Brave New Nano World

This year’s FLL, First Lego League, research project is nanotechnology. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in nanotechnology until I HAD to be. Preparing a 10-year-old for robotics competition, with this type of research theme, causes the ParentAsTeacher genes to kick into high-gear. I’m “no slouch”, a favorite phrase of my father, when it comes to research, and that isn’t said with pride. When I’m interested, I can wrap my mind around difficult concepts. I live with a computer technologist. That means, to keep conversation going, there are times I have to “talk techie” with the best of them. This race to understand the nano-thingy, though, has made me feel like throwing my hands up, huffing and puffing, gasping for air saying, “That’s okay….go on….without me….I’ll be fine…”, as I wave “bye bye” to the disappearing backsides of the rest of the techno-pack disappearing around the technology curve.

Basically, what is nanotechnology? It’s described as the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. It’s predicted to replace the Industrial Revolution as the next, major key event profoundly affecting life.

It’s that little statement, “profoundly affecting life” that has me the most concerned. I was surprised to find that nanotechnology isn’t as futuristic pie-in-the-sky as I’d first assumed. Nanotechnology is available today, used in hand lotions and sunscreens, tennis balls, and clothing, which the United States Army hopes to turn into “killer” clothing.

I found myself staring at my favorite sunscreen wondering if it contained nanoparticles of zinc oxide. Of course, I’d never find out by reading the ingredient label since nanotechnology, like biotechnology, is not required to be listed on the ingredient label. In other words – a process, chemical, mechanical or engineering – no matter the beneficial or detrimental effects is NOT required to be disclosed.

My “gut” instinct told me I wouldn’t find an FDA-approved safety test for the effects of nanoparticles on or in the human body, either. It appears that many scientists are equally concerned about its safety. I ran across one study about buckyballs (a nanoparticle which is a spherical form of carbon) causing extensive brain damage in fish but, hey, those are fish. Easily replaceable. I digress…..

Nanotechnology sneaking into personal care products is yet another repeat of the biotechnology mess that’s been infiltrating our lives since 1991 – Xenoestrogens.

Watchdog groups are forming, such as the Nano Ethics bi-partisan group which discusses the “potential for great good but also requires advance study of horrific consequences”.

Responsible Engineering has an archive of heated debates assessing risk levels, with extreme opinions (and noted “not necessarily being relevant”) including:

Suppose a time traveller were to land in London, circa 1906 and warn the Europeans that in less than a decade Europe would explode into a bloody war which would not reach its final resolution (after another global war and a cold war) until 1989. Do you suppose that any rational Europeans would believe such a scenario? Or would the Europeans reject the prediction as insane?

A more balanced, less doomsday, risk management article, Dangers of Molecular Manufacturing laments how few answers exist to very major questions regarding worker safety, terrorism, and environmental damage.

On the other end of the spectrum are the doomsday groups screaming the world is going to meet its end in a sea of “grey goo” – basically self-replicating nanotechnology that quickly grows out of control, taking over the world. “Eric Drexler”, referred to as the “father of nanotechnology” slayed that concept several years ago, as discussed in a Jun 7, 2004 IOP Electronic Journal.

The “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists” article, Rethinking Doomsday supports Drexler in his view that yet again, it isn’t the technology that is going to destroy us, but rather, our own lack of due diligence, in determining or guarding “against the potential for nanotechnology to contribute to mass destruction, or to protect against a less fear-inspiring, but more prescient concern. Only in June did the Defense Department announce that it was funding a five-year project to determine which, if any, characteristics of nanoparticles – the ones now showing up in tennis balls, clothing, and other commercial products – are toxic or have adverse effects.”

So, rather than concern myself right now with Brave New Nano World scenarios, as fantastic as it is to consider carbon nanotube space elevators, my first mission will be to get back on the nano-track, learning all I can in order to guide my 10-year-old lego competitor, who has less than a deer-caught-in-the-nano-headlights look than her mother.

Ecclesiastes 7:29 Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions….

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