of pensions, entitlements and lifelong learning to give America's middle class the best tools possible to thrive? A lot of history is going to turn on that answer, because if people don't feel they have the tools or skills to thrive in a world without walls, the pressure to put up walls, especially against China, will steadily mount."

Yes. But what would it actually mean to take the Sputnik route? Throughout the first half of the 1950s, Congress had been unenthusiastic about the public funding of basic research: by 1956, its fifth year of operation, the NSF's budget was only about 13% of what federal research savant Vannevar Bush had originally recommended. American policymakers had already been provoked in 1955 when the National Research Council published a study, Soviet Professional Manpower, saying that U.S. was falling behind in training scientific and technical personnel. The NRC report helped Congress to see the wisdom of doubling at least the NSF's education budget in 1957. Sputnik was the world's first artificial satellite, and when the Soviets launched it in October of 1957 it was widely seen as confirmation that the West had lost its technological edge. By 1960, "the Foundation's appropriation for all activities was $159,200,000, almost ten times the 1956 level" and over 45 times its budget less than ten years before (figures from former NSF Director Alan T. Waterman). It's also worth noting that this Big Bang in federal funding was driven by military rather than commercial competition, and was not so much a response to market forces as a substitute for or at least supplement of them.

So treating China as Sputnik today implies two things. First, it implies some kind of research - or even industrial - policy complementing U.S. capital markets and consumers as technology agenda-setters. Second it implies exponential and not just incremental research funding growth. Both of these may be necessary for globalization to be the win-win Friedman and most other people want it to be. Are either of these in the cards?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nano, Imagination, and Disciplines

A few thoughts:

Whether it is good science or not, the idea of tiny robots and molecular self-assembly was what generated a good deal of the early public and political interest in nano. Look at Drexler's 1992 testimony before a Senate subcommittee convened by then-Senator Albert Gore (D-TN). The role of public imagination in the formulation of public policy is a dimension well worth considering. See, for instance:

Howard E. McCurdy. Space and the American Imagination:. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

So, while I'm not losing sleep about the nanobots, I don't want to forget about them either.

Another point - while there is a great deal of claimsmaking about the interdisciplinary nature of nano - and these may be true - like a good (former) scientist, I still want to see the proof. The formation of MSE was a long and contested process and one which many metallurgists fought tooth and claw. Although I don't agree with everything she presents, for one perspective on this process, see:

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent. "The construction of a discipline: Materials science in the United States." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 31, no. Part 2 (2001): 223-248.

Is anything like this happening with nano? Where are the turf wars?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Response to Patrick

The nanotechnology of science fiction revolves around little robots that can accomplish amazing and complex tasks. As far as I am concerned, nanotechnology is a meme that has evolved to mean something completely different from what science fiction authors have illustrated so vividly. The new meaning of nanotechnology is a discipline of science, not unlike chemistry or physics or biology, but one that encompasses everything that takes place at the molecular and slightly larger than molecular level. The synthesis of a new scientific field has happened many times throughout the years. The materials science department at my old university was created from the combined faculty of the metallurgy and ceramic engineering departments. Environmental science is sort of a combination of geology, geography, chemistry, sociology, marine biology, and ecology, but only the facets of those disciplines that apply to the health of our planet are included. Nanoscience is becoming the portion of materials science, chemistry, electrical engineering, physics, and biology that deals with exercising a tremendous degree of control over very small things. Thus, it is just a new discipline. Forget the robots. We will find another name for that when they go haywire and destroy entire cities.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

At a meeting yesterday, Chris Newfield suggested that the recent hybrid silicon laser developed by UCSB prof John Bowers was nanotechnology. Because I'm a cantankerous skeptic, I pooh-poohed this (a highly technical term oft used in the social sciences) as hardly being nano. I went back and re-read the press releases such as:
to see if I was right. The process used, according to the press release, involves creating a nanoscale oxide layer.

This raises a good question - When do we call something nanotechnology or nanoscience? By a strict definition, it does or at least part of the manufacturing process does. But even the press release refers to its having been made using "standard silicon manufacturing processes." Nano or no nano?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Nano education: Is it a good strategy?

Tangentially related to the conference info Meredith sent on communicating about science is an article I found on pedagogical concerns and strategies related to nanoscience. Specifically, the article contends that in order to spark public interest in nanoscience and to create more well-rounded, interdisciplinary nano scientists, there needs to be education on what nanoscience is beginning in grade school. In other words, if we learn about nano-scale science early on (the argument is that it doesn't currently exist), then that shapes our interest and skillset as adults. So, what do you think about this strategy? Do you think that any existing public disinterest in nanoscale science is related to education? Do you think nano-science serves as a good launching point for teaching inter-disciplinary science to young people?

Article info link (accessible through UCSB):
Learning at the nanoscale: Research questions that the rapidly
evolving interdisciplinarity of science poses for the learning
sciences (read it)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

branding research as nanotechnology

A recent article on zdnet labels a paper published in Nature Chemical Biology as nanotechnology. I think that this paper would just as easily fall under the umbrella of protein engineering, chemical biology, or biomedical engineering. It seems like technology writers are so eager to find stories about nanotechnology, that they often mistake something that would be better described with more complex terminology for nanotech and thus mislead the public into thinking that the world of science is smaller than it really is. The taxonomy of research is a difficult task, but an important one. Highschool students are often clueless about what they should major in in college because they have not had a broad exposure to each of the disciplines of science and engineering. A classic example of this is systems biology. Many students that think they would like to study genetics in college would do better to study systems biology, but they are unaware that it is even something that can be majored in. The press should be particularly careful to show how large and diverse a landscape the scientific world is. Many people do not know what stem cells actually are, let alone that not all of them come from fetal tissue. If the press did a better job educating the public about scientific issues, there would be less controversy and less fear of what is to come.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Nano-safety policy history

My sense is that clarifying health and safety issues was the single biggest motive behind the societal implications component of the NNI. But I think Patrick's right that they are getting a bigger market share of the social attention than ever before. In addition to the push from ETC and other groups that Bruce's crew is tracking, there's also the work of the Wilson Center in DC, which among other activities published three major risk reports this year. One of them, Andrew Maynard's "Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for Addressing Risk," offers an interesting overview of the NNI's poor funding record on risk research and describes an ambitious 11-area research plan that would involve a range of agencies. I'm not sure that the answer to Patrick's question about how the agencies got involved is historical: it seems to be getting underway right now.

Memory Lane

Most of the full proposal crew, March 2005

Nano in Vancouver, Pt. 2

Tucked away in the basement of the Bulgarian-inspired hotel called the Empire Landmark were two sessions this morning that addressed a range of nano and society topics.

Two things struck me as especially interesting about them. One: Nano and society research varies considerably in the degree to which it actually concerns nano. Some of the talks I heard today addressed broader topics such as privacy, regulation, public engagement, and so forth that actually have little specifically to do with nano itself. Addressing privacy and public engagement, just to give two examples, could be done without ever considering nano. While this represents only my personal view, I think it important for people to get inside the subject and address what is particular special, to look for the "nano-ness" in other words. Or to paraphrase Langdon Winner, to open up the "nano-box" and see what's inside.

Second, I am also struck by how a good deal of the focus on nano has shifted to issues of environmental, health, and safety issues. I find this striking because, in my recollection, the EPA, OSHA, and the FDA were not participating agencies when the U.S. government first funded the National nanotech Initiative in 2000. I think it would make a small yet useful history project for someone to investigate when and how these regulatory agencies became part of the nano enterprise. Any takers?

Periodic Table of Nanoparticles

A team at Columbia University is branding their work as an attempt to construct a periodic table of nanoparticles. It is my understanding that this would hopefully expose some sort of pattern or trend in what shapes are adopted by any given combination of molecules when they are mixed together and sonicated. I regard this as a blatant act of shameless self promotion. What they are doing is not nearly of as general importance as the grand old table. What I propose instead is the modernization of every current periodic table to include a list of every known ligand with a high affinity to the metals and the crystal structures of the native elements at room temperature. Children should be exposed to organometallic chemistry and materials science very early on but at a basic level. Gold likes to stick to sulfur. Carbon can be arranged in sheets that look like hexagonal floor tiles to form slippery graphite or it can adopt a tetragonal arrangement to become diamond. This is easily demonstrated by a teacher by standing with one leg far in front of the other an both hands raised high up in the air as if someone is pointing a gun at them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Nano in Vancouver

Greetings from Vancouver where the HSS/4S meeting is happening. There are several sessions scheduled for the next few days which feature presentations from "nano & society" researchers including scholars associated with the CNS-UCSB.

The 4S program, for instance, can be viewed at:

I'll try to take some time in the next frew days to offer some comments on the general themes discussed. More anon,


For some good articles on Technology and Society

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has a Technology and Society Magazine that can be accessed through the University. For those with a limited background in the social sciences (e.g. me), I found a couple of articles from 2005 to be a good introduction to several issues related to the Center:

"Nanotechnology: risks and the media" by S.M. Friedman and B.P. Egolf

"Getting the best from nanotechnology: approaching social and ethical implications openly and proactively"
by K. Mills and C. Fleddermann

...and I haven't looked at these at all, but if you want to go all the way back to 2004 (vol. 23, issue 4):

"Nanotechnology controversies - Guest Editorial" by E.J. Woodhouse

"Nanotechnology: from Feynman to the grand challenge of molecular manufacturing" by C.L. Peterson

"The politics of small things: nanotechnology, risk, and uncertainty" by J. Wilsdon

"Does existing law fail to address nanotechnoscience?" by M. Bennett

"Anticipating military nanotechnology" by J. Altmann and M. Gubrud

"Nanotechnology's worldview: new space for old cosmologies" by A. Nordmann

"Societal dimensions of nanotechnology" by M.E. Gorman, J.F. Groves, and R.K. Catalano

Book Reviews

Travelogues from Lilliput by George M. Whitesides

The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives. Ted Sargent. x + 234 pp. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006. $25.

Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz. David Berube. Foreword by Mihail C. Roco. 521 pp. Prometheus Books, 2006. $28.

nano zinc oxide sunblock

What is nanotechnology? Chemists often get upset when the adjective nano is used to describe something because all chemistry takes place at the nanoscale. People have been using zinc oxide as a sunblock for decades. Until recently, the zinc particles that made up the sunblock had a rather large diameter, and that gave the sunblocks a pasty white appearance. Recently, several companies have begun marketing sunblocks that use zinc oxide particles that are less than a hundred nanometers across. While they have the same chemical composition as the old sunblocks, the particles have been processed into a smaller size, and this makes them clear. Some may argue that this is too primitive to be considered nanotechnology, and yet it relies on the ability to control the structure of something at the nanoscale and provides an unambiguous benefit.

First Link

I went to look at Alan Glennon's Virtual Globes blog after he mentioned in our meeting yesterday. Check it out at It's a good model. But Alan, next time you say you don't really know that much about something I will completely ignore you!