Nanotechnology: making new combinations of atoms never before seen in Nature

One thread of the narrative being constructed by anti-nanotechnology groups like ETC is that the reason nanotechnology is so fundamentally dangerous is that it allows one to build completely new and unnatural forms of matter, from the bottom up, by manipulating the most basic ingredients of matter itself, the atoms. It sounds scary, and it fits into their broader narrative rather well. Scientists, having impiously dared to manipulate the building blocks of life in genetic engineering, have now gone one step further, and propose to meddle with the very basis of matter itself, producing new combinations of atoms never yet before seen in nature. Superficially, this view is supported by some of the rhetoric of the nanotechnologists themselves, for example in the title of the National Science and Technology Council report, Nanotechnology: shaping the world atom by atom. The kind of spin anti-nanotechnology activists put on this is very succintly summed up in this phrase from the recent UK protesters who dressed as angels to disrupt a nanotechnology conference: ���The same greedy corporations who messed with the genetic basis of life are now seeking to alter and privatize nature right down to the atomic level���. This just goes to show that the angelic hosts haven’t been following events on earth very closely over the last six thousand years.

The creation of new combinations of atoms to make unnatural materials is indeed a profoundly transformative technology with the potential to turn human societies upside down. The trouble is that this transformation began about 6000 years ago, with the discovery of copper smelting. The following millenia have seen rather a lot of the alteration and privatisation of nature as the crafts of metallurgy and alchemy have slowly turned into chemistry and materials science. There’s been a lot of thought, too, over the years, about what this means for the relationship between man and nature; a recent book, Promethean Fire by William Newman, gives a fascinating account of the reaction of philosophers and churchmen to the medieval alchemists.

If there is nothing fundamentally new or different about nanomaterials, does this mean that the fuss about nanotechnology is all about nothing? No, and here I disagree with those eminent scientists (mostly, as it happens, chemists) who say about nanotechnology “it’s just chemistry”. The transformative consequences of nanotechnology will come, not from simple nanomaterials, but from devices that manipulate energy, information or other matter on the nanoscale. Some of the effects of these nanotechnologies will be very positive, others, potentially, less so. But in debating these issues we need to have some awareness of how the history of technology has got us to where we are today, and we need to resist the temptation to slide lazily into the sort of prepackaged sets of beliefs that angels seem to come equipped with.

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