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Heroes Community > Other Side of the Monitor > Thread: The Science of Small
Thread: The Science of Small This thread is 4 pages long: 1 2 3 4 · «PREV / NEXT»
JollyJoker
JollyJoker


Honorable
Undefeatable Hero
posted October 23, 2009 07:57 AM

For a different cultural approach to GreyGoo try for example

Robert Charles Wilson, A Bridge of Years, 1991

http://www.amazon.com/Bridge-Years-Robert-Charles-Wilson/dp/0385419376

Sometimes the stuff is simply used to "make things possible".

Nanotech is pretty old stuff, actually:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyro_Gearloose Little Helper and the thinking cap are certainly examples for that.

It's not always negative.

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del_diablo
del_diablo


Legendary Hero
Manifest
posted October 23, 2009 08:42 AM

Quote:
Quote:
Computer Processors (they're usually what, 45 nanometers now?


I don't think that's what nanotechnology means.


You need a few less nm before its correct, but its close
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titaniumalloy
titaniumalloy


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posted October 23, 2009 10:25 AM
Edited by titaniumalloy at 10:27, 23 Oct 2009.

It's interesting that you mention this side of the issue; i've never once thought of nanotechnology as something malicious, or even heard that connotation suggested.

Not like you know nuclear power or GM food





I think that soon nanobots will replace white blood cells and maintain cells and humans will live forever
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winterfate
winterfate


Supreme Hero
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posted October 23, 2009 10:28 AM

@TA: Seriously?

The negative connotations of nanotechnology (Grey Goo) have been done to death in TV, games, movies, etc.

GM food isn't particularly dangerous...it's the things companies have done (*cough* DuPont, Monsanto *cough) to make a quick buck off of them which can be potentially damaging to the world's gene pool for some plants.

Terminator seeds and sterile seeds come to mind immediately.
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Geny
Geny


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What if Elvin was female?
posted October 23, 2009 11:28 AM

Quote:
Where have you seen good usage?

Well, I don't remember anything specific (nanotech has been thrown around quite a lot in the last years), but I think I've seen nanotech being used for cybernetic limbs. Also, in the later TMNT series there is a group of nanites that achieved self-awareness, but instead of destroying the planet they actually turned into a super-hero.
Quote:
btw, Nice to see a fresh face in the OSM.

Nice to see a fresh topic in the OSM.
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titaniumalloy
titaniumalloy


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posted October 23, 2009 02:31 PM

This is the first time I've ever heard the phrase grey goo, but I hear nanotechnology being talked about all the time. Well not all the time (who talks about nanotechnology all the time? )

Only in terms of beneficial technology though.
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TheDeath
TheDeath


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with serious business
posted October 23, 2009 06:44 PM
Edited by TheDeath at 18:50, 23 Oct 2009.

Quote:
Those who don't like technology, they belong to the caves.
With all them cities everywhere it's hard to find caves anymore, unless you wanna get eaten by a bear

Quote:
Quote:
Quote:
Computer Processors (they're usually what, 45 nanometers now?


I don't think that's what nanotechnology means.


You need a few less nm before its correct, but its close
That's the feature size when they use to "print" the circuit on the wafer. A transistor gate is much smaller than this, at 45nm feature size you have like ~6nm gate (I think, could be wrong), which is why it's subject to quantum mechanics and tunneling (a bad thing)... so they had to come up with a more electron-dense material for the gate. (mind you the transistor design wasn't changed for half a decade before).

But I'm not sure if it qualifies in the definition of nanotechnology -- I would put it there, because to me stuff that is subject to quantum effects should be there -- but I have no authority over it.
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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 23, 2009 06:49 PM
Edited by Corribus at 22:42, 23 Oct 2009.

@Bin

A few more thoughts on your last post:

Quote:

(4) Would you be less likely to use a product if you knew it featured nanotechnology?
Yes, but not much.

May I ask why?

Quote:
"A more important question is: does a technology's capacity for abuse have a bearing on whether the technology should be developed?"
Yes, of course. To not consider it would be irresponsible.

Could you clarify: do you mean that the capacity for abuse should have a bearing on whether the technology should be developed at all - or on the rate at which the technology should be developed?

Quote:

Yes, the stakes get higher. The stone age might be extreme, but the "horse and buggy" days could be considered by some as a step forward rather than a step backwards. The lifestyle of the Amish definitely has its appeal at both the individual level and the global level (although it wouldn't be possible on the global level).


It's interesting that you bring up the Amish.  If you don't mind, let me make a statement, and then you react to it:  "If humans were to stop pursuing or adopting new technology, they would effectively be ignoring their destiny and their purpose."  Perhaps another, more interesting question is: "Would it even be possible for humans to stop pursuing or adopting new technology?" I think, no, probably not.  

@dimis

Yes, patience.  Details will come.

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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 23, 2009 11:34 PM
Edited by Corribus at 23:35, 23 Oct 2009.

Part B got a little long, so I split it into two.  I'll post the second part tonight.

Part B: What do people really think?

In Part A of this article, I attempted to show that popular culture often portrays new technologies in a rather negative light.  The ramification of this fact is that popular culture can and does influence the public’s perception of new scientific fields.  Nanotechnology is no different in this regard.

Here, in Part B, I would like to talk a little about what the current perceptions of nanotechnology are among people who have no (alleged) prior knowledge of the field.  What do people currently think about the risks of nanotechnology versus the potential benefits of technology?  In part C, to follow, I will use GMO as an example to show what can happen to a technology if public perceptions are swayed by misinformation.  

Risks versus Rewards

In 2006, a paper was published in the high impact scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology by a group of researchers who were trying to ascertain this very fact.    The researchers surveyed people who allegedly had no prior knowledge of nanotechnology’s risks or benefits, and asked them to rate their perceptions of what the relative risks and benefits of nanotechnology are.  They also asked the same people to rate a bunch of other “technologies” using the same scale, and plotted the results as a scatter plot, which I’ve reproduced below (violating a number of copyright laws in the process, I imagine).


Figure Legend: Perceived risks and benefits of nanotechnology and 43 other technologies, based on 503 responses to a telephone survey.  Acronyms are: alcoholic beverages (AB), anesthetics (AN), air travel (AT), automobile travel (ATT), bicycles (B), commercial aviation (CA), chemical disinfectants (CD), chemical fertilizers (CF), chemical manufacturing plants (CM), computer display screens (CS), dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), electric power (EL), fire fighting (FF), food preservatives (FP), general aviation (GA), herbicides (H), home appliances (HA), human genetic engineering (HE), handguns (HG), hydroelectric power (HP), lasers (L), large construction (LC), liquid natural gas (LG), motorcycles (M), microwave ovens (MO), motor vehicles (MV), pesticides (P), prescription antibiotics (PA), prescription drugs (PD), police work (PW), railroad (R), radiation therapy (RT), surgery (S), stem-cell research (SC), smoking (SM), water fluoridation (WF), X-rays (X).  Source: S. Currall, et al. Nat. Nanotech. 2006, 1, 153-155.

The first thing you’ll notice from the figure is that the data is not randomly scattered around the plot: there’s a clear inverse correlation between peoples’ perceptions of the risks of technologies and their potential benefits.  With the exception of firefighting (FF) and police work (PW), technologies tend to either be high risk, low benefit or low risk, high benefit.   For some technologies, such as solar power, this is sensible.  Obvious benefits there, especially with all the global warming and “fossil fuels = bad” press that’s around right now.  On the other hand, the rankings of some technologies don’t really make sense.  Asbestos, for instance.  Certainly, the health concerns of asbestos are serious (though, to be fair, a bit overstated), but on the other hand, asbestos does have a lot of benefits.  Its fireproofing capacity (especially versus cost) is quite useful.  So why do people perceive the benefit of asbestos is low?  My guess is that there’s an evolutionary answer buried in there somewhere, but nevertheless, the data clearly show that when people get it into their heads that something is potentially harmful, they also tend to perceive that it is (proportionately) less useful.  In other words, there’s a psychological tendency to undervalue the potential benefits of risky behaviors – and, vice-versa, for to undervalue the risks of clearly beneficial behaviors.

You’ll also notice from the figure that as of 2006, the public’s perception of nanotechnology is fairly neutral.  The perceived benefits slightly outweigh the perceived risks, but this seems to be typical of technology in general – i.e., technology is generally perceived to be a good thing.

The Value of Knowledge

We’ll return to the above figure in a moment, but first, let me say something that should be pretty obvious, and then provide data to support it.  As people are educated about a technology, they are more likely to see the benefits in it.  Put another way, people are naturally more skeptical about things they don’t understand.  

In a later paper published in the same journal, the authors pooled a bunch of data from a number of surveys like the one described above.  One figure (reproduced below) plotted the proportion of responders who judged that the benefits outweighed the risks as a function of level of their familiarity with nanotechnology.  There are some additional things on the figure, but I’d ask you to focus on the red data points and best fit lines through the data.  The data suggest that the more people know about nanotechnology, the more likely they are to judge that the benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the risks.  


Figure Legend: Proportion of participants judging that benefits will exceed risks given their previous familiarity with nanotechnology.  As the level of familiarity with nanotechnology increases, the proportion of participants judging that benefits will exceed risks increases significantly.  Source: T. Satterfield, et al. Nat. Nanotech. 2009, 4, ASAP.

However, I think that this trend is probably not general, and that for a given technology, it will depend a lot on what type of information people are exposed to.  In the case of some technologies (part C, to follow), the quality of information has been pretty bad, and the reputations of those technologies have as a result suffered.  So, I hope that perhaps you (the reader) will come to understand what I think the value of this effort is: only through education and (good) information can people come to make good, educated decisions about technologies.  It’s worth my time to try to spread quality information about nanotechnology, both about its risks and benefits.  In the case of nanotech, I do think the benefits outweigh the rewards, and it’s my mission to tell people why, preferably before they’re inundated with bad information that may sway their opinion prematurely.

Next Up: Part C. A Lesson from GMO
Next Next Up: What is Nano?

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Binabik
Binabik


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Legendary Hero
posted October 24, 2009 03:59 AM

I'll try to be brief with this since Winter and Dimis are chomping at the bit to move on.


May I ask why?

Ignorance.  Without knowing anything about it, I won't automatically embrace something simply because it's new and different. Besides, mostly the rich people who are into techno-gadgets buy the initial stuff anyway. They're the ones who fund the next stage of development and attract more venture capital with their acceptance of the product. By the time it's a commodity and a cheap SOB like me can afford it, I'll know a lot more about it. Also bear in mind that my answer of "less likely" doesn't mean "won't".


Could you clarify: do you mean that the capacity for abuse should have a bearing on whether the technology should be developed at all - or on the rate at which the technology should be developed?

Both. It's a matter of degree. What's the likelihood of abuse? What's the severity and consequences of abuse? Can the abuse be rectified? (for example through legislation - probably not very trustworthy) All of this weighs against the potential benefits. I MUCH prefer to think things through very thoroughly before jumping ahead.


If you don't mind, let me make a statement, and then you react to it:  "If humans were to stop pursuing or adopting new technology, they would effectively be ignoring their destiny and their purpose."

I would strongly disagree. The best I'll give you is "SOME people would be going against their natural inclination."


"Would it even be possible for humans to stop pursuing or adopting new technology?"

Individually, yes. Individually, no. Some people just like messing around with stuff too much, and nothing is going to stop them. This is along the lines of what I said earlier. If someone CAN do it, someone WILL do it. Again, it's a matter of degree. Humans will strongly pursue the easy way to fulfill necessities of life, food, shelter, warmth, etc. Beyond that the drive gradually diminishes and moves toward an interest or hobby.


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winterfate
winterfate


Supreme Hero
Water-marked Champion!
posted October 24, 2009 06:12 AM

@Corribus: That information doesn't surprise me one bit.
It's human nature to fear the unknown.

That being said, the inverse correlation you established is...just...wow.

Quote:
I'll try to be brief with this since Winter and Dimis are chomping at the bit to move on.




Quote:
But I'm not sure if it qualifies in the definition of nanotechnology -- I would put it there, because to me stuff that is subject to quantum effects should be there -- but I have no authority over it.


Well, based on sheer size, I'd include it.
It IS at the nano level after all.
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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 24, 2009 06:35 AM

@binabik

Interesting answers.  I won't respond, to prevent us going off on an unnecessary philosophical tangent, other than to say that my interpretation of destiny is a thermodynamic one.  By that I mean, while as individuals I don't believe we are destined toward any certain end, as a group we are bound by a statistical tendency toward a certain direction, and that direction is technological development.  We can no more stop "progress" (put purposely in quotes) than we can stop the entropic degradation of energy.
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I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later. -Mitch Hedberg

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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 24, 2009 06:58 AM
Edited by Corribus at 06:58, 24 Oct 2009.

Part C: The Fishberry, A Lesson From GMO

Perceptions of technology change over time, and from the first figure in Part B, it’s pretty obvious that when the perceptions of nanotechnology do change, it will either be up and to the left or down and to the right.  Furthermore, because the commercial viability of any technology is intimately tied to public perceptions of that technology, it’s pretty clear that nanotechnology scientists, government agencies, and corporations which sell products with potential nanotechnology applications, should be proactive about educating the public. [Note: perceptions are also dependent on use – people may be fine with using a technology in, for example, a television but not so OK with using it in their food.]  To illustrate what the potential outcome is of not handling technological education properly, let’s take the example of GMO.

The outcome is pretty obvious from the first figure in Part B.  People perceive GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology to be more risky and less beneficial than average.  Especially for food applications.  If you ask an average person if they’d eat a genetically modified organism, they’re probably make an “ewwww” face.  But next, ask them why they feel that way, and I bet they couldn’t give you anything other than a vague emotional justification.  Most people couldn’t probably make a good, accurate list of the real risks and benefits of GMO technology; but many people know they don’t like it anyway.  Why?  The answer is: a decade’s worth of low quality information and low quality publicity have killed what is essentially a brand name.  It doesn’t help that, in the case of GMO, people have a moral predisposition towards objecting to “messing with life” or “playing god”, although to be honest I don’t see what the difference is between engineering organisms and engineering nonliving matter.



In any case, elsewhere on HC, I wrote a lengthy post on the Fishberry.  It can be found here (about 5 posts down).  I won’t restate the whole story in this thread, though it is worth following the link and reading the post in the context of the present article; but I will summarize.  Early in the 1990s, scientists observed that tomato farmers lose a lot of money every year due to frost-damage, and also observed that many plant and animal species, including the atlantic flounder, have genetic protection mechanisms that enable them to survive in low temperature conditions.  So, they tried to create a fish-inspired anti-frost gene and engineer tomatoes to express this gene in order to protect them from yearly frosts.  Unfortunately, early attempts to do this resulted in only partial effectiveness, but some people who were very against GM foods felt that the fish-tomato had just the right ick-factor for their needs, and they adopted it as their primary protest vehicle.  People could be found in the streets protesting about the mad scientists who were injecting fish DNA into tomatoes, about tomatoes that would taste like salmon, all kinds of crazy stuff.  Some people are STILL convinced that tomatoes have fish genes in them, even though the project was ended over a decade ago and the mutant tomatoes never did make it out of the lab.  Somewhere along the way, the tomato got turned into a strawberry, and thus the abominable fishberry was born.  Seriously.

The fishberry debacle absolutely killed the cold-gene-tomato project and did a lot of harm to GMO technology in general.  I won’t go so far to say that GMO is dead, but certainly many companies won’t touch certain aspects of it with a ten foot pole, and government funding of GMO research was severely cut back, especially in Europe, because all the bad publicity did so much damage to the average person’s perceptions of the technology.  The real crime in the whole thing is not so much that people now have bad perceptions of GMO technology; it's that the negative movement of perceptions of GMO technology was precipitated by misinformation and rumor.  I’m a firm believer in a person’s right to make choices about the types of technologies that they integrate into their lives; but I’m also a firm believer in making those choices based on facts and good information, and also not spoiling that decision making process for everyone else by spreading information that you haven’t verified or know to be faulty.  

I mean, how is something like this productive:



Yeah, that’s pretty funny, but it’s the kind of nonsense that really hurts the development of potentially useful technologies and contributes to poor public perception of them, and for the most part, it’s perpetuated by people who haven’t taken any time to educate themselves on the benefits or real risks of the technology they’re protesting against.

To bring this back around to nanotechnology: there are already numerous groups who have started protesting the use of nanotechnologies in consumer products, particularly foods and drugs.  Some forms of their propaganda are wackier than others, and the issues they bring up are a mixture of the real and the ridiculous.  One example that is on the mild but entertaining side: a European organization called the ETC Group recently held a contest to design a hazard symbol for nanotechnology, the winner of which, according to the ETC Group website “will be submitted to international standard-setting bodies responsible for hazard characterization and could be used as a label on product-packaging or workroom walls.” (ETC Group, January 24, 2007).  Some of my favorite designs were


You can see the rest of them here. [Note: Sadly, you do not appear to be able to see all of the entries anymore, just the three winners.  Well, you can read more about the contest there, if you want.  I have about 30 of them stored on my computer if anyone is really interested.]

I don’t know what ultimately happened with the contest, but the point of bringing this to your attention is that the people who protest nanotechnology (and other technologies) for the most part don’t really know what – if any - hazards exist for nanotech.  They just want to slap a warning sign on anything related to nanotechnology and convince you that, by virtue of the fact that it’s new, it must be dangerous.  In reality, having a warning sign for nanomaterials makes about as much sense as having a warning sign for giant objects.  Sure, some giant objects might be hazards that warrant a warning sign, such as boulders falling onto a road, but would you stick a warning sign in front of a large building that says, “Warning: Large Object Ahead”? Aside from being silly, such endeavors only serve to unnecessarily scare the public about nanotechnology without providing them any real, unbiased information.  And we wonder why people are confused about the risks and benefits of new technologies?  The behavior of these activist groups is irresponsible and disruptive to say the least.

Conclusions


It is pretty clear that while most people have neutral perceptions about the risks and rewards of nanotechnology at present, the future course of those perceptions will in large part be determined by how the people who hold them are educated about what nanotechnology is, how it works, and what has been done to ensure that the technology is safe and effective in all its potential applications.  This is the duty of scientific researchers and, in the case of safety, government regulatory agencies.  I will spend one article in the future discussing how the regulatory agencies are approaching the technology, because it’s important for the public to understand that it will be people, not corporations, who decide what technologies make it into their products.

To drive this point home, I’d like to leave you all with one final figure, which I think you’ll agree offers an interesting parallel to the fish-tomato example describe above.  Just a few weeks ago, a research group from the University of Arkansas published a paper in the journal ACS Nano describing how, if you add carbon nanotubes (CNTs) to soil in which tomato seeds are planted, the CNTs penetrate into the tomato seeds and drastically increase their germination and growth rates.


Figure Caption: Phenotypes of 25-day-old tomato seedlings growing on medium without and with CNTs (10 and 40 micrograms per mL).  Source: Khodakovskaya, M., et al, ACS Nano, 2009, ASAP Article.

So what do you think will be the response of activist groups when they learn of this?  Like the fish-tomato, will the nanotube-tomato be the death knell for nanotechnology in foods, based on nothing more than a single picture and a whole lot of propaganda and bad information?  Or will people instead seek to become more educated about nanotechnology and make rational, informed choices?  

I hope that this article has given all of you a primer on what the current public perceptions of nanotechnology are, and, more importantly, have illustrated the importance of learning more about a technology before leaping to hasty conclusions about its risks, benefits, and morality.  Hopefully, the next article: (What is nano?) will be a good step in that direction.

Discussion Questions:

1. Would you eat a genetically modified organism?  Would you eat an organism which uses nanotechnology to enhance its growth?  If your answers to those questions differ, can you pinpoint why?

2. What factors do you think influence a person’s perceptions of the risks or benefits of technology, other than how much information the person has on the technology?  For instance, what about religion?

3. Are there certain aspects of a technology that would make you more wary about it than others?  Can you identify certain types of products with which you would be less likely to try a new technology? (i.e., foods, medicines, supplements, packaging materials, appliances, energy, electronics, etc.)


Next Up: What is Nano? (Probably early next week sometime.)


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winterfate
winterfate


Supreme Hero
Water-marked Champion!
posted October 24, 2009 07:37 AM

Quote:
1. Would you eat a genetically modified organism?  Would you eat an organism which uses nanotechnology to enhance its growth?  If your answers to those questions differ, can you pinpoint why?


Well, we already eat GMO on a daily basis, and we're still alive, so why not?
As for nanotechnology organisms, you already showed one example of usage of nanotechnology, and I doubt you can die by eating carbon nanotubes. I'd need more evidence of the safety of it though.

My answers differ simply because of the age of the technology. GMO has been around for a long time. Humans have always manipulated organisms to get certain beneficial characteristics. Only difference now is that you can use genetic engineering to do the work.

Nanotechnology is new, so I still have it on mental probation.

Quote:
2. What factors do you think influence a person’s perceptions of the risks or benefits of technology, other than how much information the person has on the technology?  For instance, what about religion?


Well, people who have suffered traumatic experiences that they can link back to a certain technology may become biased against it. On a similar vein, someone who has seen the positive side of technology can be positively biased towards them.

Religion is a bit different since it relies on faith. Science is empirical.

Quote:
3. Are there certain aspects of a technology that would make you more wary about it than others?  Can you identify certain types of products with which you would be less likely to try a new technology? (i.e., foods, medicines, supplements, packaging materials, appliances, energy, electronics, etc.)


Certain aspects? Well, not really. For me it's as simple as being leery of new technology and trusting of older tech that has been proven safe and effective. Out of that list though, I'm more leery of tech related to anything consumable (after all, if it's going into my body, I have a valid reason to worry. )
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Geny
Geny


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Undefeatable Hero
What if Elvin was female?
posted October 24, 2009 12:59 PM

Quote:
1. Would you eat a genetically modified organism?  Would you eat an organism which uses nanotechnology to enhance its growth?  If your answers to those questions differ, can you pinpoint why?

Genetically modified - sure, like winter said already, people changed the structure of organisms for a very long time now (cultivation), genetics is just the next step.
Nanotechnology - I'd be more reluctant to do it, because in my mind nanotech is connected to electronics and robotics and I can hardly see its benefits in the food industry. The last picture with carbon nanotubes, however, is starting to change my mind.

Quote:
3. Are there certain aspects of a technology that would make you more wary about it than others?  Can you identify certain types of products with which you would be less likely to try a new technology? (i.e., foods, medicines, supplements, packaging materials, appliances, energy, electronics, etc.)

Foods would definitely make me more wary, like I said there are some things that I just can't connect in my mind with food and it will take me longer to accept them. I guess medicine would have been such a type as well, if I haven't accepted the fact that I know absolutely nothing about it and therefore am forced to rely on the opinions of doctors.


With you permission, Corribus, I'd like to touch another subject in the light of your last posts. I agree with everything you said about information and misinformation, but I see a small problem in the matter. People who actually know a lot about new technology are usually predisposed towards it. They go to study the subject (for a very long time) already knowing that it interests them and that it could be very beneficial. Let's take you for example, it's clear that you are trying to make the picture as objective as possible, but being human you cannot help but leave subtle pro-nano messages in your posts, such as this one: "In the case of nanotech, I do think the benefits outweigh the rewards, and it’s my mission to tell people why, preferably before they’re inundated with bad information that may sway their opinion prematurely."

Of course, you have your opinion and it shows in your words, it's only human, but the question I want to raise is: whether most of the experts say that the benefits outweigh the risks because it is really so, or because most of them are biased and there is no one knowledgeable enough in the matter to prove them wrong?
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TheDeath
TheDeath


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with serious business
posted October 24, 2009 03:28 PM

I don't really like engineered or synthesized food, and it's probably because I am very poor at biology, but I do know that it is very hard to find "copies" of two bodies and study something exact in biology, so knowing what effects it can cause aren't specific, at least for a given person.
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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 24, 2009 08:40 PM
Edited by Corribus at 20:41, 24 Oct 2009.

@Geny
Quote:
in my mind nanotech is connected to electronics and robotics and I can hardly see its benefits in the food industry. The last picture with carbon nanotubes, however, is starting to change my mind.

I think you'd be surprised.  I will have at least one post on the applications of nanotechnology in foods.

Quote:
With you permission, Corribus, I'd like to touch another subject in the light of your last posts. I agree with everything you said about information and misinformation, but I see a small problem in the matter. People who actually know a lot about new technology are usually predisposed towards it. They go to study the subject (for a very long time) already knowing that it interests them and that it could be very beneficial. <snip> .. the question I want to raise is: whether most of the experts say that the benefits outweigh the risks because it is really so, or because most of them are biased and there is no one knowledgeable enough in the matter to prove them wrong?

Permission granted.

And this is a really good question.  It's a sad but inevitable truth that people are going to distrust the motivations of other people, in particular scientists, government agencies, and especially corporations.  Stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture against scientific professionals don't help, but there is a real - and justified - perception that there is a conflict of interest when a professional starts talking about the merits of the technology that they study or utilize.  Groups who protest against technologies feed off this distrust.  Even corporate interests aside, there is no doubt a divide between scientists and laymen.  I discuss this divide more in the article on the fishberry that I linked to earlier.

So, let's be honest here.  

Having been in science now for some time, I can tell you that most academic scientists (those involved in basic science research) aren't really interested in the ethical or safety questions surrounding the technology they are developing.  That's not to say they are unethical or don't care if people get hurt.  It's just that their research is usually so far removed (upstream) from real commercial applications that it's not really important to them.  They're interested in understanding basic scientific concepts, not really (for the most part) in developing technologies and products that are going to be on the supermarket shelves.  This is slowly changing - particular for technologies related to the medical industry - as more and more academic scientists are starting to become entrepreneurs, at least in part because universities are becoming more interested in patenting the work that comes out of their laboratories.  Mindsets on safety are changing slower, though, and ethical and safety questions are, for most academic scientists, still rarely discussed, in part because most scientific researchers don't have the expertise and don't want to take the time and resources to pursue something that isn't interesting to them.  

I'm generalizing, of course, but many academic scientists figure that such "trifling details" such as the ethics or safety of their technology will be figured out later on by other people who are trained to do such "mundane things".  Thus, while academic scientists can talk to you for hours about the potential benefits and uses of their research (benefits and applications which are usually years away from becoming a reality), consumers/people shouldn't expect to learn much about the downsides of technology from them; although academics WILL talk about the downsides of rival technologies.  It's worth noting that there are academics who have devoted their career to ethics and safety, so these can be good sources of information for the layman, if you know where to look.  Not to shamelessly promote my alma mater, but the University of Pennsylvania has one of the most well-regarded centers for bioethics in the country; if you're really interested in the ethics surrounding new technologies, visinting their website would be a good thing for you to do.  It is here.    

Corporations, on the other hand, care very much about safety and ethics, but usually only so far as government regulations require.  Corporations certainly aren't going to go out of their way to educate the public about the potential hazards of their products - unless required by law - and on the rare occasion that they do volunteer some bit of safety or hazard information that isn't required, there's usually a peripheral benefit to doing so (i.e., the corporation trying to develope the image that they care about the people who buy their products).  Again I am generalizing here: there are some corporations that do really care about the safety of their products and are committed to being open with the public about the benefits and risks of their proprietary technology.  But by and large, consumers are justified in being wary about the sales pitches offered by corporations who are ultimately only concerned about their bottom lines.  

That leaves government regulatory agencies.  Most people in the US have an unhidden skepticism about the motivations of their government officials, and government agencies also have a (at times justified) reputation for being inefficient and burdened by endless beaurocracy and incompetency.  People also hate politicians and don't trust them farther than they can throw them.  However, while I can't speak for the motivations of department and agency heads, having been in the federal government for a little while now, I can tell you that the shock troopers of scientific regulatory agencies for the most part have a real passion for ensuring the safety of the American people.  They care about what they do and about their mission, and they work very hard to ensure that commercial products incorporating new technologies are tested fully and regulated to the limits of the agency's capabilities.  When a government agency publishes safety information about a technology, I think you can trust that for the most part it is accurate, although it is true that it is always going to be filtered somewhat by the current political interests of Congress.  

While nobody can assure you that the widget you pull off your Walmart shelf is 100% safe, what you can be sure of is that there are people who are working very hard to make the risks associated with what you purchase are as low as possible.  It is a certainty that everyone has motivations for saying what they say, and you're never going to have complete trust in anyone's opinion.  If a scientist tells you something about a technology, how can you be sure that they aren't being influenced by an alterior motive?  The answer is that you can't.  But what you can do is talk to as many people as you can, read literature (from reputable sources), and go to the websites of regulatory agencies where pretty much everything known about the technologies in question are a matter of public record.  Forming an opinion about a technology is not a simple matter, and the more good sources you can draw upon to accomplish that, the better off you'll be.  
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I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later. -Mitch Hedberg

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ohforfsake
ohforfsake


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posted October 27, 2009 06:11 PM
Edited by ohforfsake at 19:27, 27 Oct 2009.

This thread most definatly have my interest, I don't know much about the subject though, so I'll probably be reading a lot more than posting.

Quote:

(2) Do you believe your perception of nanotechnology or technology in general has been swayed by popular culture?


Most definatly, when I started at university I only knew about nanotech from movies, believing they would be small robots inside our bodies shooting lasers at the disease molecules and destroy them.

Our very first introduction lecture (which was to physics, chemistry, biology and nano), the lecturer ended the lecture with a small movie of this scenario and then said: "Some of you probably think that nano is like this, well then you're going to come in for a wake up call (or something like that)"

Quote:
(4) Would you be less likely to use a product if you knew it featured nanotechnology?


No, I would not be less likely, because of 2 reasons:
1) My impression of nano from popular culture is not negative (but I do recall a lot of negative things about nano in movies, etc., I think I probably didn't take those to me, but still I took stuff like nano robots curing humans from the inside to me, so maybe I'm biased when choosing depending on wether or not it's something I'd be happy about, though I don't know)
2) I have faith in my government, and the procedures decided by the government that decides wether or not a given product is safe or not.

Eventhough I do know, that procedures can change when a product have been on the market enough time for a clear tendency to form.

Edit: I just remembered
Quote:
(1) Do you recall an instance in popular culture where you were exposed to nanotechnology?

I used to see these commercials on the TV where someone would spill liquid down on a sofa on purpose, just to see that the sofa didn't abosrb the liguid at all and he could simply brush it away, like it was dust/balls.

I think it was due to a nano cover that it was possible.

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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 28, 2009 03:47 AM

What is Nano?

Having now a firm foundation of the perceived risks and benefits of nanotechnology, let’s talk about what, exactly, nanotechnology is.

The Scale of Nanotechnology

Let’s start with the nanometer.

A nanometer is equal to 10-9 meters.  If you were to take a centimeter and divide it into a million equal parts, you’d have 10 nanometers (hereafter, nm).  To orient you in terms of length scale, look at the following figure.



In the middle of the figure is the length scale, extending from 1 cm at the top down to 0.1 nm (1 Angstrom) at the bottom.  Notice that I’ve roughly labeled the “macroworld”, “microworld” and “nanoworld”; these labels are certainly not rigorous.  

On the left hand side and right hand side of the figure I have provided some items from the natural and man-made worlds that correspond to each length scale.  So, 1 nm would be the size of a rather average sized molecule.  Note that humans controlled matter on length scales even less than 1 nm, being able to position individual atoms with an AFM tip, as shown in the figure.

Do all things nanoscale count as nanotechnology?

Not really.  After all, most proteins are in the 10s of nm in size.  Viruses are also, indeed, nanoparticles.  So, protein chemists and virologists might be, under this excessively broad definition, considered nanotechnologists.  

The truth is that there is no universal definition of nanotechnology.  As a matter of length, most people set the upper limit of nanotechnology at approximately 100 nm.  However, this alone is not absolute or sufficient.  Most regulatory agencies have not adopted a strict definition.  Nevertheless, many regulatory agencies did contribute to constructing the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) definition of nanotechnology, which is:

(1) Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels, at the length scale of approximately 1 - 100 nanometer range.

(2) Creating and using structures, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small and/or intermediate size.

(3) Ability to control or manipulate matter on the atomic scale.

(See the NNI website here: http://www.nano.gov/)

Yes, the definition is rather vague, and there is still disagreement over what things do and do not qualify as nanomaterials, but most scientists would agree that manipulating proteins is not nanotechnology but engineering, say, nano-sized crystals with unique optical properties does qualify.

What’s so special about the nano-size anyway?

Part of the reason why there’s no size cutoff for what constitutes nanotechnology is because crazy stuff doesn’t just start to happen at some specific, well defined size.  There’s nothing inherently special about the nanometer, just as there’s nothing inherently special about the meter.  However, the properties of matter do depend on the size of the pieces into which the matter is divided.  As the size of individual pieces of matter get smaller, changes in chemical properties and changes in physical properties of that matter start to occur.  As it so happens, these changes really start to become significant at around the 1-100 nm size, and this is precisely why nanomaterials are so unique – and so promising.

Changes in Chemistry

For hunks of condensed matter, chemistry happens at the surface.  A large chunk of iron doesn’t start to rust from the inside out: rust starts on the outside where the oxygen and water is.  Small twigs burn faster than giant logs.  Large sugar crystals dissolve in water more slowly than small ones, which is why we use powdered sugar rather than granulated sugar when making cake icings.  Most people understand this intuitively without even having to have it pointed out.

Consider the following figure:



Let’s say you were to take a single piece of uniform matter, represented in the figure above by the blue cube with a dimension of 10 microns (a micron is 1000 nm).  This material has a volume of 1000 cubic microns and a surface area of 600 square microns.  Now take that particle and cut it into eight smaller chunks of equal mass (equal volume).  It is pretty easy to see that while there is still the same amount of matter contained in the eight smaller chunks, the amount of total exposed surface area is much higher.  Now cut each of these particles into many tiny (nm sized) particles.  Again, the same amount of matter exists, but the amount of surface area has increased immensely.

Nanosized particles have very different chemistry from macrosized particles because of the huge difference in total available surface area for reactions to occur.  This increased surface area leads to huge changes in solubility, reactivity and catalytic capacity, such that materials which we might think of as being rather inert and uninteresting in the bulk phase actually appear to have very exciting chemical properties when they are nanosized.

A good example of this is shown below:



A lump of zinc metal is fairly uninteresting.  It’s pretty inert and not prone to fast chemical reactions unless exposed to the right chemical agent (say, hydrochloric acid).  On the other hand, zinc powder is explosive.  In both cases, you have the same stuff, but one is highly reactive and the other isn’t, all because of particle size.  And zinc powder isn’t even nano-sized!  Some substances, like glass, which seem totally inert as bulk matter, can be quite unstable in the nano-regime.  For instance, some researchers reported that they could carve out the insides of glass (silica) nanoparticles just by letting them sit for a little while in an alkaline solution, resulting in hollow glass nanospheres.  Cool!



Figure Caption: TEM images showing changes in silica nanoparticles synthesized by microemulsion method, after (A) 0, (B) 15 and (C) 30 days.  Scale bar: 50 nm. Source: Park, et al. Langmuir, 2008, 24, 21, 12134.

Changes in Physics

Most people intuitively understand the surface-area dependence of chemical properties.  Much less intuitive is the rather significant change in physics that occurs at around the nanoscale length regime, so it is probably better just to demonstrate with an example:



On the left hand side there are pictures of two materials which have drastically different nanoscale properties than those of their macroscale counterparts, and these differences have nothing to do with chemistry or surface-area.  Gold, as everyone knows, is a metal with a typical metallic appearance; however, solutions of gold nanoparticles (above right) exhibit a multitude of cool colors.  Cadmium selenide (bottom left) is a semiconductor which, like gold, has a metallic luster and is fairly unremarkable.  However, when chopped up into tiny little pieces, cadmium selenide nanocrystals (also known as quantum dots) are highly fluorescent.  The solution color in both cases depends highly on the size and shape of the particles.  Other properties including magnetism, reflectivity, absorptivity can be similarly tuned for various materials as a function of size.

To explain the effect in detail would take some time, though I will do so for quantum dots in a later article, but for right now it is sufficient to understand that these effects occur because, while the properties of bulk materials are determined by Newtonian physics, at the nanoscale properties are determined by quantum mechanics.  Just so you know, noble metal and semiconductor nanoparticles are currently the darlings of modern medical science, and applications are also now being developed in the food, security, and electronics industries as well.  Indeed, the capacity of nanosized materials to store bits of quantum information makes nanomaterials the future of computer technology.

The New Definition of Chemical Engineering

Chemists have been able to engineer the properties of molecules – which are nano-sized, as I’ve said – for quite some time.  It’s called synthetic chemistry.  However, it was rarely viewed as “molecular engineering” because while reactions occur between individual molecules, the effects were only known macroscopically and statistically.  You could for instance turn chemical A into chemical B, but you had no way to manipulate, much less observe, single molecules of A or B.  Due mostly to advances in microscopy, we can now observe, and thus manipulate, nanosized materials, from molecules to small chunks of inorganic matter.  Thus it has been possible to engineer all kinds of complex nanoscale architectures; the phrase “chemical reaction” is no longer adequate for such types of molecular manipulation.  For example, experts in nanomaterials can, say, fabricate artificial polymer based nanoscale micelles, store active cancer-killing pharmaceuticals and/or nutrients inside them, functionalize their surfaces with tumor-specific receptors, cause them to glow so that the location of the tumor can be found (or be magnetic to act as MRI contrast agents), and program them to self-destruct under a specific set of conditions (exposure to light or certain chemicals): targeted, controlled diagnostic and delivery vehicles for chemotherapy agents.  Nano-sized cancer-finding and cancer-killing machines.  Such nanosized engineering marvels utilize both the changes in chemistry and physics that are unique to nanomaterials.



Conclusions

Anyway, hopefully this article has given you a little better feeling for what nanotechnology is and why it offers unique opportunities in a wide variety of industries.  From here on out, we’ll talk about various applications of nanomaterials, taking a quick detour for a brief description of why there is a need for regulatory agencies to get involved, particularly when it comes to foods and drugs.


Next Up: Quantum Dots – Physics and Applications

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I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later. -Mitch Hedberg

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Corribus
Corribus

Hero of Order
The Abyss Staring Back at You
posted October 28, 2009 03:57 AM

@OhForFSake:

Quote:
This thread most definatly have my interest, I don't know much about the subject though, so I'll probably be reading a lot more than posting.

That's cool.  Just drop a note saying you read it, though, so I know I'm not just typing all that for myself.

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I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later. -Mitch Hedberg

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