Big Debate Over Small Science

By manipulating matter on the scale of one billionth of a meter, or less than one-100,000th the width of a human hair, strange things happen. Some solids turn into liquids at room temperature, some opaque substances become transparent, insulators like silicon become conductors, and so on. Scientists are able to reshape matter at the molecular level with atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes which can literally push individual atoms around.

That has opened the door to new possibilities in fields ranging from medicine, environmental protection, and, of course, war. Some see a world in which cancer is eliminated by tiny machines that can find and treat a tumor, or even rewire a brain crippled by Alzheimer's disease.

The noted futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that science should someday even produce synthetic human cells that will render death, and even aging, obsolete.

That's a bit far-fetched in the eyes of many scientists, but Kurzweil makes a pretty strong case in his best-selling book, "The Singularity is Near," which describes a world in which man and machine become one.

But nanotechnology isn't in the future — it's happening now.

The National Science Foundation predicts that the global marketplace for goods and services using nanotechnologies will grow to $1 trillion by 2015. More than 500 products on the market today incorporate nanotechnology, ranging from self-cleaning windows to sunscreens.

Those are relatively low-profile applications and public reaction has been so muted that it makes a lot of scientists uneasy. In an effort to head off public criticism down the road, scientists are trying to figure out how to get their message across in this fledgling field. That has led to the creation of organizations like the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a joint venture by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trust.

Nanotechnology comes with great hype, much promise, and some risk. Machines built to operate on such a small scale could be engineered to self-replicate, like human cells, thus raising the specter of a world run amok. And it now appears that many find the idea of altering matter, and tinkering with organic structures, "morally unacceptable."

If you thought the fight over evolution was bloody, wait until this issue hits the public fan.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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