This past summer Nature published an article outlining some of the causes for the recent bombing attacks on nanotechnology labs. At the time, I suggested on this blog that most of the article scanned about right except for one notable omission: poor reporting on nanotechnology in the mainstream press.
One of the clearest indications of how this bad journalism has misinformed the public was when the terrorist group “Individuals Tending Toward the Savage,” which attacked a nanotech lab in Mexico, made public its raison d’etre. In it they demonstrated a truly distorted idea of what nanotechnology is and what scientists working on the nansoscale are doing. In their letter they demonstrated the misapprehension that the nanotechnology of today threatens us with the prospect of “grey goo” as tiny nanobots eat the world and leave behind a waste product of goo.
I laid at least part of the blame for this terrorist group confusing science with science fiction at the feet of mainstream journalists, who, not being familiar with the field, mistake Michael Crichton’s Prey with Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation. It’s probably not fair to say they are confused; it’s more likely the case they have never heard of the latter.
The perfect example of this comes in an article appearing on the website for the local PBS TV station in Los Angeles (KCET). In it the author, explains that Crichton’s Prey is “actually turning out to be more prescient than pessimistic.” The author based his conclusion on article he read in a publication called “E-The Environmental Magazine”.
While that article is filled with a bit more hyperbole and conjecture presented as cold-hard fact than I care for, at least it has an inkling of what a nanoparticle is. But the writer for KCET doesn’t even get that. He believes “nanoparticles” are just another way of saying, “small robots that can move about your body as they please.”
I am sorry, but nanoparticles are not small robots wandering around in our bodies delivering nutrients, or “attacking from the insides.” Let’s just start there.
Now onto the more reality-based arguments presented in both the E Magazine and KCET articles. We get this in the E Magazine article: “There is no doubt that nanoparticles are in the food supply and have been for years.” As proof of this statement, the author references research that found carbon nanoparticles in “caramelized sugar, including bread and corn flakes”.
If you have ever heated sugar in a chemistry class you probably recall that carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in the sugar separate. The oxygen and hydrogen burn off leaving carbon behind—probably in nanoscale particles. Is this some deliberate attempt by unscrupulous food company scientists to put nanoparticles (oops, I mean nanobots) into the food supply? Probably not. But if the E Magazine editor wants real proof of nanoparticles in our food, she need only turn to mayonnaise, which is an emulsion of lipids and proteins that are on the nanoscale. I wonder if over 250 years of mankind eating mayonnaise passes the long-term-health-risk test?
Two years ago, the UK government's House of Lords Science and Technology Committee decided they were going to get to the bottom of this nanotechnology-in-food issue. They put together a panel of experts, interviewed experts from all aspects of the issue and concluded that they couldn’t really say to what extent nanotechnology is used in our food.
But I am sure that the author at E Magazine understands the issue better than some UK government committee (it’s likely just some conspiracy anyway to cover up the entire issue) and the reporter can come to conclusions that were not possible for the experts.
One clear conclusion we can make from all of this, however, is that the reporter at E Magazine, in an attempt to heighten the fear factor, got another reporter to believe that nanoscale robots were circulating through our body doing some good, but also possibly some unknown harm. Now there is a much wider swath of the general public that believes nanoscientists are producing nanobots that will result in some scenario from the novel Prey.
We’ve already witnessed the damage, maiming and destruction that one small group of people can wreak when they don’t really understand what nanotechnology is. At present that violence far exceeds any harm that nanotechnology has perpetrated upon anyone. Maybe we should be hyping just how careless and misguided the coverage of the subject is and the harm that may be doing.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.