The art of regulating nanotechnologies

by Andrew Maynard on February 26, 2011

The recently published International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies has a rather unconventional cover image. But it’s one that I must confess I am rather pleased with.

The image is a photo of a piece of Murano glass that I picked up several years ago while visiting Venice. At the time I was participating in a nanotoxicology conference, and so was sensitized to all things nano. Taking some time out to wander round the glass showrooms of Murano, I was struck by the deep red glass that a number of the pieces were showcasing. The coloring comes from the glass being infused with gold nanoparticles – a technique that dates back to medieval times, but is especially associated with the artisans of Murano. Given the nanoparticle connection, I picked up this particularly eye-catching piece, thinking that it might come in useful some day.

The original inspiration for the book cover

Fast forward a few years to the final stages of pulling the International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies together. As we neared completing the book, my co-editors Graeme Hodge and Di Bowman and I were looking for an arresting image for the book’s cover. At the time, my daughter was taking a photography class at school, and had just taken an abstract image of my Murano glass piece. As a photo, it worked rather well, and got me thinking about whether I could finally use the piece for something nanotech-related.

Examining the piece more closely, it struck me that there was scope here for a rather sophisticated image that illustrated the challenges of regulating nanotechnologies on multiple levels. On one level, the piece used gold nanoparticles to achieve a specific effect. On a more abstract level, the nanoparticles were used to illustrate an ordered array of circular objects – a little reminiscent of an ordered array of nanoparticles. Then, these objects were multi-layered – hinting at the sophistication that can now be achieved in engineering nanometer scale structures with multiple components.

So the piece took on the role of an elegant and sophisticated metaphor for nanotechnology, that incorporated the technology within the metaphor itself.

But what persuaded me that this might be an image that would work on the front of a book about regulation was an intriguing question that the piece raised. Even though the technology used to color the glass uses nanoparticles, the technology could hardly be termed nanotechnology when it was initially developed – simply because the artisans had no idea that the effect they were achieving was due to these small, uniform particles in the glass. But now we know that this is the cause of the effect. And artisans continue to utilize the technology with the full knowledge that it is associated with uniformly sized nanometer diameter particles of gold infused through the glass. Does this conscious understanding and use make it nanotechnology? And does that mean that we need to ask new questions about how the technology is regulated – even though it’s been around for thousands of years?

These are some of the overarching questions that we and our co-authors were grappling with in the book. So it made perfect sense to use the image as a metaphor for the the challenges we face in regulating nanotechnologies – or even formulating the questions we need to address.

And, as it turns out, it doesn’t look half bad!

From the book cover:

An abstract image realized in contemporary glass, from the Venetian island of Murano. The deep red coloring results from the glass being infused with gold nanoparticles, a technique used by artisans lung long before it was realized that the effect was due to the size of the gold particles suspended within the glass. The regular array of concentric geometric shapes is an apt metaphor for the complexity of engineered nanomaterials, where useful attributes arise from controlling how matter is structured from the nanoscale up to the scale of everyday objects. But it also poses an intriguing question in the context of regulation: now that the artisans know the glass gets its unique properties from nanometer-scale gold particles – and can presumably better control it as a result – is it nanotechnology?

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog

1 Stephen McGrail February 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Andrew, I just noticed a typo – from the text on the book cover as including in your blog post – hope its not like this on the book (if it is, consider this a heads up): “technique used by artisans lung before it was realized that the effect was due to the size of the gold particles suspended within the glass.” I’m guessing lung should be long! An interesting slip, though, when you consider the concerns about potential health risks of nanoparticles and nanostructures (as per asbestos isssues)!

Cheers,
Stephen

2 Andrew Maynard February 27, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Aargh – just going in to correct it (guess what I had on my mind at the time!) – thankfully, the book cover is OK!

Thanks – Andrew

3 Gregory Crocetti February 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Hi Andrew,
congratulations on the elegant use of this beautiful stained glass on the cover of your book. I’m a big fan of artisan glass-work myself.

Your questions relating to the traditional use of gold nanoparticles in glass-making practices – and whether this should be regulated – begs comparison to other traditional practices.

For me, the first that comes to mind is tobacco – smoked for thousands of years in the americas. While I suspect that some cultures may have by-passed local or federal regulations for some traditional uses and practices, surely this shouldn’t have any bearing on our regulation of the widespread use (and abuse) of tobacco in the rest of the world?

cheers, gregory

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