To those of you not familiar with the term “McGuffin,” according to Alfred Hitchcock, the term comes from the story of two men traveling on a train.
One man asks the other what is that you’re carrying in your luggage. The other man responds by saying it’s a McGuffin. When the first man asks what a McGuffin is, the other says it’s a gun for hunting lions in the Scottish highlands. The first man, nonplussed, responds that there are no lions in the Scottish highlands to which the other man quickly replies than that is no McGuffin.
In other words, a McGuffin is an empty an almost entirely meaningless plot device.
It seems that nanotechnology is becoming the new McGuffin for silly Hollywood action movies with the release of this summer’s blockbuster “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.”
In this case, the McGuffin are little nanobots that are put into a warhead and then launched at a target where they begin to devour the target until they are turned off by remote control. In the trailers you can see the green swarm of nanobugs devouring the Eiffel Tower.
I am afraid nanotechnology is not fairing too well in popular culture it always seems to be a threat whether it be Michael Crichton’s “Prey” or the television program “Eleventh Hour”.
I guess it’s hard to make cleaner drinking water, cheaper alternative energy or better anti-cancer drug treatments into an exciting and compelling plot element.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.