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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nanobots

Like the fictional young geniuses Phineas and Ferb, real scientists are "creating nanobots" — despite attempts in some quarters to dismiss them as fiction.

by
Howard Lovy

Bio

December 12, 2011 - 8:11 am

The Disney cartoon “Phineas and Ferb” rules at my house, a house that is, in turn, ruled by my two boys, ages 6 and 7. My sons enjoy the clever jokes and music, while I also enjoy the occasional reference to quantum physics and, in the title sequence, “creating nanobots” listed as one of the many outlandish, physics-defying intellectual tasks Phineas and Ferb can do over the summer.

I smile every time I hear that opening theme song (and I do hear it quite often in my house) because it proves that nanobots still capture the imagination of young and old despite attempts over the past decade by various interests to paint nanotech as simply Chemistry 2.0 with nothing truly amazing in its future.

Nanobots: Those crazy, nonexistent (as yet) little nanosized workers became hopelessly intertwined with my very real life and career about a decade ago.

One reason I first began to blog about nanotechnology back in ’03 was because of my frustration over attempts by the self-appointed — yet equally nonexistent — “nanobusiness” community to marginalize those who believe in the possibility of true, bottom-up advanced nanotechnology. I saw that the reason for this had nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics.

Long story short, the government is more likely to fund nanotech research if they are not distracted by issues such as the potential “downside” of nanotech — for example, letting little things loose in the body and the environment that cannot be controlled. This was about the time Michael Crichton’s nanotech dystopian novel Prey came out and the “nanobusiness” community was worried that this perception of nanotech would have a negative impact on how the public — and potential government regulators — perceive their business.

But they were not happy to simply say that the “out of control nanobot” or “gray goo” scenarios of our nightmares were far-fetched. Even those who believe in the possibilities of advanced nanotechnology never really bought into “gray goo.” No, they went further and mocked and marginalized those who believed that true, bottom-up assembly — the nanotech of popular culture — is possible at all.

They tried to have it both ways, actually — on one hand claiming that the nanotech they were developing had wonderful, game-changing, industry-changing qualities due to its size, yet then turning around and claiming that it was nothing special, really, just chemistry on a smaller scale. In other words, believe our hype, but do not use the same logic to believe the dystopian scenarios.

And, for the most part, the mainstream media went along for the ride. Suddenly, it became fashionable for science and technology writers to proclaim that true advanced nanotechnology was physically impossible.

My feeling was always this: I am not a scientist nor do I pretend to be one. As a journalist, though, I do possess a pretty decent bullshit detector. And I knew that those who believe that advanced nanotechnology is feasible were being marginalized for reasons that had everything to do with public relations and nothing to do with real science.

With me, it was never really about whether advanced nanotechnology was possible. I am not qualified to make that determination. What bothered me as a journalist was to see my colleagues sneer at a point of view rather than give it a full airing.

So, much to the annoyance of many of my colleagues at Small Times, the “small tech” magazine and website I helped launch back in 2001, I began my Howard Lovy’s NanoBot experiment to try to give voice to those who were being pushed to the sidelines. The launch of my blog was probably directly responsible for my summary execution from Small Times in 2004 — just a few weeks after the birth of my first son.

When I began writing about science, I had just moved back to Michigan from New York, where I was managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), a kind of wire service for Jewish newspapers. I covered, among other things, the situation in the Mideast. I had enough and was eager to write about science where — unlike the Middle East, so I thought — things were either true or not true, with nobody arguing about whose history you want to believe.

Boy, was I ever wrong. The raging debate between nanotech pioneers Rick Smalley and Eric Drexler made the Israelis and Palestinians seem like they were playing with cap guns in comparison.

As we all know, real science does not care about politics. So, after the nanotech bubble burst and the business and investment community moved on to other things, the science is still developing at a normal pace.

What I have done since then is straddle both worlds. I have spent a decade writing about both the long-term and short-term possibilities of nanotechnology. I know “nanobusiness” as it exists today and I still follow, with delight, the very real developments along the way to molecular machines.

I plan on using this space to highlight not only the short-term nanotech that you might read elsewhere, but also draw to your attention the work of real scientists who are — like the fictional, yet inspirational Phineas and Ferb — creating nanobots.

Howard Lovy is a Michigan-based freelance writer who specializes in science, business and innovation. He has been covering developments in nanotechnology for more than a decade.
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