Category: August in the Archives 2010

I couldn’t resist finishing the August in the Archives series with this piece on “silent rave” syndrome, which I am sad to say still seems to inflict the emerging technologies community! Originally posted October 5 2008 The silent rave might seem a rather bizarre social phenomenon; a group of strangers converging in a public place and dancing to their own individual iPod soundtracks.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that the emerging technology community has been indulging in the new tech-equivalent of silent raves for some time now. These suspicions are probably the delusional by-product of jetlag.  But traveling back from the latest in a long line of multi-stakeholder nanotechnology meetings last week, the analogy hit a chord…

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The more the debate over what precisely nanotechnology is goes on, the more inclined I am to think that it’s something of an illusion.  Sure, nanoscale science is real.  And there are clearly technologies that exploit this.  But are they nanotechnologies, or are they simply clever uses of science, technology and engineering across multiple length scales to do something different?  In other words, does nanoscale science simply lead to… technology?  This piece from September 2008 hints at this line of thinking as it grapples with what “nanotechnology” actually means. Originally posted September 3 2008. Amidst the cacophony of debate swirling around the true meaning of nanotechnology, I head a voice or reason last week.  The voice was that of Dr. Bernd Sachweh of BASF, speaking at the European Aerosol Conference in Thessoloniki. I paraphrase, but the essence of Bernd’s point was this: ‘Nano’ is not a thing or a product.  It has no intrinsic value.  Rather, ‘nano’ adds value; it changes the properties and the worth of something that already exists. I must confess, I rather like the idea of ‘nano’ as adding value, rather than being an entity in and of itself.  It’s hard to come up with of an example where engineering something at the nanoscale leads to behaviour or functionality that is independent of the starting material.  Rather, the great potential of nanotechnology would seem to be in taking raw materials and engineering them in ways that lead to the emergence of novel scale-related properties, which can then be used in new and innovative ways.

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Most manufacturers of nanomaterial-based sunscreens try to make sure that the material they use doesn’t generate harmful chemicals in the presence of sunlight.  But the paper this piece was based on suggested that some photoactive materials might be slipping through the net. Originally posted June 21 2008. Painted metal roofs are cheap, convenient, and usually very durable.  But over the past two years, a rash of accelerated ageng has blighted pre-painted steel roofing in Australia.  And intriguingly the aging—which affects the coating—seems to be localized to small patches, taking on the form of fingerprints, handprints and even footprints. The culprit it seems is sunscreen that is spilt or otherwise transferred to the roofing by construction workers during installation. And not any old sunscreen—this would appear to be a uniquely nano phenomenon.  But I get ahead of myself…

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While the DIY Biotechnology community has grown considerably since this post, the piece still captures something of what is still a young movement, and one that challenges assumptions about top-down technology innovation. Originally posted June 13 2008 Read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and you get a glimpse into how the hacker culture that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century revolutionized the digital world.  Will a confluence of emerging technologies—including information tech, biotech, and nanotech—lead to a similar revolution in the biological world?

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I couldn’t resist reposting this piece, as it captured so well my frustration at the time of spending so much time in meetings – usually for someone else’s benefit.  Sadly, I didn’t learn the error of my ways – my travel schedule has, if anything, got worse since then! Originally posted May 8 2008. My worst nightmare—I’m sitting at the back of a small plane (by the bathroom), my knees up round my ears (because someone else with a bigger case got to the overhead storage before me), and a small child screaming its head off two rows down.  But unlike a nightmare, this is reality, and waking up to a better life is not an option!  What did I do to deserve this?  The polite answer—agree to speak at yet another nano-meeting!

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This was based on a piece I originally wrote for Nano Today – the blog was a slightly extended version of what was published.  Although it was written two years ago, it’s still surprising how few people realize that breathing in nanoparticles is an everyday fact of life, and that to make sense of new risks from engineered nanoparticles, we need to understand what we are already experiencing. Originally posted April 5 2008 Read some accounts of nanotechnology risks, and you might be forgiven for concluding that a single engineered nanoparticle can kill you.  Of course, a little critical thinking soon dispels this notion—we are constantly bombarded with incidental nanoparticles from sources that include cars, incinerators and fires; we have been since birth.  And as critics of “risk extremists” often point out, we seem to be doing just fine in this nano-rich environment.  But does this mean that the potential risks associated with engineered nanoparticles are little more than a myth?

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In February 2008, the National Academy of Engineering launched 14 grand challenges for engineering.  These were the inspiration for this post, but rather than focus on the challenges themselves, I thought it would be interesting to consider how science and technology are going to help address them.  Over two years on, the ideas I was writing about here seem more relevant than ever – as I write this, I am putting the finishing touches to a World Economic Forum report that echoes many of the challenges I outlined back in March 2008. Originally posted March 6 2008 Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years?  An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges — including nanotechnology — demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society. Over the next century we will perhaps be facing the greatest challenge in the history of humanity: sustaining six billion plus people on a planet where natural resources are running scarce and our every action results in a palpable environmental reaction.  Progress towards sustainability will only come through integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making.  Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges. And these challenges are immense. The U.S. National Academy of Engineering recently published 14 “grand challenges for engineering” — the culmination of a year-long project exploring and reviewing the greatest technological challenges facing us in the 21st century.  At the top of the list is development of economical solar energy and fusion-energy, followed by crafting carbon sequestration methods, improving access to clean water, creating improved medicines, preventing nuclear terror, and eight other pressing needs.  The challenges are a stark reminder of the limitations of our

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I‘m going to be taking a break from 2020 Science over the next few weeks, as I finally make the move with my family from DC to Ann Arbor.  But rather than let the blog languish, I thought I would use this as an opportunity to revisit some of my old posts.  So through August, I will be digging up and re-posting blogs from summer 2008 that still have some relevance. These will be posted every Tuesday and Thursday through August – starting on August 3.  You can get them delivered automatically via email by following this link.   Or you can simply check in each week to see what’s new. Either way, I hope you enjoy the retrospective. And if you do, please feel free to leave a comment, or retweet the posts on Twitter (you can use that little retweet badge at the top of the page!). Have a great summer, and see you all in September. Cheers, Andrew ______ The full August in the Archives 2010 series can be browsed here

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2020 Science is the personal blog of Andrew Maynard - Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. More ... 

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