Harry Kroto

July 18, 2003

Nanoscience is just a new term for vast swaths of modern science, and whatever threat is posed today is in no way novel.

Oh no, here we go again. The self-appointed saviours of the world, who scan the horizon for the next Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, have been peering through their telescopes the wrong way again. They've spotted nanotechnology and want to stop it. Had they studied science instead of science fiction and really wanted to do something for the world rather than spout ill-informed rubbish, they would have realised that the horsemen arrived a very long time ago. The "grey goo" affair has caused me to address this subject again once and for all.

To be pedantic, nanotechnology is a meaningless term. The prefix "nano" means: divide anything appended by 1,000,000,000. So why worry about a technology reduced by this amount? It is, of course, a new word for the study of matter at the scale of one-ten-millionth of a centimetre - the scale of, surprise, surprise, molecules. The correct term is nanometre-scale technology. One scientific ignoramus recently pontificated "Scientists can now (!) manipulate single atoms" as though this were some new phenomenon heralding Armageddon. He was seemingly unaware of the fact that chemists have been able to do this sort of thing for 100 years and that biology has been adept at this ever since life began.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology (N&N) represent a new perspective but certainly not a new field. We are just getting better at assembling larger and larger bunches of atoms and molecules to do more and more things; a bottom-up approach to assembly. So what's new? Well, really point-zero-zero-buggerall (the smallest number I know). Our world is constructed from atoms, so anything that involves understanding of it at the atomic level is arguably N&N. Human beings consist of multitudes of nanoscale devices organised into symbiotic conglomerates acting in synergistic concert. Almost any chemist, especially one involved with DNA, could claim to be doing N&N.

I understand that Michael Crichton's book Prey suggests that we will all be reduced to "grey goo" by out-of-control, man-made, self-replicating nanorobots. Well, "machines" that can self-replicate are mosquitoes, and they are 100 million times bigger than a nanometre. The closest we are to fabricating mosquitoes are helicopters - and when two helicopters come together, they don't exactly self-replicate. There are already zillions of tiny replicants around, such as viruses, that could be called robots. The ability to manipulate them promises huge benefits but also presents dangers. Virus research, which could easily be called N&N but has been known as medicine up to now, is as deserving of control as nerve gas or nuclear weapons research. So should we stop all medical research? Let's get it straight: N&N is just a new term for vast swaths of modern science, and whatever threat is posed today is in no way novel.

Mankind's priority should be to rein in the many apocalyptic horsemen already here: Aids and other diseases stalk the world. Malaria has returned with a vengeance, and it is heart-rending that because of the DDT embargo - imposed with the future (mainly of westerners) in mind - a million African children die each year.

George Bush and Tony Blair rant about weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands. They already are in the wrong hands; we dropped the bomb, and Bush is considering tearing up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and developing new nuclear devices. We may have initiated an unstoppable global warming disaster. The rapid melting of the polar icecaps suggests that we really do have something serious to worry about - the survival of your grandchildren.

In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Molière pens a discussion between Monsieur Jourdain (MJ) and his philosophy master (PM): MJ: I wish to write a letter to my lady.

PM: Then without doubt it is verse you will need.

MJ: No, not verse.

PM: Do you want only prose then?

MJ: No, neither.

PM: It must be one or the other.

MJ: Why?

PM: Everything that is not prose is verse and everything that is not verse is prose.

JM: And when one speaks - what is that?

PM: Prose.

JM: Well by my faith! For more than 40 years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it.

As almost all chemistry is N&N and I am a chemist, I paraphrase Molière : Well blow me down with a nanofeather, I've been doing nanotechnology without knowing these past 40 years!

Harry Kroto is professor of chemistry at Sussex University and chairman of the Vega Science Trust ( www.vega.org.uk ). He won the 1996 Nobel prize for chemistry.

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