Friday, December 28, 2007

Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist

Iain Banks drinks from the same spring of maniacal invention as Neal Stephenson, and swims in the same kind of infinite fountain of words. But he relegates nano to almost nothing in this major SF novel from 2005. Nano plays the role of some crappy surveillance dust that is found out in time for Fassin our lead to save himself. Let's just say that nano is NOT a "general-purpose technology."

The Algebraist's system is extremely advanced, but the extremely small has a walk-on as a variable component in an agent of control.

There are all sorts of great things about this book, which sometime you absolutely must read! Among others, there are elements of a theory of technology:

1. the most powerful is the most embedded. The species that has the highest-tech has also integrated it so completely into its cultural systems that it is most of the time literally invisible.

2. the best takes the longest. My late friend Freddie Payne used to say Thinking Takes Time. So does technology. We think of technology as the accelerator, or at least the fast. In the Algebraist, advanced technology takes forever. More to the point, it is the realm of the Slow.

3. good use is decentralized. Successful defense technology is entirely off the social grid and is controlled by unknown members of the Slow species who consult no one. But oddly it a different, highly structured social system that is despotic - the Mercatoria, which stratifies and maps everything and is oriented towards control. Something about the Slow species - trust, history, cultural telepathy, who knows - allows this completely diffused authority to work. It is the only kind of authority that does.

Good tech in this book comes from some new mixtures of social organization that we have hardly started to imagine. We can at least ask the concept - the inspiration - of nano to help with that.

Or as Banks puts it, describing the stories told by the Slow: "in all that flux of chaos, propaganda, drivel and weirdness, there were nuggets of actuality, seams of facts, frozen rivers of long-forgotten history, whole volumes of exobiography and skeins and tissues of truth."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Shrink-Wrapped Bucky Balls?

While looking through Sandia's homepage, I came across a recent discovery by one of their researchers. Jianyu Huang claims to have been the first to collect in situ experimental observations of a fullerene being formed. By heating single atom-thick layers of carbon so they bend into nanobowls, the carbon atoms continue to pile on until a "mega-fullerene" is formed. Contnued heat "shrink-wraps" this strucutre into a more stable C60 atom. Sandia theorizes that this may pave the way for a way to mass produce fullerenes. Of curious note is the life story of Huang, being raised in a rural Chinese villiage:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ongoing R&D Debate

The Financial Times has run a piece by a senior analyst at the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts. He says that while the US has appeared "to be attracting the world's next generation of scientists and engineers . . . there was one country whose citizens did not find the US attractive enough to pursue a career in science and engineering: the US itself." The author, Sami Mahroum, offers the familiar statistic that one-third of SE doctorates in the US go to foreign-born students.

That stat isn't as stale as it sounds, and needs better interpretation. But Mahorum goes on to say something more surprising about Europe. Not only does Europe have higher rates of SE enrollments than the US (27 percent get SE degrees, vs 24 percent in Japan and 16 percent in the US), but its businesses invest more than their American counterparts on research and development - $232,000 vs. $180,000. And although the US spends a higher proportion of its GDP on R&D (2.5 percent vs. 1.8 percent for the EU), the 12 core EU countries have higher rates "when measured against the size of their workforce."

As the US "brain gain" ebbs, it will have a harder time even staying in place. The obvious solution - reinvestment in SE human resources - should not be delayed by the coming recession.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Another Good Article

Nice to see some more activity here. For those interested in the nano -- sci-fi connection, look at Daniel Patrick Thurs's piece in the September 2007 issue of Science Communication. Entitled "Tiny Tech, Transcendent tech," it offers an excellent look at the various ways sci-fi has been used by various communities to promote (and sometimes oppose) nanotech. It also has some trenchant points about how science communication with the public, especially when it comes to trying to make science noteworthy, now often relies on sci-fi imagery despite the problems this may pose.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Good Article- "The challenge of regulating nanomaterials"

The online version of the journal Environmental Science and Technology has a great article on regulation of nano-enabled products.

"The challenge of regulating nanomaterials" by Rhitu Chatterjee

You can view the article here with a current subscription to ACS journals

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Risky Business

The November 24, 2007 issue of The Economist has a very good article about the current state of discussions in the U.K. and the U.S. about the risks posed by nanoparticles. Some thoughts.
- One might conclude that some people are feathering their own nests...Do people at universities with research centers devoted to nanotoxicology (as well as NGOs which tout the associated uncertainty of this risk) have a vested interest in calling for more research on the subject?
- How will nanoparticles be regulated, measured, accounted for? This seems especially important if, as the article claims, the average person breathes in some 10 million of these a minute.
- Why, after nearly a decade of formal government funding, is there no clear international agreement on what nanotech is, as The Economist, claims, work is being done at the International Standard's Organization in Geneva but when will this be completed?
- Does anyone else see the problem in having the NNI both promote nanotechnology as well as the funding to mitigate its risks. I'm struck by a historical analogy with the early days of the nuclear power industry when the Atomic Energy Commission was tasked with both advancing and regulating nuclear power. And we all know how well that worked...

Show Me the Data

One thought for a research project - track the number of undergraduate and graduate courses at research universities that deal with nanotech. As one of the premises of the NNI is that it will help foster a revolution (yes, one of those) in interdisciplinary research, this should be testable. And one of the signs of this should be an increasing number of nanaoscience/nanotech classes which are cross-listed. If nothing else, it would be interesting and useful to survey the pedagogical basis of these courses...what is being taught, what texts are used, how is nano presented?

Any takers?

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I came across the below article today. It made me think about how nanotechnology while still in its nascent stage of scientific and technological development has had such a wide influence on the imagination of individuals across disciplines.


Pianist blends nanotechnology with music

(Nanowerk News) If the hard science of nanotechnology took on the soft curves of classical music, what would it sound like? The two will come together at a concert Friday, under the nimble fingers of pianist Milton Schlosser, a University of Alberta music professor.

Schlosser, based at the U of A's Augustana Faculty in Camrose, is premiering a series of 'nanosonatas' written specifically for him by American composer Frederic Rzewski. The work, entitled Nanosonatas, Volume 1, was commissioned by Schlosser through the U of A's Humanities, Fine Arts and Social Sciences Research grant program.

The composition reflects Rzewski's interest in biomolecular nanomachines. He essentially compresses the form of 20- to 40-minute, 19th-century sonatas into seven three-minute segments which challenge music-lovers in exciting new ways, Schlosser said.

Read complete article


Doing a little more research I found some actual music clips of a pianist Michael Kirkendoll playing the Nanosonatas. Take a listen, they have a pretty interesting avante-garde sound remembering that the sound is a composer's interpretation of what nano-machines sound like. Note too the incorporation of the Book of Genesis - very interesting given our conversation last week.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Gray Goo on the Big Screen

An interesting article came out today on entitled Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: The Singularity. In the article, Ray Kurzweil discusses the plot of his upcoming docudrama concerning the future of rapidly accelerating technology and its inevitable impact on human beings (based on his book The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About The Future). According to journalist Eliza Strickland, "As a result of the exponential progress of technology, Kurzweil believes, we're racing towards a day when the power of the artificially intelligent machines we create will exceed human brainpower."

As this relates to nanotechnology, Eric Drexler and Bill Joy will make an appearance in the movie. Furthermore, the underlying narrative of the movie will be based on a "gray goo" attack with which the main character, Ramona the avatar, will have to confront. (see the following excerpts from the article)

Wired News: What's in the documentary part?

Kurzweil: It contains footage of myself, and also me interviewing 20 big thinkers, talking about their ideas, and their ideas about my ideas. We have people like Eric Drexler, one of the founders of nanotech; Aubrey de Grey, a theorist about radical life extension; Bill Joy.

Wired News: So in the movie's narrative, Ramona the avatar is the main character?

Kurzweil: It's a Pinocchio story. She detects a "gray goo" attack, an attack of self-replicating nanobots. The Department of Homeland Security is oblivious to this, and won't listen to her, so she gets her other avatar friends to work on this. But she breaks some homeland security protocols in the process. She's arrested -- and there's a discussion about how you can arrest a virtual person...

It is important to note that Kurzweil has some interesting connections to the nanotech discourse. Some of his viewpoints and affiliations are highlighted on his Wikipedia page.

For more information about the movie, visit the IMDb site.

Visit Kurzweil's website and talk to Ramona here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Nano and Second Life

Given our discussion yesterday about the messianic nature of nano pre-history when I came across the below news tidbit I stopped and thought how strange nano is across so many dimemsions. First of all the "creation myth" surrounding nano with Feynman's role and Drexler's proselytizing makes for a good story and I'm sure when someone options the movie script it will be an instant science-fiction classic. Add to this surreal story a virtual online dimension and you have the makings for a real mind-bender a la the Matrix.


Nanotechnology in Second Life

(Nanowerk News) You might have heard of Second Life, an Internet-based virtual world that has received quite a bit of media attention over the past year. A downloadable client program called the Second Life Viewer enables its users, called "Residents", to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another. Companies and other organizations have set up a virtual presence in Second Life; Sweden has even opened an embassy.

Now there is a nanotechnology presence as well – Nanotechnology Island has launched in Second Life with the goal to establish a place for the Nano Science and Technology communities to come together and to bring key ideas and research into public discussion.


NanoLands the group behind the creation of Nanotechnology Island in Second Life (SL) has created a contest reminiscent of Feyman called the NanoLands Challenge encouraging Second Life users to imagine and build an virtual exhibit about nanoscience or nanotechnology within SL. Winners could receive up to $700 "real" US dollars. For more on the contest see:

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Nano Origami

After today's talk in Patrick's class, I was curious to find who should claim the credit for the creative metaphors of nanotechnology... I came across this TED talk from Paul Rothemund who fancies himself a "magician with DNA" who folds nanoparticles much like origami. Also of note is that at a website that claims to hold the top one-thousand thinkers, Hod Lipson of self-replicating fame and the nano-visionary Ray Kurzweil are featured.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Nanoscience and Hope

Friday's LA Times featured a front-page story on John Kanzius, the man who developed a system to kill cancer tumors using radio waves and nanoparticles. Two things stand out in this inspiring narrative. First, Kanizius is an engineer who worked in television and radio broadcasting with no experience in the medical field. He had been developing the radio transmitter himself while undergoing chemotherapy. He later collaborated with Richard Smalley, including nanoparticles that attach themselves to cancer cells. The system essentially heats up the nanoparticles, killing the cancer cells while leaving the healthy tissue unaffected. In other words, chemotherapy would be a thing of the past. Second, the article points to at least one other potential use for Kanzius' invention -- distilling hydrogen from salt water for use in fuel cells.

When reading this article, you can't help but be hopeful about the future of nanotechnologies and nanoscience. The article clearly gives the impression that these miraculous inventions are just around the corner. What effect will these hopeful media frames have on public opinion? Does the hopeful frame of the nano-related medical stories transfer to the larger issue of nanotechnologies and nanoscience?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nano news from ACS

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has a new website for the nanoscience community, Nanotation
(link here)

There is also an article in the C&E News "Challenges Of Risk-Based Nanotech Research"

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Notes from the Nano-Road

I'm about 2 weeks into an 18 day trip. I started in DC where I gave a presentation on the history of the space elevator to the Society for the History of Technology. The theme was that of reconverging technologies in the guise of the space elevator and the talk drew upon research Mary and I have did.

Next was the Nano-Image meeting in Columbia, South Carolina. This meeting brought together scientists, nano & society people, and art historians to talk (in excruciating detail) about the various uses and types of images at the nano-scale. What I took away from the meeting was that even among people who purportedly study nano, understanding of the topic is often lacking.

I'm now in Princeton where I'm looking at the papers of a physicist who Eric Drexler worked with in the 1970s. Tomorrow it's on to DC(again) for the History of Science Society meeting and then back to California. Whew.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Space Elevator Games

Patrick and Mary should take note of the Space Elevator Games, a competetion that will test some of the early designs for a vehicle capable of steadily ascending a long cable. In this case, that cable was made of steel rather than carbon nanotubes. While some may be skeptical about these activities, or call them exercises in playing make believe, I think that they are a fantastic way to stimulate innovation. A lot of people struck out with their designs for flying machines before the Wright Brothers took off.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How Nano is different from Fuel Cells...

Chris Toumey, in his 4S talk, "Dialogues on Nanotech," reported findings based on USC's Citizens School of Nanotechnology. One set of comments that struck me as particularly interesting addressed the difference between public perceptions of nanotechnologies and fuel cell technologies. Overall, participants could envision a future with fuel cell technologies more easily than they could a future with nanotechnology: compared to fuel cells, nano has ambiguous outcomes, is not well-focused, and seems to be part of a far distant future whereas fuel cells are more clearly framed in terms of goals and definitions and have been effectively billed as a near-term technology. Thus, participants could see fuel cells as a means for their own personal prosperity - or at least for the prosperity of their local communities.

Read more on USC's Citizens School of Nanotechnology here and here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nanobreakfast anyone?

Given this week's discussion of historical analogy generally and the vital need for context and depth specifically, it seemed pretty fair to say the analogy between Nanotechnologies and GMOs in food was being deployed frequently and carelessly.

The specific realm of nanotechnology-driven food may be one arena where the analogy is more apt; though if most applications were to be niche-marketed, to say dieters or non-cooks, as opposed to food supply wide, this could reduce the volume or scope, if not the voracity, of scrutiny directed towards nanofoods.

In terms of public perceptions of nanotechnology, is it an asset or disadvantage to have public discussions about the merits and risks of nanotechnology-enhanced food?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Live from Montreal at the 4S

I'm here at the 4S (Society for the Social Studies of Science Annual Meeting) in Montreal. I've enjoyed a number of nano-related talks thus far.

Brigitte Nerlich, from the University of Nottingham, gave an interesting talk earlier today on images of the nanobot. Her answer to the question, "why is the image of the nanobot perpetuated in popular culture?" is that there are numerous images of nanobot to choose from -- meaning that when media outlets want to publish some kind of nano-image, they often license an image from an image firm. Well, if the firm has a preponderance of nanobot images, it follows that media outlets will be more likely to select them, right? Though the supply-and-demand argument was not the focus of Nerlich's talk, it is the taken for granted assumption behind it.

Nerlich did more of a content analysis (using both quantitative and qualitative methods) of nano-related images available for license at Science Photo Library (, a leading science image firm. She found that of 363 nano images, 128 were of nanobots. Of those 128, most were fantasy and artistic renderings. Click here to see what comes up at Science Photo Library for the search term nanobot.

Some of Nerlich's findings include:
1- most images are positive and/or utopian while very few are negative and/or dsytopian.
2- many nanobots had some kind of pincer, claw, or hand.
3- backgrounds of renderings tended to reflect blood, space, or the sea.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Going Nano makes it better...

I came across this new nanotechnology from Japan, the NANOEGG, a new drug delivery mechanism for the treatment of sun-damaged skin (hyperpigmentation, wrinkles etc.) with trans-retinoic acid.
Also known as Retin-A and RENOVA in the U.S., trans-retinoic acid is approved by the FDA as a treatment to give smoother, less pigmented skin but it usually causes skin inflammation and skin irritation as well. Studies using the NANOEGG show no skin irritation, less wrinkles and reversal of hyper pigmentation-overall a better treatment. (Yamaguchi, Y. et. al. J. Control. Release 2005, 104, 29-40)

In light of our research at CNS, two questions come to mind.
1.) Would this nano-enhanced product be more readily accepted than others because of the current obsession with looking younger?
2.) How does the cultural environment influence public acceptance of the nanotechnology?
I can't find any indication that the product is being commercialized in the U.S., but the NANOEGG website shows a picture of their product (shown) which promises in French to "restructure and alleviate your skin."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nanotech and the iPod

When I began to search for news articles about the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Phyics to Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg, I came across a multitude of articles with references to the "iPod" in the title. This made me think that the media attention surrounding the discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) might actually be creating more public confusion over what nanotechnology actually is, particularly when many people already associate nanotechnology with devices such as the iPod.

A quick online poll of news headlines reveals the following:

Nobel prize for men who made iPod possible

iPods, Better laptops Stemmed from Nobel Prize Discovery

Physics of the iPod awarded Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize for magnetism experts who helped spawn the iPod

and my personal favorite:
Like your iPod? Thank this year's physics Nobelists

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


I will be deliriously curious to see how nano-advocates react to the news today of the 2007 Nobel prize in physics...unlike quotidian applications of nanosize particles (which seems to be all DC policy makers and pundits can think of).

As NPR reported this morning:
France's Albert Fert and German Peter Grunberg will share the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics for a discovery that has allowed a radical reduction in the size and increase in the capacity of computer hard drives.The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation on Tuesday the technology was "one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology," which deals with extremely small devices." Applications of this phenomenon have revolutionized techniques for retrieving data from hard disks," the prize citation said. "The discovery also plays a major role in various magnetic sensors as well as for the development of a new generation of electronics."

Fert and Gruenberg are two central characters in an article and series of talks I gave on the history of spintronics. "Spintonicists" see their work as marking the beginning of the field.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Nano Images

Following up on Joe's post about Toumey's article...there was an interesting piece (sometimes Claudia Driefus actually manages to put together a useful interview...) in the NYT Science section today on digital forensics. It noted that for one journal in the cell biology field, something like 25% of images have been altered using some software program. It got me wondering what the number might be for nano-images. Because nano-images are completely artificial (in the sense that they are produced via some software program and one can actually see a quantum well or buckyball), this seems like an especially thorny issue. I will be attending a three-day meeting at the University of South Carolina which is all about nano and images...I'll report back.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Resource driven nanotechnology

This article reminded me of the quote Patrick mentioned in class last Thursday regarding driving faster so that we can use up fossil fuels in order to move on to another source of energy. Seems that Mazada is motivated to use nanotechnology to cut heavy metal usage and thus reduce their overhead. Interesting. I can't remember if we put parsimonious down on the p-list of all things nanotechnology.

Mazda develops catalyst to slash precious metal use

From Reuters UK:

TOKYO, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Japan's Mazda Motor Corp said on Monday it has developed the world's first catalyst for cars that employs single-nanotechnology to create a material structure that slashes platinum and palladium use by 70 to 90 percent.

The reduction results in no change in the performance of the automotive catalyst, which uses platinum, rhodium and palladium to trigger a chemical reaction with polluting nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons to clean tailpipe emissions.

Domestic rival Nissan Motor Co in July also said it had developed a catalyst for gasoline cars that uses nanotechnology to prevent clustering of the catalyst's fine metal particles under high temperature conditions. That would halve the use of precious metal components, it had said.

Single-nanotechnology can control smaller particles than nanotechnology.

Automakers have been burdened with higher-than-expected commodity prices, and are looking for ways to reduce material use to save costs.

A Mazda spokesman said the company had not decided yet when it would first employ the technology on a production model. It also has no plan for now to share the technology with controlling shareholder Ford Motor Co.

The Condition of Nano-dernity

Chris Toumey’s new article, “Cubism at the Nanoscale,” (2007) looks to the Cubist movement of the early twentieth century to provide cues for how to go about representing nanoscale structures today. Because nanoscale materials are too small to be photographed, the images that we see representing them are the product of a “multistage process that begins with touching the nanoscale, not seeing it, and converting tactile sensations into data, which are later converted into visual sensations” (587). For Toumey, this threatens a problem of credibility should the public discover that representations of nanoscale materials do not have the same “optical veracity” as photographs. To address this (and setting aside the question of the veracity of photographs), Toumey looks to Cubist approaches to representation, particularly their attempts to simultaneously represent multiple dimensions of an object. Drawing on cubist techniques, Toumey poses three suggestions for creators of representations of nanoscale structures: add a temporal dimension through the use of multiple, sequential images; add color(s); add a tactile dimension that permits deeper engagement of the viewer with the nanoscale representation.

While these suggestions are fine and no doubt useful for those concerned with promoting certain public perceptions of nanotechnology, Toumey’s adoption of Cubist techniques runs contrary to their Cubist intent. Cubists, unlike Toumey (c.f. 587), had no interest in improving the correspondence between an image and reality. Indeed, Cubism marked a tremendous social upheaval, manifested in a variety of social domains, and which centered on a crisis in traditional conceptions of reality and knowledge. Concern for the veracity of a representation is a preoccupation that Cubists directly questioned. Through the abandonment of classic techniques of painting, including representations of Euclidean space, and the refusal to view painting merely as a tool for the representation of nature, Cubism rejected enlightenment rationality. In turn, Cubism sought multiple modes of representation, resulting in fragmented objects unrecognizable to those who thought that painting should replicate nature. This constituted a profound loss of faith in the connection between knowledge and progress; between signified and signifier; between rationality and an objective reality.

Toumey hails Cubism to take us in the opposite direction: to better represent the empirical nature of nanoscale materials. This divergence is made clear by Toumey’s characterization of the goals of Cubists to enlarge “the viewer’s knowledge of the reality of the object in a picture.” I argue that the goal for Cubists was rather to challenge the very possibility knowledge as coherent and singular. This challenge and crisis manifest in the Cubist movement is forgotten in Toumey’s characterization. His application of Cubist aesthetics to representations of nanoscale structures is thus remarkably un-Cubist to the degree that it seeks to “add to our empirical knowledge of the objects that exist at the nanoscale” (589).

Thinking about representation at the nanoscale, however, does raise some interesting questions. What Cubism and Toumey’s invocation of it in the context of nanotechnology are grappling with are the limitations of representation in the context of shifting relationships between space and time. Following Harvey (1989), if cultural modernism sprang from a “radical readjustment in the sense of time and space in economic, political and cultural life” (260-1) then by analogy, we might see the problem of representation at the nanoscale as a similar readjustment of our sense of time and space – a radical continuation of time-space compression. If, as the forecasters suggest, we are on the front end of a major readjustment to the world economy and to our many manners of living as a result of nanotechnological innovation, perhaps Toumey is out front by hinting at a similar crisis in representation to that which began after the middle of the 19th century. As the commercialization of nanotechnology floods our lives with events, practices, and produts that may be undetected by human sensory organs, whose risks or benefits are frequently invisible, the understanding and expression of social meanings takes on new dimensions. How will we represent those aspects of human experience that are invisible, un-touchable, un-smellable but powerful, potentially dangerous, and highly profitable?

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Toumey, Chris. 2007. "Cubism at the Nanoscale." Nature/Nanotechnology 2:587-9 (October).

Friday, September 28, 2007

New Voices

This quarter, I'm teaching a course for graduate students at UCSB called "Studying Emerging (Nano)Technologies. I've encouraged students from the class to post occasional postings on the CNS our first class, we dealt with issues like "what is technology?" and "what characteristics do emerging technologies have?" So maybe these sorts of questions will expand the range of discussion here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More Nano-chips...

Yesterday, Intel gave the first public demonstration of new chip technology. Based on 45 nm architecture, the new chips presage the next generation of chips with 32 nm features, due out in 2009. As one Intel rep said, "Smaller is better, smaller is cheaper."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Private Enterprise Leads the Way to Clean Water

Here's one current nano-enabled invention that could do the world a lot of good: a water-purifier with a filtration system capable of screening out particles as small as 15 nm - small enough to filter out viruses.

I find it fairly interesting that the Lifesaver's website features a soldier. I have nothing against soldiers getting their clean water. But I hope that these water filter systems also find their way to others who desperately need clean drinking water.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Architecture of Nano-Memory

The Business Section of today's New York Times has a lengthy feature article by John Markoff on research being done to increase data storage technology. It focuses on the work of Stuart Parkin, an IBM researcher I tried (unsuccessfully) to interview for my research on the history of spintronics. So it's an interesting article anyway.

Two points stand out - first, this article was in the Business section, not the Science Times. Of course, the Science Times is increasingly the "Medical Times."

Second, nanotechnology or nanoscale engineering itself appears only in very stealthy form, in discussion about nanoscale wires and nanosecond access time. This on a day when I received two posts from a DC-based non-profit about nano in cosmetics and sunscreens. So, what does it mean when nano in consumer products that actually matter (i.e. they are a significant part of the economy and are used, whether we like it or not, in daily lives...when I last checked, no one was forcing me to slather nano-sunscreen on my nano-pants) isn't referenced as nanotechnology anymore?

Need for Nanoethics??

The Summer 2007 issue of The New Atlantis has a lengthy letter written by Cyrus Mody, Jody Roberts, and myself. It responds to Adam Keiper's piece on the (lack of a) need for nano-ethics. The letter itself isn't available on TNA web site so I am appending it here. My apologies for the excessive length of this posting...and kudos to Cyrus and Jody for really doing the heavy lifting in writing this erudite reply.

Letter to the editor of The New Atlantis in response to Adam Keiper’s Nanoethics as a Discipline?

As historians of nanotechnology (incongruous as that sounds), we read with great interest Adam Keiper’s recent article “Nanoethics as a Discipline?” Keiper’s article raises some excellent correctives to sloppy or hasty thinking that has characterized some work thus far on the social, cultural, economic, and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology. We suggest, however, that Keiper comes perilously close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We by no means speak for all people in this field, but we have been associated, for the past three+ years, with organizations that have been heavily involved in bringing social science and humanities perspectives to the nanotech policy debate. Through our involvement in that debate we have seen that there is both demand for and, increasingly, a supply of, high-quality research on nanotechnology’s complex relationship to our wider culture.

Let’s start by asking what discipline (or “discipline?” as Keiper might put it) is in question here. Keiper begins and ends his article by discussing “nanoethics,” but the bulk of the piece is more concerned with an interdisciplinary farrago of sociologists, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, rhetoricians, philosophers, comp. lit. scholars, economists, management researchers, science and technology studies scholars, etc. This potpourri, as Keiper notes, goes by a number of different names, but we would call it “social studies of nanotechnology” or “nano studies” – that is, a field similar in make-up and intention to mature research areas like “Russian studies” or “American studies.”

We definitely would not limit this field to questions of ethics, on the model (which Keiper upholds) of bioethics. This is not because, as Keiper suggests, practitioners of this field are uninterested in the “deeper questions” of “great social goods.” Rather, we advocate this broad-based, interdisciplinary approach precisely to get at the deeper questions Keiper refers to. His article states that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to have any discussion, let alone serious ethical reflection, if there is not some basic agreement about the facts at issue.” While Keiper suggests that the only facts that matter here are “purely” technical ones revolving around which nanotechnologies are or are not achievable, we suggest that the posing of more penetrating inquiries is impossible if it is uninformed by empirical data contributed by a broad array of social scientists and humanities scholars.

Keiper lists four areas that concern nanoethicists: safety; social justice; dramatic social change; and transhumanism. We have no quibble with research in these four areas, and we wholeheartedly agree with Keiper that such research needs to be more mindful of what mainstream scientists and engineers agree is technically achievable. However, we also believe there are several other necessary areas of scholarly inquiry that Keiper neglects.

Consider this example: A great deal of the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) efforts are currently directed to reshaping the nature of the American science education system from kindergarten to Ph.D. One explicit goal of the NNI has been to establish institutions (such as university-based Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers) that will undo the quilt of disciplines present in most American universities and replace it with an almost completely unified, interdisciplinary mass. This means not just breaking down the barriers holding apart physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and biologists, but even integrating those fields as fully as possible with sociology, economics, legal studies, etc.[1] At the same time, the NNI clearly aims to integrate universities in novel ways with more and more of the institutions of American society. These include business (through a plethora of Small Business Innovation Research grants and other incentives for professorial start-ups) and the K-12 education system (through public “Nano Days” for schoolchildren, through grade school classes taught by graduate students in various nano disciplines, and by encouraging high school science teachers to work in university nano labs over the summer).

Why should these activities be a concern for nanoethicists? Many of the most rancorous, divisive questions in American life are concerned with the training of future generations. School districts or university administrators across the country must continually deal with ideological tug-of-war that break out over new movements in pedagogy: in language training (phonics, ebonics, and language-of-instruction issues for immigrants’ children); in mathematics (student-centered learning); in history and social studies (how much revisionism is a good thing?); in literature; and in science (creationism and intelligent design).

Nanotechnology – whatever it turns out to be – will clearly both push and be dragged along with these national debates about pedagogy. Here, we think, is a prime example of a “deeper question” that many people value where nanotechnology offers both a distinct and broad case for exploring the ethics involved. We think there may, in fact, be ethical questions at stake if future generations learn that there is no use to distinguishing chemistry from physics from mechanical engineering and that these all are just nanotechnology. We think there are even more urgent and important ethical matters at stake if today’s students are trained to think of schools and universities as completely porous to industry or operating like any other for-profit business.

As individuals we may or may not agree with these changes. As historians[2], though, we strongly believe we and other nano studies practitioners can contribute empirical findings that should color ethical discussion of these shifts. Do enrollments in science go up as a result of nano-outreach? How does nano’s influence on the academy affect retention of women and minorities in science and engineering? How do graduate students and postdocs participate in the value chain extending from their professors’ labs to various companies? These are questions that need to be asked, and they are questions that historians, sociologists, economists, and other scholars can offer insights on.

Given, then, our commitment to a field of nano studies that is engaged with the “deeper questions,” we take some exception to Keiper’s characterizations of the field. First, we find very odd Keiper’s dismissive comparison (in his second paragraph) of nanoethics and bioethics. Bioethics, he claims, followed in the wake of biomedicine; nanoethics, prematurely, comes into being at the same time as nanotechnology. There are, we think, excellent reasons to be suspicions of comparisons between nano studies and bioethics, but this isn’t one of them. The constituent disciplines and industries of nanotechnology have been around for a very long time, as have many of the ethical issues today associated with nano.

Take, for instance, the microelectronics industry (one of our areas of research). The features of most commercial transistors are or very soon will be small enough that this entire industry will have to be categorized as part of nanotechnology. This is an industry that has been around for well over half a century, has spun off a very large proportion of the sub-fields and tools of academic nanotechnology, and contributes more than any other industry to US gross domestic product. It’s also an industry that pioneered out-sourcing and off-shoring, that was among the first to embrace the new business models of venture capital and the IPO, and is responsible for 29 (!) Superfund sites in Santa Clara county alone. Clearly, then, an industry where societal values and “deeper questions” point in lots of different directions, and where the ethical issues are particularly vexed. And yet, in those fifty years, no cohort of professional ethicists has stepped in to address and examine the material and cultural consequences, wonderful and not-so-great, of this giant industry. It is our urgent hope, then, that we can fold these broader existing issues into the purview of nano studies.

Keiper has a further litany of complaints about nano studies. It is, he says, the kind of field where every NGO and “liberal environmental group” has to pile in to have its say, whether they know anything or not. True, there are a lot of competing voices, some of them quite over-the-top – which can, we agree, be frustrating. On the other hand, we’d far rather that nano studies be the kind of field that keeps asking who the relevant constituencies are, rather than waiting fifty years to discover that our analysis is meaningless because we forgot to include some crucial perspectives.

Similarly, he complains that there is an endless succession of conferences and journals on societal issues in nano. We agree; in fact, one of us (Mody) recently organized just such a conference at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Here, several of the panelists expressed deep frustrations at the proliferation of such events. Yet we note that another panelist (Barbara Karn of the EPA) then asked the audience how many of them had never been to such an event before and felt their questions about nano had yet to be addressed – close to two-thirds (i.e. about 80 people) raised their hands. Too many conferences may just be something everyone involved in nanotechnology may have to endure for a while.

Keiper also protests that social scientists involved in nano use too much jargon, that they will probably just use government funding to test their own theories, and only talk to each other. True, these are real dangers – in any field. We can’t see any difference here between the natural sciences and the social sciences. The number of physicists and chemists using “nano” money just to test their own theories will always be orders of magnitude greater than the number of insular nano social scientists.

And, of course, every field uses jargon – though we are continually amazed by what, exactly, counts as jargon. At the same CHF conference one prominent chemist, in the course of a somewhat technical (one might even say jargon-y) talk, stated that she enjoyed working with social scientists but that they use off-putting terms like “social justice”. Social justice! If that constitutes jargon then it is surely (to borrow Morgan Phillips’ description of the British Labour Party) a term that “owes more to Methodism than to Marx” (and more to Martin Luther King than to Max Weber). We all use technical terms as shorthand. One challenge of nanotechnology will be to develop institutions that encourage us to point out each other’s opaque terminology and keep us from simply retreating to test our pet theories.

Keiper quite rightly, however, notices the self-absorbed, navel-gazing quality of much of today’s nano studies. Indeed. Our special pet peeve is the laboratory ethnography that ends up describing nothing other than the decision to allow the ethnographer to enter the laboratory. And yet, nano studies is trying to do something new and experimental. In any experiment, it pays to focus attention on your methods, to try and get the right process in place. Though Keiper upholds bioethics as a model for nano studies, we feel that bioethics probably could have used a great deal more methods-questioning early in its formation. As the call for papers of a recent conference on the “ethics of bioethics” puts it:

Professional standards guide the conduct of all healthcare professions – except bioethics. All healthcare professions have standards for addressing real or potential conflicts of interest – except bioethics. Critics from within and without the field have recently challenged the ethics and integrity of bioethicists, charging that these self-appointed watchdogs are little more than selfserving lapdogs.

We hope that by thinking carefully thinking about what nano studies is and how it should be done – and accepting that there are probably many different, useful answers to both questions – that we can mitigate such characterizations of our field in the future.

[1] Our thanks to Joe Bordogna, former COO of the National Science Foundation, for discussions on this topic.

[2] Actually, we are two materials scientists and a chemist who have all done both ethnographic and historical research.

Self Assembly is critical for biological systems. Our understanding of how nature works its magic is leading to amazing new discoveries in development of materials and control at the nano-level. This looks like a great lecture which I hope gets repeated at UCSB.

Prof Matthew Tirrell University of California, Santa Barbara College of Engineering

Chemical Processing by Self-Assembly: Let's Take It Seriously
Plenary Lectures at ECCE-6
Danckwerts Lecture 2007: Matthew Tirrell
Presentation time: Wednesday 19, 09:40 to 10:30

Self-assembly is a route to processing of chemical products that relies on information content built into the process precursors. A challenge for engineers is to develop the practical routes to technologically important self-assembly processes. Self-assembly occurs frequently in biology but translating that bio-inspiration to controllable chemical processing presents many interesting problems. The complexity built into self-assembled products is at the level of supermolecular structure. Complexity, in the sense of development of emergent properties of an assembly that cannot readily be envisioned from the constituents, can arise spontaneously during self-assembly and often does, especially in biological systems. We are only beginning to develop sufficiently sophisticated synthetic assemblers to mimic biology in this way. Other routes to self-organization may also be of interest for nanotechnology. Prospects for success and current efforts in biomaterials, porous materials, molecular electronics and other areas will be discussed.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Paying Intellectual Debts

The latest edition of Scientific American Reports is entitled "The Rise of Nanotech." For those unfamiliar with the science and technology behind nano, this offers a good place to start reading. What follows are some comments from me about what is (and isn't) in the this special issue.

First, it bears noting that, since 1991, Scientific American has occasionally had an issue devoted to nanotech. For historical purposes, this present something of a "state of the nation" report on nano. Therefore, they are interesting and useful bellwethers as to what science popularizers think nano is about and how they wish to present the current status of nano-research.

The focus of this current issue is on, to a large degree, electronics. There is practically nothing at all on "faux nano" such as sunscreens, nanopants, and those other forms of quasi-nano which involve nothing more complex than nanosized particles. This is curious as the good deal of the handwringing inside the Beltway is about just this topic and how/who should regulate it.

This report from Sci Amer has articles on: nanofabrication; building nanostructures from proteins; nanofab using DNA; DNA-based computers; electronics using carbon nanotubes; plasmonics (more computers); and nanoelectronics. The final article is about the ubiquity of nano in science-fiction. This is the only place I have been able to find in the 88 page issue where Eric Drexler' s vision of nano is mentioned...and this was in connection to sci-fi. My, how the popularizers have been co-opted...

What I found most disappointing, though, was Michael Roukes' opening essay, in which the shibboleth of Richard Feynman is once again whispered, nay, shouted out. This serves the rhetorical purpose of tying current nano research to the "breadth of Feynman's vision" which Roukes calls "staggering," a product of the late Caltech physicist's "singular intellect." In other words - Ave Never mind that only a very few of today's active nanoscientists and engineers have any recollection at all of being inspired by Feynman. Forget the fact that the last nano-Nobelist, the late Richard Smalley, claimed (at least until 2003) that Engines of Creation was a major influence on him.

So...after more than a decade of real nanoscale research and some $8-10 billion of federal money, scientists and engineers still feel the need to tie their activities to an after-dinner speech Feynman made almost 50 years ago. Let it go, folks. And, for the sake of honesty, admit that a good deal of the initial popular and political interest in nano was stimulated by "visioneers, " people who promoted and popularized what nanotech might be able to do. Even if some of these dreams and thought experiments have not been realized or appear outlandish, own up to the fact that public policy and public imagination are closely linked.

Patent Legislation Passes House

This overview tells most of the story. But the core of this legislation is to shift the US from a "first-to-invent" to a "first-to-file" system (like Europe's). Researchers and universities have generally opposed the change, fearing it would reward fast filers over good inventors (i.e. rich corporations over university lab investigators), and discourage publication and the circulation of information prior to patenting. The battle is far from over.

US moves to reform patent laws

By Patti Waldmeir in Washington

Published: September 7 2007 23:37

Big US technology companies won an important patent reform victory on Friday when the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that would bring sweeping changes to the way America rewards innovation.

The bill, which could significantly shift the balance of power between US patent holders and their rivals, must still pass in the Senate, and its prospects of becoming law remain uncertain. But opponents and proponents alike say on Friday’s vote was a milestone, bringing years of congressional debate over patent reform to a climax.

Supporters of the bill, including companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Google, and many financial services firms, say it will improve patent quality and limit unnecessary litigation and excessive damages.

Jonathan Yarowsky of The Coalition for Patent Fairness, a lobby group of big technology companies, said after the vote: “The current patent system has become bogged down by delays, prolonged disputes and confusing jurisprudence. This comprehensive legislation...will help drive innovation.”

But opposition to the bill is widespread, ranging from pharmaceutical companies to big manufacturers like General Electric, 3M and Johnson & Johnson, small inventors, many venture capitalists, some small technology companies, labour unions and the White House.

The Bush administration said this week it opposed changes to the way patent damages were calculated, which would limit the discretion of judges in awarding damages to compensate patentholders whose patent rights are violated.

The bill would make it harder for inventors to win big damage awards against high technology companies whose products rely on hundreds of different innovations. It would make it more difficult for patentholders to win an award based on the total market value of the product – rather than on the value of one individual patented component.

The White House said: “Making this change to a reasonably well-functioning patent legal system is un warranted and risks reducing the rewards from innovation.” The Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform, which includes companies like GE and 3M, criticised the bill, saying it “favours infringers over inventors”.

Stephen Maebius, a patent law expert at the law firm Foley & Lardner, said courts had already taken the initiative on patent reform, enacting several major changes, while legislation had been mired in debate. “Judicial developments have rendered portions of this legislation obsolete, because things have been happening so fast in the world of patent infringement case law,” he said.

He predicted a stiff battle to win passage in the Senate, but Emery Simon of the Business Software Alliance, one of the bill’s biggest backers, said on Friday’s vote “puts momentum into (congressional) patent reform”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

"FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times. Privacy policy | Terms
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2007.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Nanoelect News

As reported by CNN and other venues, IBM recently announced two developments pertinent to the nanoelectronics realm. Big Blue's press release detailed work done at both its San Jose and Zurich site. For those of you just tuning in, this work catches my eye because instead of the usual "nano-for-pants-and sunscreen" news, this suggests research that has more far-reaching consumer implications and, IMHO, is far more representative of nanotech rather than what often seems to be vanilla materials science albeit done with tiny tiny passive nanoparticles.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Because images from science fiction really do help...

Italian physics & engineering professor Nicola Pugno generates a lot of discussion (at least in blogosphere) for his scientific work and predictions on carbon nanotubes. Last year, he predicted that carbon nanotubes, even in all of their theorized glory, wouldn't be strong enough for a space elevator cable.

This year, he's more optimistic. No, the space elevator is still a no-go. But he does have high hopes for scaling walls Spiderman-style.

Why does Dr. Pugno catch my eye? His use of science fiction images is not likely to be an accident. When he writes about taking elevators into space or climbing up walls with special adhesive clothing, he invokes strong, myth-like, associations for a range of people- including many who probably don't spend lots of time trolling around peer-reviewed scientific journals.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Questions of Returns

Oak Ridge National Lab has announced an efficiency break- through in the use of phase- change materials for roof insulation. This hits one of the biggest energy issues in the US, which is the incredible waste produced by non-transportation sources like houses. This is a picture of Steve Glenn's Santa Monica house, reported to be the LEED rating system's first "platinum" house.

The predicted result of the Oak Ridge work, however, is an 8% savings in energy bills. This is either a worthy return for lots of good science, or a disappointing return in an age where venture capital and nano-style expectations look for exponential improvements, or at least a "Factor Four" kind of leap, or, rock-bottom, a doubling of performance. Should we make ourselves happier by lowering our expectations? Nice research in any case.

We often say the future belongs to brainworkers,. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't agree. They say the big growth involves working with bedpans and brooms. But what about rapidly growing economies that simultaneously emphasize high-tech growth, like China's?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting item today about China capping growth in master's programs for the next five years because even the booming Chinese labor market can't absorb them.

High-tech's employment impacts, nano included, can be overrated.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Our good friend (and CNS Fellow Alum), Aaron Rowe, has an interesting take on the global race to create a nanotechnology infrastructure here. ** His Wired blog entry also inspired some commentary at IEEE's blog, here, about how nanotechnology infrastructures won't bring about the "nanotech revolution."

While both Aaron and Dexter, the IEEE blogger, make some good points about government-supported research initiatives, I particularly support one of Dexter's secondary points, his take on nanotechnology as an enabling technology - meaning that nanoscale technological innovations are most likely going to be tools for other technologies.


** in reference to Aaron's blog entry: Interestingly, Biopolis (a huge science park in Singapore) was supposed to be the stem cell research center of the world by now...

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fun with Analogs

darn hard to find the two syllables "nano" in the daily press especially while travelling. But I did read a couple of good columns about 1) the difficulty with innovation in games, especially if you don't really know what you mean by innovation, and 2) a very good short primer on the business world's mixed interest in Open Source, focusing here on Microsoft.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Two Views of Nano

Chris Peterson's Nanodot blog has an interesting discussion about nano-assemblers...featured are comments from Ralph Merkle and Martin Moscovits...find it here.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Who says nano isn't accessible to the masses? Oprah Winfrey's website has an article called "Bedtime Essentials for a Good Night's Sleep." In addition to having "a calming paint color" and "the right light," Oprah's sleep specialist also recommends the following:
Ambient comfort pillows. This pillow can help increase oxygen levels in your body by up to 29 percent. "It uses a specific thing called nanotechnology, and what it does is it takes the ambient energy in the air and it pulls it in, and when you lie on it, it helps give it back to your skin which on your skin helps bring oxygen to it," he says. Ambient comfort pillows can be found in various department stores.

It's nice to see that "specific thing called nanotechnology" being put to helping America's 70 million insomniacs! This nano product is apparently fully compatible with its recommended companion products, the Indulgence Pillow, and Tempur-Pedic's Rhapsody Mattress.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Patents Useless?

There was a short but interesting piece in the paper this morning about the value of patents. Are the rewards worth the cost of getting and protecting them? Cited prominently is IBM which of course factors large in the least that part of it that isn't dealing solely with sunscreen and nanodust.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nano in Russia

Valerie found this interesting item on the Russian national legislature's formation of "a new Russian corporation of nanotechnologies (Rosnanotech)." (It comes with this indecipherable image - nano-symbolics without content.)

There are some odd things about Rosnanotech's structuring, and the article's author states that many people are worried that Rosnanotech will be used to launder money or just plain steal state funds. Probably. That's a time-honored Russian tradition, or actually, world tradition. There are different forms - sometimes the money just disappears and gets spent on villas and private helicopters for company officers, sometimes it just builds in large extra costs for services actually performed. Maybe Rosnanotech will be more the latter, and nano will move Russia towards a more Western-style corruption - unintended nano-societal consequences?

But the more immediate issues are:
  • Russia intends to spend about $7.75 billion over three years, or, in very round numbers, twice the annual expenditure of the U.S.
  • Russia doesn't have enough "men of science," as the piece puts it - their human capital problems will probably hold them back.
  • Rosnanotech will have monopoly control over nanoscale product areas.
The article assumes this last is a bad thing.
There is a problem that worries even scientists – the corporation is to form a monopoly in the nanotech field, which respectively limits opportunities of the free market to select the most competitive ideas. Today the Russian research centres work mostly on nano-materials, while such prospective and promising spheres as nano-biotechnologies and new nano-projects in the energy-producing industry are undersold.
The confusions in this passage are pretty common in Western coverage of nano. Say "Russia" and most people will still think "planned economy" and "total economic disaster." (Say "Japan" and the story of big government is much more complicated and positive.) So this author focuses on planning failure, ignoring the other big story of early-stage tech development, which is market failure. Lots of great tech innovation goes begging for a market, and there are dozens of good books about "crossing the chasm" from technology to product, which is very very hard.

When you think about the history of information technology or biotech, you realize that the most reliable business model has been, well, think of Microsoft and Cisco, as opposed to say Seagate, and think of Amgen and Genentech as opposed to almost every single other bio tech company, all of which make very little money when they are not actively losing huge piles of it. (Remember Shaman Pharmaceuticals? No you don't, but I do, because it lost several thousand bucks of my just-tenured associate professor's salary back in the late-90s.) Think of the interest in California today in hitching nano to existing manufacturing platforms to avoid sinking those existing costs. The most reliable business model has been monopoly, though we have much nicer and more accurate terms for it, ones that reflect the need for ongoing flexibility and adaptation to protect a dominant market position.

So maybe Russia, with its large public investment; its great traditions in the physical sciences, engineering, and math; its history of successful public science (Vostok-1 beat Mercury 3 into manned orbit in April, 1961; its Soyuz series; and of course Sputnik, to which American public science owes its late-50s - early-60s 10x funding boost); and its monopoly goals - with all this, maybe Russia actually knows what it's doing. Given the troubles nanoscale research is currently having attracting enough private capital, why should we rule out a future Nano-gazprom?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Science Amateurs

Perhaps there isn't much for amateur scientists to do in the nano-realm...that seems largely the province of well-funded professional scientists. However, today's NYT has a great article about the activities of amateurs and their interest in helping NASA develop new technologies. One of the projects these amateurs are working on is the hypothetical space elevator, the construction of which would supposedly be enabled by carbon nanotubes.

Also discussed in the article is the role of NASA's prizes in stimulating inventors and entrepreneurial activity. This reflects views put forth earlier this year by CNS-UCSB National Advisory Board chair Tim Kalil about the value of prizes in stimulating technological development.

Monday, June 25, 2007

On-Line Interview with CNS Researcher

Check out this interesting on-line chat with Cyrus Mody, a historian at Rice University who is part of CNS's Working Group 1 ("Historical Context of Nanotechnologies"). Mody has written extensively about the history of nanotech, especially the development of nano-tools like the scanning tunneling microscope.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Spintech Meeting Notes

I've just returned from the Spintech IV meeting in lovely Maui. I gave a short overview of the history of spintronics there. The focus of my talk asked "what are historically interesting questions about spintronics?" To this, I answered myself by citing four: What are the historical roots of spintronics? What sources of patronage have helped spintronics grow? How was spintronics used to help create political support for the NNI? And, last, how does the history of spintronics fit into the overall history of the microelectronics industry and Silicon Valley?

A few things caught my attention. One was the seeming hostility of the scientists there - mostly physicists - toward nanotechnology. I asked the group of about 200 people (students as well as senior faculty) how many considered the work they are doing to be "nanotechnology." Only a few raised their hands and these folks were mostly students. One senior researcher from UCLA even made a point of coming up to me after my talk and telling me that nano was a "hoax" which had been "hijacked" by other disciplines, especially chemistry. Another person felt obliged to comment - which simply echoed a point that I had made throughout my talk (weren't you listening??) - on the idea that much about nano wasn't new and that it was largely a re-branding phenomenon. spintronics nanotechnology?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Where's My Flying Car Part 22

I read through the "D: All Things Digital" conversation between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, and watched much of the videocast available on iTunes's front page at the moment. This was no "battle of the bands" - they agreed on everything.

The reminiscences mostly revealed the power of the first movers: Jobs pointed out about the truest thing you can say about Microsoft: "Bill built the first software company in the industry before anybody really knew what a software company was."

I was bugged by the vision moment, where Walt Mossberg, the WSJ's tech columnist, asked Gates what he things his "principal device" will be in five years.
I don't think you'll have one device. I think you'll have a full-screen device that you can carry around, and you'll do dramatically more reading off of that.... I believe in the tablet form factor. I think you'll have voice. I think you'll have ink. You'll have some way of having a hardware keyboard and some settings for that. .... You'll have your living room, which is your 10-foot experience, and that's connected up to the Internet, and there you'll have gaming and entertainment, and there's a lot of experimentation in terms of what content looks like in that world. And then in your den, you'll have something a lot like you have at your desk at work. You know, the view is that every horizontal and vertical surface will have a projector so you can put information [on it]. Your desk can be a surface [where] you can sit and manipulate things.
A tablet with a voice? Actual ink? And a 10 foot screen in my living room? I could barely stay awake to the end of the paragraph. We've gone from flying cars and moon shots to a life of PDAs and Orwell-sized living-room screens.

These kinds of comments raise not only the issue of Gates's personal lack of imagination, but the cultural question of the extent to which information technology has been shaped by white kids from the 50s suburbs who liked carrying electronic junk in their pants. And who spent a lot of time in their rooms, and worked all the time. Maybe IT exists to preserve the father- knows-best tethering of home to office. (For a good memoir about the suburban culture of high-tech, see David Beers' book on growing up in early Silicon Valley.) Maybe IT has helped us stay stuck in a vanishing world rather than build ones.

What will help nano is offering some horizons beyond those of the boomer moguls of IT.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Good News from Philly

I'm happy to announce that Mary Ingram-Waters, one of CNS's Graduate fellows, won a prize today at a conference organized by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Wharton School. Her award-winning poster showcased research underway at CNS on the intersection of groups advocating technologies such as nano, space exploration, and even cryonics during the 1970s and 1980s.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Patent Reform Reaches the Senate

Today's Wall Street Journal published one of the better overviews of the current battle over proposed patent reforms. One of the major changes would be a shift from the "first-to-invent" basis for a successful patent application to "first-to-file." One of my jobs is to chair the University of California Senate's Committee on Planning and Budget, and we reviewed the proposed reform quite negatively. The concern was that first-to-file - though the rule everywhere outside the US - would favor big companies with big money, junk patenting, and opportunists over serious researchers. IP scholars that I respect, like Mark Lemley, don't agree, but it has seemed to UC's Office of the General Counsel and most faculty like the inventors will get screwed by the filers.

The context for this legislation is recent Supreme Court decision that some have called the most important patent case since the 1952 Patent Act - KSR. v. Teleflex decision decided by the Supreme Court April 30th. Among other things, the decision, written by Justice Kennedy, would make it harder to patent incremental improvements, and would try to reserve patents for greater forms of originality. For an overview see Linda Greenhouse's good piece. She pulls out Kennedy's interesting coinage, "ordinary innovation," which is something that does not deserve a patent. Some worry that all sorts of patents could be challenged on this basis. Greg Aharanonian, editor of PatNews, rails,
The KSR decision is semantic nonsense, introducing yet more undefined terms (e.g., “real innovation”, “extraordinary”, etc.) to a statute that is constitutionally meaningless given the lack of definition for its key term, “obvious”. What’s a “real innovation” - one that occurs in a flash to a genius? That’s right, the Supreme Court has mastered general relativity and built a legal time machine to send all of us back to the pre-1952s!!!!"
The IP world is confusing and stressful right now - that's one thing thing we know for sure.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nano Patents

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Harvard University was preparing to license more than 50 of its nanotech patents to a company called Nano-Terra. It could, the article said, transform the small company into the "one of nanotechnology's most closely watched start-ups." The patents largely cover the work by Harvard chemist and nano-advocate George Whitesides and his students. Nano-Terra is apparently not offering any actual products, just manufacturing and design information.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Sending Biotech to China: Nano to Follow?

In some meetings in April, Tom Kalil, the chair of our Center's National Advisory Board, raised a policy issue that is on my mind all the time. He said that an issue that causes policymakers to lose sleep at night is where the next wave of middle-class jobs is going to come from.

In our context, will the commercialization of nanotechnologies support lots of well-paid knowledge workers? Will future nano-related revenues pay for good skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs of the kind that not only make companies function well but that helped create the American middle-class?

An article in today's Los Angeles Times is one of a growing series of reports that brainwork is following manufacturing jobs to countries with lower wage costs - in this case, China. The example is a San Diego biotech firm called Ascenta, which is following the now widely-discussed strategy of "creating a new breed of biotech start-up that marries U.S. and Chinese scientific talent with China's cheap labor and resources." The key detail here is that China appears in both terms of the low-cost equation - not only as cheap labor but as high-tech labor as well.

Business and educational leaders try to interpret these moves through the "work of nations" paradigm, which was the title of a 1991 book by the man soon to become Clinton's Secretary of Labor, Harvard professor Robert B. Reich. Reich updated Ricardo's classical idea of "comparative advantage" in international trade, in which countries should make only what they have a special advantage in making and get everything else through trade. If Brazil has lower labor costs than Germany, then Germany should design Volkswagens in Wolfsburg, Germany, with Germany's unique engineering expertise, and manufacture the cars in Brazil, with that country's cheaper labor. Germany and the world get brilliantly designed and yet cheaper Volkswagens, and Brazil gets new manufacturing income, which it can use to build new schools to train its own engineers. Ricardo's idea was that through free trade of goods made with careful calculation of each country's comparative advantage, everybody is better off.

Reich's wrinkle was to assert that brainworkers, or "symbolic analysts" - people who manipulated information for a living like medical researchers and architects - would thrive by creating high value that would support their high wages. Even if blue-collar workers were screwed - as they clearly were by the early 1990s - they could recover by becoming white-collar workers, or by making sure their kids became white-collar workers. The high-end brain workers, in Reich's model, would be just fine. And the whole country would be just fine by steadily increasing the brainworker share of its population.

That is the theory. But the theory has three major problems.

One is that the demand for brainworkers is limited - the U.S. won't soon need 17,800,500 patent attorneys, thanks be to Baal.

Second, training brainworkers is expensive, and the U.S. has not shown itself interested in the public outlays that are required to make brainworkers in large numbers. We spend a lot of money training a fairly small elite - on a per capita basis it's not as small as France's or Germany's but is in the ballpark - but over the past three decades have steadily cut the share of national income that goes into mass higher education.

Third, poor countries produce brainworkers that are pound for pound as good as ours. We have been renting them for years - from Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Turkey, etc etc. - but now more are staying put or going back. Now U.S. companies are sending work to them offshore, where labor and resource costs are indeed lower.

Reich and the Clinton Dems have wanted to reconcile Ricardian "free trade" with increasing wages. But fifteen years later, it's still not clear how this can work, since brainwork can be outsourced and cheapened too. It's also not clear how nanotechnologies would change that equation.

Intellectual property and professional protections do work to some extent - American doctors make vastly more money than their Indian counterparts because the latter can't dispense direct advice in the U.S. without passing American medical boards. But these sanctioned monopolies don't fit easily with the free-trade "work of nations" paradigm.

Nanotechnologies thus are going to require a rethinking of a range of scientific and social policies.

The picture is of IBM's China Research Laboratory, in operation since 1995.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Toasty Feet another Nano Product

To show people what sorts of products can be improved by nanotechnology, educators often use stain resistant pants and tennis balls that retain their air longer. My mom called the toasty feet insoles to my attention. Blogger Marlene Bourne ranked them as one of the top ten consumer products that make use of nanoparticles.

From the aerogel website, "Aerogel, the advanced nonporous material in Toasty Feet, has the highest thermal insulation value of any solid material available today, allowing it to retain heat efficiently, while remaining light and thin enough to fit comfortably in almost any shoe or boot."

I would lean towards calling this a clever use of materials science rather than nanotechnology. The lines between those fields are often quite fuzzy. In any case, they look like some nice insoles.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Nanoethics a No-No?

The most recent issue of the conservative-leaning magazine The New Atlantis has a very interesting article by editor Adam Keiper. Entitled "Nanoethics as a Discipline," it raises a number of provocative issues about the broader 'nano-and-society' undertaking.

While I don't agree with all of Keiper's comments, he does point out: the persistent confusion about what is nanotechnology; the divide between ho-hum nanoparticle research and more radical visions; the prevailing focus on EHS issue (partly as one of the few concrete areas where nanoethicists can get quick traction); and the rise of the nanoethicist.

It is perhaps on this latter point where Keiper is most harsh, referring to debates "awash in spin and misinformation" in which a recurring theme of "much of the social-science writing about nanotechnology is the importance of social -science writing about nanotechnology." Social scientists, he says citing researchers at CNS-ASU are full of self-pity and self-importance." Like I said, while I do not agree with all of his points, his observation that nanoethics (and here he seems to be conflating a wide range of methodological approaches and scholarly work) lacks humility and a "well-defined object of concern." If nothing else, this should give CNS folks something to think about.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Silicon Spin

Today's issue of Nature has an article about the first demonstration of the transport and coherent manipulation of electron spin in silicon. Previously, researchers studying spin were limited to other semiconductor systems. This new discovery might enable spintronics to be seen as a more serious contender to take over CMOS reaches scaling limits as engineers have decades of experience working with silicon.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Nano on the News-Hour

On tonight's PBS show The NewsHour, there was a thought-provoking segment about how engineers at companies like Intel are re-designing computer chips using variations of nanoelectronics technology to make chips faster and more powerful. This is essentially the technology that I blogged on here earlier with the use of exotic materials like hafnium to improve performance.

As with the New York Times piece from last week about IBM's chip improvements, nanotechnology per se wasn't given a major role in the story. Toward the end of the piece, Sir James Fraser Stoddart's work on molecular electronics and the possible use of molecules as transistors was featured. However, the NewsHour did not discuss other areas such as spintronics.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Technology by the Numbers

Ida R. Hoos, a critic of assessing technology solely in quantitative terms, died in late April at age 94. Trained as a sociologist, Hoos resisted the "quantomania" that "prevails in the assessment of technologies" during the heyday of the OTA.

Have things returned to quantomania? The NSF is pursuing a new "science of science policy" initiative and there appears to be greater emphasis on the agency to quantify the output of its grants and awards. Within the nano-and-society sub-community, the focus also seems to be more heavily on quantitative social science with less attention to humanistic and qualitative research. Is this short-sighted? Is it an attempt to appear more scientific in the study of science and technology? Hoos, as one of her colleagues remembered, argued that for complex technological enterprises, one couldn't always rely solely on a systems-analysis approach.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The N-word

In yesterday's New York times (p. C3), reporter John Markoff wrote about an advance announced by IBM (Almaden lab) to make faster and more energy efficient chips. I found it curious that, despite the article's reference to "atomic scale holes," "ultrathin wires," and the use of a "self-assembly" technique, the word nanotechnology never appeared.

Coincidence? Has the use of nano in electronics become so ubiquitous that it hardly bears mentioning? Or have companies like IBM ceded the n-word to the debaters about EHS issues while they continue to make advances in their nano products? Are they placing less value of labeling their technology as nano? Or was this simply a term Markoff decided not to use? What's going on?

Note: a follow up piece about the IBM announcement posted today by AP does make use of the magic n-word.