On Nanohype

David Berube’s new book on nanotechnology, Nanohype, is reviewed in this week’s Nature (subscription required). The review is, in truth, not very favourable, but I’m not going to comment on that until my own copy of Nanohype makes it from the Amazon warehouse across the Atlantic. As is often the case, though, the major message of the review is that this is not the book that the reviewer would have written, which in this case is rather interesting, as the reviewer was Harry Collins, one of the foremost exponents of the discipline of the sociology of science.

Collins’s research method is in-depth studies of scientific communities, in which he attempts to uncover the often tacit shared values that underly the scientific enterprise. As such, he is rather sceptical about the value of written material: “science is an oral culture. Although science’s spokespersons rattle on endlessly about peer review, the vast majority of published papers, peer reviewed or not, are largely ignored by scientists in the field. The problem that would face an alien from another planet who wanted to make a digest of terrestrial science from the literature alone would be about as bad as that facing a lay person who tries to understand it by reading everything on the Internet.”

Here’s why nanotechnology is interesting – as a scientific culture it barely exists yet. In contrast to the fields that Collins has studied – most recently, the search for gravitational waves – the idea of nanotechnology as a field has been imposed from the outside the scientific community, by the forces which I imagine Berube’s book documents, rather than emerging from within it. So the community shared values that Collins’s work aims to uncover are not yet even agreed upon.

For those readers who are sceptical about the very idea of the sociology of science, the BBC is currently broadcasting a pair of very interesting documentaries about how science works, called Under Laboratory Conditions; the first one, broadcast last Wednesday on the BBCs digital service BBC4, rang very true to me (and I say this not just because I made a brief appearance in the program myself).