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Nano

In that descriptive British term for becoming upset or angry, the heir to the throne has been getting his knickers in a twist over the implications of nanotechnology, a new field in which scientists are learning to manipulate matter pretty much atom by atom. He is reported to have called on the Royal Society to discuss the risks of this new technology, which has left British researchers somewhat bewildered, as they consider there is no significant peril in what they’re doing.

Prince Charles’s attitude towards the field has been described as nanophobia, yet another addition to the cornucopia of nano- terms that have appeared in the past decade, as the implications of this new technology have begun to filter through to the general public.

It’s a comment on the huge advances made in our understanding of the very small that the prefix nano- is first recorded only in the 1940s, when it became necessary to specify sub-units that were a factor of a thousand million smaller (10-9). It was used first in measurements of small electric currents (nanoamps), or powers (nanowatts), small volumes of liquid (nanolitres), and the like. Whimsical computer scientists have since invented nanoacre, for an area about 2mm square on the surface of a microchip.

It was the publication in 1986 of Eric Drexler’s book The Engines of Creation that brought to most people’s attention the idea that it might be possible to directly manipulate matter at the atomic level. He didn’t invent the term nanotechnology — it’s first recorded from 1974 — but he certainly gave it its current associations, based on the fact that the size of atoms and molecules is in the nanometre range.

Many technologists use nanotechnology or nanotech to mean any way to construct things on the nanoscale, such as the creation of ever-smaller microchips. However, Drexler meant two ideas in particular by the term. One was to create new substances, or better ways of making existing materials, by moving atoms one by one to where we want them to be. The other was the creation of molecular-sized machines, capable of carrying out a variety of useful functions semi-autonomously.

Science-fiction writers sometimes call these nanomachines, nanobots (where bot is from robot), nanites, or nanos for short. These might, to take an example, monitor a person’s health, as Greg Bear imagined in Moving Mars: “Medical nano filled my bloodstream, rooting out problems, controlling my tendency to slip into shock”. Nanos might act as construction tools, turning raw materials into useful objects, acting as nanoassemblers, as in The Hammer of God by Arthur C Clarke: “Luckily all the necessary components are standard items — propellant tanks, thrusters, control systems, and the framework to hold them together. So the nanoassemblers can build ATLAS in a few days”.

One of the key abilities of these machines would be to make copies of themselves — self-replicating machines, or replicators. This is where Prince Charles’s worries arise. Somebody evidently told him about grey goo, the unlovely name for what would result if such tiny machines ever got out of control and turned the world and everybody on it into an amorphous atomic soup.

Nobody seems to have explained to him that for the foreseeable future the concept lies strictly in the realm of science fiction. I wonder if Prince Charles has been reading Michael Crichton’s recent bestseller Prey?

Page created 17 May 2003

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Last modified: 17 May 2003.