Nanofatigue: Myth of Nanotechnology
Engaging in nanotechnology used to be a delightful journey. Even today, with a sense of humor, I can admit I am somewhat "nano’d" out. I can't help but notice a similar vibe among my peers. Many of us who've been invested in this field for an extensive time, longer than we sometimes wish to acknowledge, are feeling a sense of exhaustion from a continuous cycle of nano-enthusiasm, analysis, critique, despondency, and renewed enthusiasm.
At the heart of my exhaustion is a mild frustration that we're entangled in a mythology around nanotechnology. It feels quite distanced from reality, and yet it's reiterated with a perseverance reminiscent of Sisyphus. Yet, even amidst this fatigue and frustration, I firmly believe in the joy of engaging with nanotechnology. Just not in the same manner as we have in the past.
Let's take a trip down memory lane. I first got a taste of the nanoscale world back in the 1980s as a physics undergraduate in the United Kingdom. My introduction wasn't via Eric Drexler's 1986 book, Engines of Creation—which popularized the idea of atom-by-atom manufacturing for many. Instead, my path was through the blooming field of materials science.
This field was rooted in physics and chemistry research, tracing back to the 1900s and the development of modern atomic theory. It leveraged nascent science to gain a deeper understanding and prediction of how the atomic-scale structure of materials influenced their physical and chemical behavior. During my coursework, I found joy in understanding how microscopic features in materials influenced their macroscopic properties. I also discovered how we could start making practical use of some of the more unusual properties of atoms and electrons through creating well-defined nanostructures.
Fast forward to 1989. During my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, I was studying environmental nanoparticles. Working with colleagues who were designing nanoparticles for more effective catalysts was quite an adventure. Even though the term “nanotechnology” was hardly in use then, numerous people were conducting what we now recognize as nanoscale science and engineering.
Then came the late 1990s. Despite nearly a century of research into the behavior of individual atoms and molecules, funding agencies had a light bulb moment with nanotechnology. The narrative around nanoscale science and engineering was dramatically altered. The sciences contributing to nanoscale research were rebranded as “nanotechnology”: the exciting new frontier of discovery, the “next industrial revolution,” a powerful driver of economic growth and job creation, a technology that held the potential to do everything from eradicating fossil fuels to curing cancer.
From a researcher's perspective, nanotechnology suddenly appeared as a beacon of hope for grants. It felt like overnight, scientists from diverse fields became “nanotechnologists.” Even today, some scientists will confess that nanotechnology is, to them, just a convenient tag for work they've been doing for ages.
Admittedly, this change was brought about by what is essentially a brand—an idea designed to promote a research agenda. And yet, it has been a remarkably rewarding journey. Investment in nanotechnology has given rise to extraordinary discoveries and the creation of groundbreaking products. Almost every aspect of the digital world we rely on today is built on nano-engineered devices. This investment has spurred fresh approaches to science engagement and education, and has revolutionized how we conduct interdisciplinary research.
But the “nanotechnology brand” has also presented its challenges. There's been an unending effort to prove its novelty, uniqueness, and worth; to justify the substantial public and private investment in it; and to persuade consumers of its significance.
This has extended to an enduring push for ensuring the safety of nanotechnology, a mission I've been deeply involved in for a long time now. While it's sensible given some products of nanotechnology could potentially cause harm if not developed and used responsibly, the focus on regulating "brand nanotechnology" can complicate matters. You can't treat a brand as a physical entity.
This fixation with “brand nanotechnology” has resulted in a seemingly endless cycle of hype and discovery, where the promise of nanotech always appears to be just over the horizon. The narrative is repeated so often it starts feeling like a myth.
This is where I begin to feel a sense of fatigue. After over a quarter of a century of working on nanoscale materials, my energy for dealing with "brand nanotechnology" as more than just a brand is dwindling. Yet, remembering the joy of discovery and the excitement of the unknown that brought me to nanotechnology in the first place keeps me motivated and hopeful for the future of this field.
There was a time when diving into the intricacies of nanotechnology was a thrilling adventure, a joyous dive into the unknown. Today? It's a grind. I've had my fill of nano, to be blunt. Talking with fellow veterans in the field, I'm not the only one feeling this way. For countless years, we've been stuck in an exhaustive cycle of nano-excitement, analysis, critique, dejection, and then renewed enthusiasm.
At the heart of my exhaustion is a deep-rooted frustration. We're trapped in a nanotechnology myth, detached from reality, and it's rehashed with relentless, Sisyphean repetition. Despite this exasperation, though, there's no denying the need to discuss nano. But not in the rehashed, worn-out ways we've been doing it.
Let's take a trip down memory lane. My initial encounter with the nanoscale world dates back to the 1980s, when I was studying physics in the United Kingdom. My introduction wasn't Eric Drexler's 1986 work Engines of Creation, which popularized the concept of atom-by-atom manufacturing. Instead, it was the then-budding field of materials science.
This field built on research in physics and chemistry dating back to the early 1900s and the formation of the modern atomic theory. The goal was to leverage emerging science to gain a better understanding and predict how the atomic-scale structure of materials influenced their physical and chemical behavior. In my classes, I understood how microscopic features in materials determined their macroscopic properties. I also learned how by designing precise nanostructures, we could harness some of the more unusual properties of atoms and electrons.
Fast forward to 1989, while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, I was studying environmental nanoparticles. I collaborated with colleagues who were engineering nanoparticles to produce more efficient catalysts. Back then, the term "nanotechnology" was hardly in anyone's vocabulary. Yet, quite a few were involved in what we now regard as nanoscale science and engineering.
Jump to the late 1990s. Despite nearly a century of research into matter at the atomic and molecular level, funding agencies suddenly "stumbled upon" nanotechnology. This sudden discovery dramatically shifted the narrative around nanoscale science and engineering. The field was rebadged as "nanotechnology," touted as the new frontier of discovery, the "next industrial revolution," a catalyst of economic growth and job creation, a technology with the potential to eradicate fossil fuels and cure cancer.
For researchers searching for their next grant, nanotechnology became a golden ticket. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, chemists, physicists, and materials scientists—along with researchers in the biological sciences—were all "nanotechnologists," at least publicly. Even today, many scientists privately concede that, for them, nanotechnology is just a convenient label for what they've been doing for years.
The real issue here is that we've been riding a wave driven by a brand—an idea constructed to market a research agenda.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't all negative. Investment in nanotechnology has led to some truly extraordinary discoveries and the development of revolutionary new products. It's also revitalized new approaches to science engagement and education, and it's transformed how we conduct interdisciplinary research.
However, "brand nanotechnology" has not been without its problems. It has incessantly had to prove its novelty, distinctiveness, and worth; to justify significant public and private investments; and to persuade consumers of its value.
This has extended into an unyieldingly persistent effort to ensure nanotechnology's safety, something I've been deeply involved in for many years now. On the surface, this makes sense; some nanotech products could potentially cause severe harm if not developed and used responsibly. Yet as soon as you try to regulate or assess the toxicity or environmental impacts of "brand nanotechnology," things get bizarre. A brand cannot be treated as a physical entity.
Due to this fixation on "brand nanotechnology" (or simply "nanotechnology"), we appear to be stuck in a never-ending loop of nanohype and nanodiscovery, where the promise of nanotech is perpetually on the horizon, and the same old nanonarrative is reiterated so frequently it's become practically mythical.
And here's where my nano-anger starts to kick in. After working on nanoscale materials for more than a quarter of a century, I'm running out of patience for treating "brand nanotechnology" as anything more than just a brand.
Once upon a time, writing about nanotechnology was a hoot, a blast, a roller-coaster ride of discovery. Now? It's a snooze fest. To say it plainly, I'm all nano-ed out. After several conversations with my peers, it appears I'm not alone in this boat. Those of us who've spent more years in the field than we care to count are all too familiar with the tiresome cycle of nano-excitement, dissection, criticism, gloom, and a reboot of enthusiasm.
The root of my fatigue stems from a disconcerting realization. We're stuck on a hamster wheel, caught in a mythology about nanotechnology that's far removed from reality and reiterated ad nauseam. Despite this draining cycle, I concede we can't drop the subject of nano. We just need to find a different angle, a fresh conversation.
Let me take you back a few decades. My initiation into the nanoscale universe occurred in the 1980s when I was a young, bright-eyed physics student in the United Kingdom. My introduction wasn't through Eric Drexler's famous 1986 work Engines of Creation, which brought the concept of atom-by-atom manufacturing to the masses. Instead, my gateway was the quietly blossoming field of materials science.
This was an area that leaned heavily on the research in physics and chemistry, going back to the development of the modern atomic theory in the early 1900s. The emerging science aimed to understand and predict how the atomic-scale structure of materials influenced their physical and chemical properties. In my classes, I discovered how microscopic features in materials impacted their macroscopic properties, and how creating well-defined nanostructures allowed us to tap into the more peculiar attributes of atoms and electrons.
By 1989, while I was knee-deep in my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, I was already studying environmental nanoparticles. My colleagues and I were engineering nanoparticles to produce more effective catalysts. The term "nanotechnology" was hardly in our lexicon then. However, many of us were unknowingly paving the way for what is now known as nanoscale science and engineering.
As the 1990s drew to a close, funding agencies suddenly had an epiphany and "discovered" nanotechnology. They reinvented the narrative around nanoscale science and engineering. It was reborn as "nanotechnology," the next big thing, the "industrial revolution" of our time, a savior that could potentially eradicate fossil fuels and cure cancer.
From the perspective of researchers who were scrambling for grants, nanotechnology was a golden goose. Virtually overnight, everyone from chemists, physicists, and material scientists to biologists were wearing the "nanotechnologists" hat, at least in the public eye. Even today, I encounter scientists who will admit, off the record, that they see nanotechnology as a convenient term for what they've been doing for years.
Here's where the farce begins. We've been taken for a ride by what's essentially a brand—an idea created to promote a research agenda.
Now, I'm not entirely dismissive. Investment in nanotechnology has resulted in significant scientific breakthroughs and spawned revolutionary new products. It has also breathed new life into scientific engagement and education, and changed the way we approach interdisciplinary research.
However, "brand nanotechnology" has certainly birthed its own demons. There's a ceaseless pressure to establish its novelty, singularity, and worth, to justify the monumental public and private investment in it, and to sell its relevance to consumers.
This has overflowed into a relentless quest to ensure nanotechnology's safety, an aspect I've been deeply immersed in for years. On the surface, it seems reasonable as some products of nanotechnology could be hazardous if not responsibly developed and used. However, when you try to regulate or study the toxicity or environmental impacts of "brand nanotechnology," the absurdity is apparent. A brand cannot be treated as a tangible entity.
Due to this infatuation with "brand nanotechnology" (referred to, for simplicity, as "nanotechnology"), we seem trapped in a perpetual spin of nanohype and nanodiscovery. The promise of nanotech is always just out of reach, the same worn-out nanonarrative is parroted so often that it's become a tired old myth.
And this is where my cynicism really takes root. After working on nanoscale materials for over a quarter of a century, my patience for treating "brand nanotechnology" as something more than a marketing gimmick is wearing thin.