Let the scaremongering tales bite the dust

Fanciful stories about nanotechnology are getting in the way of sense. Fiona Harvey says give research into this grey matter a chance.

The man from Russia reached into his inside coat pocket and slowly drew out a little glass tube. At the bottom there was a small quantity of fine grey ash. Carefully he removed the stopper and shook some out on to the table. He picked up a little between his fingers and rubbed it, inviting me to do the same.

‘Feel,’ he said. Then he added: ‘And this stuff sells for about £100 a gram. I have several grams with me.’

The going rate for carbon nanotubes is coming down all the time, but it’s still extraordinarily high for what looks like something you could scrape out of a coal fire. Several companies are investigating new production techniques that eventually could turn the tubes into a commodity, for use in myriad applications.

According to the American Chemical Society, I was dicing with death by simply observing the tubes at such close quarters. Experiments on animals, warns the ACS, suggested that the tubes can cause lung damage if inhaled. I’m not too worried – I don’t think I can have inhaled too many billions of carbon nanotubes in my life, and the diesel particulates floating around London are probably causing me much more damage.

Yet that warning is very much at the sensible end of the current scare surrounding nanotechnology. At the less sensible end we have a weird alliance of anti-technologists, science fiction writers, scare-mongering journalists and green campaigners ready to warn us that if we don’t stop it now nanotechnology will make an end to all our tomorrows. Whether it’s grey goo, nanotech-fuelled mind control or tiny robots built for warfare that go to the bad, they’ll get us in the end.

As if. This kind of dangerous nonsense only serves to confuse the public. It is exactly what happened to biotechnology, where small groups of single-issue campaigners whipped up such an emotional frenzy around the issue of genetically modified crops that no one can now have a sensible, reasoned public debate on this important subject.

Look a little further, to animal experimentation, where a group of fanatics has hounded Huntingdon Life Sciences to the point of extinction and endangered the future of scientific research in the UK.

Nanotechnology is harmless. Nanotubes may not be good to sniff, but that’s an issue that will only affect the scientists who work with them – in clean rooms, covered in plastic suits and masks. When incorporated into technologies such as coatings and electronics, the tubes won’t be floating around to be inhaled by people in the first place.

Nanotechnology is also not the great scientific hope that some hold out. Most of its current applications are pretty prosaic – making more effective sun-screen creams, for example. Other near-term applications tend to be equally humdrum. Not much to fear in the creation of rugged polymers and flexible ceramics.

The current scare has nothing to do with reason and everything to do with the anti-science bias in this country. This bias is evident in everything from the furore over GM to the ignorance of MPs invited to debate scientific matters, to the paucity of funding for scientific research that I wrote about in the last issue, to the lack of science students in our schools. It holds us back and it destroys the potential for progress in our economy.

As for the rest of the arguments trotted out against nanotech, they range from the absurd to the hysterical. For a start, let’s put paid to the grey goo story. Even if it should ever become possible to create self-replicating machines – and that’s an if so big it stretches well into the next century – there is no reason to suppose that they could start to consume all the atoms around them.

And as for the idea of tiny robots swimming through our bloodstream repairing cells – dream on. As Scientific American pointed out in its nanotechnology special issue, the random movement of molecules caused by Brownian motion will effectively prevent that vision becoming reality.

What are the other threats of nanotechnology? How about the idea of the unusually long errant nanotube? It goes like this: a carbon nanotube is extremely strong, with a tensile strength much greater than that of steel. It’s also invisible to the naked eye.

Say some were to be created that were several metres long and say a few got mislaid. We wouldn’t be able to see them, but they might kill us. We might get tangled up in a few as we left the lab. As we struggled they could cut through our flesh and bones. Rescuers would be faced with the sight of horrifically mutilated bodies with no obvious cause.

Could it happen? I leave that one as a puzzle to readers – could the atomic bonds between carbon atoms render a carbon nanotube so strong that it would be able to sever the puny chemical bonds that hold skin and bone together? Answers on a postcard please.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times