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.

1 comment:

  1. Aaron is right, and one of the interesting things about nano - though not only for nano - is the erosion of the distinction between science and technology, or basic and applied research. I'm particularly interested in protecting & encouraging basic or deep research, which I've always seen as the university's special mission. But it's also true that many of the university's regulations, such as Regental Regulation No. 4, that prohibits faculty from doing "routine" industrial contract work, doesn't reflect current interactions between basic and commercial problems, or between questions that emerge from academic labs and those that emerge from industry. Patrick is always right when he says these nano issues have non-nano dimensions or roots, and here the dominant precursor would seem to be biotech. Zach W. Hall, a dean for research at the Keck School of Medicine at USC and former CEO of EnVivo Pharmaceuticals, has noted that "because modern research uses multiple and complex technologies" and links common themes from various disciplines, science has entered an "era of collaborative research" that has moved intellectual direction-setting from "the individual lab" to the lab consortium. This isn't exactly new either, but it seems more pervasive, requiring new powers of complex organization and new forms of cross-institutional collaboration. Administrators like Hall almost always want to maintain a clear differentiation between the values and goals of industry on the one hand and academia on the other. The whole situation is fascinatingly tangled, but the one thing we can say is that our existing terms won't work like they used to.