Andrew Maynard is often the first stop for mainstream journalists when they need to cover the story of nanotech. This is no doubt due to Maynard’s unique blend of scientific knowledge and his ability to communicate the science effectively to both the layman and his fellow scientist.
So when PBS decided to launch a new program as part of the Nova series entitled Making Stuff, hosted by New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, they must have been a little concerned that Maynard was less than enthusiastic about a clip from the program’s coverage of bioengineered materials both in terms of its ethical and safety point of view, the latter of which is Maynard’s bailiwick.
So David Levin, Nova's resident podcaster, contacted Maynard and they produced a podcast entitled The Dangers of Nanotech. Well, if anyone thought the program was being too soft on the safety aspect of bioengineered materials, it appears they more than made up for it by creating an alarmist title for a podcast on nanotechnology.
But Maynard tries mightily to fight back the alarmism by stating out front, “At the moment, the health issues [around nanotech] are very speculative.” And he continues on this vein balancing concerns with what we really know, not an easy task to perform.
But there is a notable omission in the whole discussion. We get initially the typical scare screed: “Nanotechnology is in everything from our pants to sunscreen, but how safe is it really?” And then not once in this nine-minute podcast do we get a discussion on the safety of the products that contain nanotech. It is like deciding to do a safety segment on electronics and you decide to spend the entire presentation on the toxicity of mercury. That’s all fine and good but shouldn’t we talk about the lifecycle of the products, just for 30 seconds or so.
The actual of topic of "Making Stuff" with nanotechnology is scheduled to air initially on January 26th, and is ingeniously entitled Making Stuff: Smaller. It is a pity that the description of the episode feels it necessary to trot out “micro-robots that probe the human body” as what the future holds as technology continues to go smaller. But I suppose that’s what really grabs the audience’s attention when it comes to nanotech.
But just a tip to the program’s producers in case they’re interested, just because the robots are small doesn’t make them nanobots, or even nanotech-related. in fact, the practice of combining the concepts of nanotechnology and micro robots really just confuses the matter.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.