Who's Afraid of the Nano Bad Wolf?

Drum roll: A report has been prepared and advisories issued. About what? Why, the environmental effects of nanotechnology. Oh, please!

Hard Facts
Let's review a few hard-nosed points. Nano-anything is anything × 10-9. Nanoscale is seriously small. About the only examples of nanotechnology to have slipped into the world outside a lab so far are fabric coatings that resist everything short of aqua regis, surface finishes that keep glass from fogging or beading, and expensive eye shadow. Nanotechnology could be the basis of some fantastic sensors, particularly for chemical detection and medical applications (be sure to read our February cover story—and the rest of the issue too).

And Some More of Them
Basically, nano-whatever is just a matter of scale. And a new life for materials scientists. If you're going to build a little routing machine to clean someone else's cranial blood vessels you're going to have to think about how to lubricate that machine's engaging parts. How to power it, for that matter. When you're dealing with something that teeny the physical rules that describe the macro world don't necessarily apply. Or they'll just shift enough to become weird special cases. Then where is this to-do about nano's potential perils coming from?

A Few Answers
The only publicity worse for a research project than zero is lots of coverage in the popular press. Early on, there was Eric Drexler's 1987 novel, Engines of Creation. Then came Michael Crichton's Swarm. I think the engineering ideal that nano devices could in some circumstances be self-assembling (sure beats trying to build the little sub-dots) has given many casual followers of the technology the fantods. "Self-assembling" suggests to these jumpy souls the notion of "cognizant." But just because my kitty litter clumps doesn't mean it's self-aware or likely to seize control of my house. (There was that Star Trek TNG episode, "Evolution," in which a couple of escaped nanites replicated themselves and shut down the Enterprise's computer. But diplomatic negotiations brought about peace and good will at the end.)

Staying Safe
I figure that if I don't put my nose over a lab beaker, I shouldn't need more protection from a a nano-threat than the EPA, FDA, and assorted other government agencies are supposed to be taking care of right now. Sure, nano stuff is really, really small but it's not from Planet Perishall. And as Ed Ramsden, a contributing editor to Sensors and one of the funniest men on the planet points out, "Futurists need an evil cause so someone will keep paying them to keep speaking and writing."

Ed also thinks that many of the nanotech machines now being proposed for medical applications will be overtaken by genetic engineering. Tweaking a bacterium to make it crave arterial plaque might turn out a lot slicker than building (or causing the self-assembly of) a nano-reamer.

West Virginia Revisited
It just goes on and on (See "Is a Miner?s Life Worth the Price of Some Sensors?" and "Think They're Reading My Blog?"). Another two eastern coal miners have been lost, one in the Long Branch Energy 18 Tunnel Mine near Danville and the other in the Elk Run Black Castle Surface Mine at Drawdy. That makes 16 miners gone in West Virginia and another in Kentucky since the beginning of the year. On February 1, 2006, Joe Hanchin, governor of West Virginia, called for a a state-wide shutdown of the coal mines while safety measures and equipment could be evaluated. (That shouldn't take long; there's not all that much to evaluate.)

Will It Get Better?
West Virginia has also passed some new legislation addressing mining safety measures. But wasn't there the same rise-up after 78 miners were killed in the November 20, 1968, explosion in a Consolidated Coal Co. mine near Farmington?

I persist in being optimistic enough to imagine that Americans might just turn their attention away from nano-dangers and focus on the miners whose labor lights our homes (and heats many of them too), and whose lives should be neither invisible nor disposable. Now please check out a reader's comment. Thanks.

E-mail response:
Re: Miners' Lament
Do you think someone was listening or perhaps reading? Ms. Henkel's earlier article regarding the hazards of mining and the prevention of so many tragedies by the use of today's technology was very much an eye opener. Today the governor of West Virginia has ordered most of the mines in in his state shut down for the purpose of redefining safety measures for that industry. Did he read Ms. Henkel's article or did it take two more fatalities to bring attention to this travesty? Keep it up and maybe conditions will improve for the miners in this and other countries. I thought it interesting that the miners in Canada survived what would have been most likely a deadly mine accident in the United States. Sixteen deaths in our nation's mines in January 2006. What a disgrace!

Foxy Walker
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