The Real Nano-Tech Story

Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Rick Weiss takes the revolutionary approach of writing about nanotechnology's current applications, rather than its future ones.

The subject of nanotechnology exists at a special crossroads—that hollowed place where journalism dances with science fiction and, inevitably, spins off thousands of dizzying predictions for the future.

“This new science is the next step that will revolutionize computer chip manufacturing, with the potential to put the entire contents of the Library of Congress on a cube the size of a lump of sugar,” wrote the Chicago Sun-Times a few years ago, in a classic sample of nano-reporting. “It could treat cancer by sending re-engineered molecules into a patient’s system to attack only the mutant cancer cells. The possibilities are endless….”

And, when it comes to nanotechnology, so too is the hype.

Which helps explain why we were excited to stumble upon an article in the Washington Post, in which reporter Rick Weiss took the revolutionary approach of writing about nanotechnology’s current applications, rather than its future ones.

“They promised robots the size of blood cells, able to crawl through the body in search of disease,” wrote Weiss. “Featherweight aircraft parts stronger than steel. Solar-charged batteries better and cheaper than oil.”

“But for now,” he added, “it turns out, people will have to settle for odor-eating shoe inserts, livelier golf balls, age-defying nano-nutritional supplements and — for those with a hankering for a really small treat — nanotech chocolate chewing gum.”

Just to clarify: that’s chocolate chewing gum without the entire contents of the Library of Congress printed on its wrapper.

Weiss’ entertaining story is based in large part on a recent study by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The study, according to Weiss, lists some 200 nanotech-based products currently on the market, ranging from sunscreen to pain-relief cream to an Israeli brand of canola oil.

“Preliminary experiments have indicated that some nanomaterials can be toxic, while others have the potential to neutralize poisons and help clean up the environment,” wrote Weiss. “Regulatory agencies considering how to classify and handle the new materials have been hampered by companies’ general reluctance to reveal details about their products.”

Journalists, on the other hand, continue to be hampered in reporting on current nanotechnologies because of something else—their own preoccupation with that distant, unknowable temptress called the future.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.