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).