Today we travel to a future where we get really, really tiny so we can tinker with the human body.
- Ainissa Ramirez — scientist, speaker, author of The Alchemy of Us
- Eun Ji Chung — biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California
- Inge Hermann — chemical engineer at ETH Zürich
- Raj Bawa — biotechnologist at Bawa Biotech
- Richard Handy — environmental toxicologist at University of Plymouth
- Lisa Yaszek — professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech
- The Size of the Nanoscale
- Nanotechnology is not simply about making things smaller
- National Nanotechnology Initiative
- The nanotechnology in your clothes
- Nanotechnology in cosmetics: Opportunities and challenges
- The Fantastic Voyage Trailer
- A new superweapon in the fight against cancer
- Progress in Nanomedicine: Approved and Investigational Nanodrugs
- The Promises of Nanotechnology: Will They Be Kept?
- Emerging Issues in Nanomedicine and Ethics
- Protecting new ideas and inventions in nanomedicine with patents
- Similarities and Differences between Silver Ions and Silver in Nanoforms as Antibacterial Agents
- An assessment of the dietary bioavailability of silver nanomaterials in rainbow trout using an ex vivo gut sac technique
- Fish Kill: Nanosilver Mutates Fish Embryos
- Nanoparticle silver released into water from commercially available sock fabrics
- Nano-silver in household products could breed new superbugs
- The effects of carbon nanotubes on lung and dermal cellular behaviors
- The bioaccumulation testing strategy for manufactured nanomaterials: physico-chemical triggers and read across from earthworms in a meta-analysis
- The biocompatibility of silver and nanohydroxyapatite coatings on titanium dental implants with human primary osteoblast cells
- There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (Richard Feynman’s speech)
- A Brief History of Nanotechnology in Science Fiction
- The Diamond Lens by Fitz-James O’brien
- He Who Shrank by Henry Hasse
- Surface Tension by James Blish
- Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon
- Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler
- Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
- Prey by Michael Crichton
- Brave new world or miniature menace? Why Charles fears grey goo nightmare
- BirdNote Daily: BirdNote Daily is a short, two-minute podcast that answers all of your burning bird-related questions — like, how do birds stay perched in a tree when they’re asleep? What’s the difference between a raven and crow? What’s the biggest bird that’s ever lived?
- The World As You’ll Know It: a podcast about the forces shaping our future.
- Skillshare: Skillshare is an online learning community where millions come together to take the next step in their creative journey, with thousands of inspiring classes for creative and curious people, on topics including illustration, design, photography, video, freelancing, and more. Start with a free month of Premium Membership, and explore your creativity at Skillshare.com/flashforward.
Flash Forward is hosted by Rose Eveleth and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Mattie Lubchansky. Amanda McLoughlin and Multitude Productions handle our ad sales.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
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That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Transcripts provided by Emily White at The Wordary
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S7E13 – “What If We Could Shrink Technology?”
[Flash Forward intro music – “Whispering Through” by Asura, an electronic, rhythm-heavy piece]
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I am your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode, we take on a specific possible, or not so possible, future scenario. We always start with a little field trip into the future to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great!
This episode, we are starting in the year 2065.
FICTION SKETCH BEGINS
[doors opening] [waiting room music plays in background]
Hi there! Can I help you?
Hi. Yeah, I have a 2pm appointment?
Great. You can actually check in at that kiosk over there first.
[tapping and beeping]
Have a seat anywhere! We’ll be right with you.
[waiting room music]
Right this way.
[walking down the hall]
You’ve been here before?
Oh, no. First time.
Ah, do you have any questions?
No, I don’t think so.
Great. If you do, just ring the little bell by the door of your pod.
Here we are.
[tapping, whooshing door opening]
[beeps and chimes]
Tech (distracted, tapping on a screen):
When I leave, you’ll undress and place your clothes in that bin there. Then all you have to do is lay down in that little open pod. When you’re ready, press the start icon on the screen. The one thing I need to confirm is that there is no metal in your body currently, correct?
No piercings, no metal staples, no replaced knees, nothing like that, right?
Great. If you do have any piercings or anything like that that you maybe don’t want to tell me about in this moment, it’s important for you to remove them before you enter the pod. There’s a little plastic container there on the desk to store them in. Enjoy!
[Harry takes a deep breath]
[taps start, hydraulic sounds of the pod closing]
[soft uplifting music begins]
TECH (very soothing):
Hello Harry, and welcome to Parvus. Please, close your eyes. Now, imagine a baseball bat. Imagine slicing that baseball bat into 100 pieces. Each piece would be about the size of your fingertip. Now imagine taking that fingertip and slicing it again 100 times. Each of those pieces would be about the size of the eye of a needle. Now take that needle eye, and again, imagine slicing it up 100 times. Each of those pieces would be the thickness of a single human hair.
Now imagine slicing that human hair again 100 times. One of those 100 slices is the size of a red blood cell swimming through your body. Now take that red blood cell and, again, slice it 100 times. One of those slices is the size of a bacteria. Take one of those bacteria, and again, slice it 100 times. And now we have something the size of a virus. Take that virus, and again, slice it 100 times. What you get is something just five atoms across. And that is the size of nanotechnology. That is the size we work at here at Parvus. That is, of course, why you are here.
Parvus offers a one-of-a-kind, completely revolutionary detox process that works at this scale of atoms. Our proprietary nanodots will enter your body, seek out toxins, poisons, and mutations, and neutralize them. Working at this incredibly tiny scale makes our detox painless, precise, and comprehensive. Our nanodots can improve functioning of the liver, lungs, colon, heart, and more; improving your energy levels, boosting your metabolism, eliminating headaches or body pains, and have a lasting impact on emotional health and well-being. In under an hour, your body will be renewed, refreshed, and ready to operate at your highest potential.
Are you ready, Harry? Please tap accept.
Excellent. Please place the respirator over your mouth and nose. The pod will fill with cooling liquid. This is phase one of our nanodetox process.
So sit back, relax, and let your future begin.
[water filling in]
Parvus. Where bigger isn’t better.
[music fades out]
FICTION SKETCH END
Okay, so today we’re talking about nanotechnology. I actually can’t believe we haven’t yet done a nanotechnology episode over the last, like, 130 episodes or whatever we’re at, at this point? But here we are, and I hope that you are ready to embark on a journey into a completely different world. A world much, much smaller than our own.
DR. AINISSA RAMIREZ:
I always called ‘nano’ the world of the small and strange.
This is Dr. Ainissa Ramirez, a scientist, science communicator, podcaster, and most recently, the author of a book called The Alchemy of Us. So, you probably know that nanotech, nanomaterials, they’re small. But just how small are we talking about here?
If you were to get one of your hairs – and if you don’t have a hair, I apologize. But if you were to get someone’s hair and whittle it 100,000 times, one of those slivers would be the thickness of nano. That’s the thickness of an atom.
This hair comparison is really common when you start looking up stuff about nanotech, but I actually still sometimes have a hard time understanding the nanosize using this hair slicing idea. Because, frankly, I cannot imagine whittling a human hair down 100,000 times? And in part, that’s because the nanoscale is just really hard to picture, because we can’t see it, it is tiny. It is super, super tiny. But another way to think about, and maybe this will help: Try imagining a meter, three feet. That’s about the length of a baseball bat or a guitar. The comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of the Earth.
DR. EUN JI CHUNG:
And when we think about nanoparticles that we design in the lab or that are actually FDA approved, those are on the order of about 100 to about 500 nanometers.
This is Dr. Eun Ji Chung, a biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California.
One drug, let’s say a chemotherapeutic drug, a molecule, is about one nanometer or so. And then the nanoparticle, let’s say, is about 100 nanometers. And that difference really represents the scale of, like, a soccer ball to a Goodyear blimp.And the reason why I mention that is because although we think about nanoparticles as being small, when you compare that to just, like, a drug molecule, it’s actually pretty big. And so, think about how many soccer balls you can fit into a Goodyear blimp and then allow it to carry it to a specific place when you design it correctly.
We’re going to get back to using nanoparticles to deliver their blimp full of drug soccer balls in a second. But first, let’s go back to what Ainissa said about nano, which is that it’s not just small; it’s also strange.
The strange part is that when you have things that small, they don’t act the same. So, you know, in my ear right now is a gold earring. And if I were to ask you what color it is, you would say, “Stupid question, Ainissa. It’s yellow.” And yeah, I would say, “Yeah, it’s yellow,” but if I were to cluster, let’s say, 80 gold atoms together and then float them in a solvent, gold wouldn’t be gold anymore. It would be red. So that’s the strange part.
When you get down to this teeny tiny size, materials don’t have the same properties that they might when you’re working with them at human size. And there are a couple of reasons for that.
If you want to nerd out with a scientist, you would just say that it was an increase in surface-to-volume ratio. But what the heck does that mean? It means that when you make something very small… the way that I like to define it is, when I was a kid, I used to love to eat strawberries. And sometimes my mom would sprinkle a little bit of sugar on them, and that was fantastic. But sometimes when she had a little bit more time, she would slice them up and then sprinkle some sugar on top of it, and I would be on fire! It was just fantastic. Now, why was that? There was much more surface available to soak in all that wonderful sugar.
DR. INGE HERRMANN:
And the surface area has a lot of interesting properties because, for example, there are more defects at the surface and these can give rise to catalytic activity.
This is Dr. Inge Herrmann, a chemical engineer at ETH Zurich.
So, there are a lot of interesting phenomena going on at the nanoscale that we don’t know at larger scales. And this gives us an entire new portfolio of properties that we can use.
It’s not easy to work with these super tiny, strangely behaving particles. But if you can figure out how to build stuff at this tiny scale, there are some really interesting applications.
Batteries can be more efficient. Filters can be more efficient. This may not be exciting to you, but this means your cell phone will be better, and this means that any mask that you’re wearing will now be better.
There was a movie called Fantastic Voyage; I think it was in the mid-1960s. And it had Raquel Welch and some three other people that we don’t remember.
[clip from Fantastic Voyage:] “Four men and a beautiful girl, off on a fantastic voyage, actually entering the human body… exploring an unknown universe… unknown dangers!”
The premise of it was that these people were shrunk down to a very, very small size, and then they went into the body of a very important person, and they figured out what was wrong with him. That was actually a prediction because now we are starting to make nanomaterials that are smart enough to go to where someone is sick, and can target those areas, and help them recover.
Inge, for example, has developed nanomaterials that help glue tissues together inside the body.
Their team has also worked on nanoparticles that act like little magnets to help suck bad stuff out of blood.
So, this is something that works a little bit like dialysis. So it’s a tubing outside of your body where your blood enters and is purified. And instead of using a filter to filter out compounds that you don’t want in your blood or to filter out bacteria, we can use magnetic nanoparticles and then check them outside of the body in your blood, and we then remove them magnetically before the purified blood circulates in the patient’s body.
There is also research on using nanoparticles to help target cancer cells.
What’s predicted is that soon we will have nanogold. So, we talked about those little red particles; we will have them that they’re smart enough to go directly to a tumor. And they’ll find the tumor, shine a light through the skin so that it will heat up the nanogold but not hurt the skin. And what it will do is fry that tumor, and then that tumor will die, and then you can go home. So now you don’t have to have invasive surgery. That’s what’s on the horizon. So, I’m excited about that. It can… Now just go to the doctor and she will, you know, inject you, shine a light, and then you’ll go home and have ice cream.
And nanomedicine is not actually that new of an idea. There are over 50 FDA-approved nanomedicines out there right now today. In fact, if you got the mRNA COVID vaccine, you benefitted from nanomedicine.
So, our bodies are really good at recognizing foreign things, as it should be. If there’s something foreign, we want to get rid of it. And so if you just inject an RNA, it’ll likely get degraded by things that naturally degrade RNA. They’re called nucleases. But if you place them into a nanoparticle, that part actually gets inhibited and the RNA itself is protected. The other element is that RNA has a hard time getting into the cell as well. But if you place it in a nanoparticle carrier, it can get internalized into the cell.
A lot of Eun Ji’s work is on using nanoparticles to help deliver drugs and treatments to specific parts of the body. One particular disease she works on is called PKD.
It stands for polycystic kidney disease, and the reason why it’s interesting is it’s actually the most prevalent genetic, hereditary, kidney disease. But not many people know about it. It affects actually about 12.5 million people worldwide.
Now, Eun Ji did not set out to try and figure out how to help people with PKD. In fact, she kind of found her way to this particular disease by accident. She was working with a specific kind of nanoparticle called Peptide Amphiphile Micelles.
She originally thought that these nanoparticles would be useful for cardiovascular diseases. But when she watched where they were going in the body, she noticed something interesting. They weren’t necessarily going to the heart. They were winding up in the kidneys.
And I was just so surprised by that because nanoparticles just have a hard time getting into the kidneys in general. And oftentimes, we think about drugs going into the kidneys as a way of getting out of the body because they’ll go into your bladder, through urine, and then it’ll leave your system. And that’s really kind of the beauty of science is that, oftentimes, we’re going to design an experiment perfectly with these controls, but the observations and the results often feed back into, you know, redesigning, and learning, and oftentimes developing and providing insights that you had never even thought about to begin with.
And so she reached out to some kidney experts, being like “Hey, is this interesting? What do you think?” And they directed her to PKD.
I think we’ve kind of pioneered these nanoparticle approaches for PKD. So, we’re really excited to continue that effort now.
And in the future, there are a lot of potential advantages of nanomedicine. For example, if you can direct drugs specifically to the place that you want them to go, you might also be able to decrease the amount of drug you have to give to a person in the first place.
And by doing that, you can really tune and really minimize side effects.
And ultimately, the hope is really to bring to life the story of Fantastic Voyage. Or… The Magic School Bus.
There was, like, one episode where… he gets sick, but the Magic School Bus shrinks, you know, like into… and it’s smaller than, actually, red blood cells. So, it is on the nanometer scale, right? And it’s trying to diagnose, like, what is wrong with Ralphie, right?
[clip from Magic School Bus]
[hero anthem background music]
Ralphie: Wait a minute? What’s going on?!
Ms. Frizzle: Oh, it was your idea, Ralphie! We’re here to get the inside story! Ralphie, say ‘ah’”
Ralphie: Aahh… [bus shrinking and zooming] AAAHH!!
[Magic School Bus Theme plays]
And I mean, it’s a little bit of, obviously, a fictional story, but that kind of highlights, I guess, the promise/potential of nanomedicine and what we’re trying to do. Can we shrink something, can we find something, can we diagnose something?
Of course, any time there’s a technology like this that sounds really cool and has big promise, you are bound to get some grifting. I get press releases all the time claiming that some new beauty product or weight loss thing has ‘nanotechnology’ in it. And sure, by definition, almost everything has tiny particles in it.
Nano is old. Nano’s very old. Next time you go by a church or a temple and you look at the windows and you see stained glass, that’s nanotechnology. Like, all those colors were made possible by very, very small clusters of atoms. So when you see red, that’s gold at work, and when you see yellow, that’s that silver at work. So nano is very old and you can sprinkle it on all kinds of things and call it nano.
You know, I can put some gold nanoparticles on a hamburger and call it a nano hamburger. But that’s not really a nano hamburger. That hamburger has to be doing something different. When I bite into it, it tastes like a hot dog. It has to be small and strange.
But there’s also another element to this being a relatively new field. And that’s questions about how to evaluate the impact of some of these technologies. If we are developing super targeted tiny particles that can slip past our body’s membranes… what happens when those particles get out into the environment? How do you make sure that you’re doing ethical research here, and how do you evaluate the environmental impact of this stuff?
More on that, when we return.
Today’s episode is supported in part by Skillshare.
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When I started doing research for this episode, one of the things that I found really interesting was that in the early 2000s, there were a whole bunch of papers basically lamenting the failures of nanotech to actually deliver on its promises. These researchers and critics pointed out that there was all this hype – new journals, awards, patents, Nobel Prizes, huge grants – and then… what?
At the end of the day, very few breakthroughs were actually winding up in the hands of doctors, or engineers, or regular people. And it wasn’t just that there were a ton of papers being published, there were also a ton of patents being issued.
DR. RAJ BAWA:
So there was an influx of applications that came to the US Patent Office; people just filing these applications like crazy, almost like the old Wild West, to capture as much as you can and then see what would pan out at the end.
This is Dr. Raj Bawa. Raj used to work at the US Patent and Trademark Office, but today he works in biotechnology. In 2005, Raj started raising the alarm about what he was seeing in the world of nanotechnology patents.
I’ve written a paper a long time back about carbon nanotubes. We looked at the claims, which is really the heart of each package, that is really the legal part of a patent. You always look at the claims and you compare the claims side by side for these three different US patents, and they’re basically legally identical, even if the verbiage is different.
Now, you probably know that one of the main rules of patents is that you can’t have two patents for the same invention. That sort of defeats the whole purpose. But, partly because the US Patent Office didn’t have specific expertise in nanotechnology, and partly because of the way the system is set up, they were granting all these patents for essentially the same innovations. And Raj says that when you do that, you wind up with this weird morass of patents which can then wind up stifling innovation and uses later because people can file claims that you’ve stolen their idea in court when the ideas are actually the same.
There was a whole bunch of them issued, thousands and thousands of them, that overlapped with each other. They were duplicates of each other. They were invalid. They were worthless.
In the early 2000s, nanotechnology was in this phase that a lot of new fields go through, where there was a lot of interest and a lot of money, but not really a ton of results. And some of that has changed, but some of it hasn’t. There’s still a big gap between papers published and applications that come anywhere near being used in practice.
Yeah, it’s a question that we’re still trying to answer and find out ourselves. So I feel that there is a lot of reluctance because of regulatory concerns. And of course, it’s a very lengthy and also very expensive process to bring a new material to the clinics rightfully, right? Because we need to understand the risks of new materials, and these systems are very complex. And then there are also potential long-term effects that we need to assess. So it’s a really long and costly process. But I think it’s really important that some of these innovations really end up in the clinics because, otherwise, they’re of very little value in the end.
Inge says that, for researchers in the lab, it’s often not their job, or even necessarily their goal, to make something that hits the market. In fact, doing so winds up introducing conflicts of interest. And many scientists don’t know how to translate and hand off their work to drug developers or startups that do want to make these ideas real.
Plus, there are still some big questions about evaluating the risks and benefits of these new technologies. Remember how we said that nanoparticles behave differently than bigger stuff? That’s one of the unique advantages of using them. But it also means that there are some big questions about the risks and potential impacts of these technologies. And in some cases, we don’t yet have the tools and tests to accurately evaluate those risks.
DR. RICHARD HANDY:
And so our concern was, “If we’ve got novel behaviors at the nanoscale, our existing safety regulations for chemicals that are not on the nanoscale might not be appropriate for those nanomaterials.” Or the chemical safety stuff that we do now, does that still work for a nanomaterial?
This is Dr. Richard Handy, a biology professor at the University of Plymouth.
We were also concerned at the beginning of all of this that if there’s a novel mechanism or a novel material with a novel behavior, does it reveal some kind of biological event that we’ve never seen before, i.e., a completely new novel mechanism of toxicity due to nanomaterials, for example? And we were quite worried about it at the beginning because we didn’t know what we were going to find.
In most cases, Richard says that what they found is that these nanomaterials don’t create some new, totally unexpected toxicity. This doesn’t mean they’re not toxic in certain quantities and situations; it just means that there isn’t some wild card happening that they don’t even know how to test for.
It just exploits the existing mechanisms that are already present in living systems.
And in some cases, using the nano version of a material can be safer than using that material’s more normal-sized counterpart.
Here’s a fun fact, in 1881 a German gynecologist named Carl Siegmund Franz Credé started dropping a diluted solution of silver nitrate into newborn babies’ eyeballs at birth to prevent contraction of gonorrhea from the mother, which can cause blindness. Today, doctors do not do that anymore, but silver nitrate is still used in all kinds of areas of medicine. Dentists sometimes use silver nitrate on oral ulcers, podiatrists use it to kill warts, doctors can use it to cauterize blood vessels in the nose to help prevent chronic nosebleeds. Some bandages have silver in them to prevent infection.
Today, more and more, people are replacing silver nitrate with nanosilver, which you can find in everything from soap, to baby bottles, to clothes, to bus rails. And that surge in nanosilver in products has made a lot of people worry about whether or not ingesting these silver nanoparticles is a good idea.
So if we look at silver nanoparticle exposure compared to, say, traditional silver nitrate, silver nitrate is far more hazardous to aquatic life. And that’s because the silver dissolves and you end up with free silver ions moving around in solution that can be taken up by the organisms. Whereas the nanomaterial stays in the nano form. It doesn’t dissolve very much, and so the hazard is less.
And so what we need to do with nanotechnology is frame the hazard of the new nanomaterials relative to the nearest existing traditional chemical and ask, “Is it more or less hazardous than those?”
Richard argues that, in many cases, the environmental risks of nanotechnology have been overblown or the studies haven’t been done properly. Of course, not everybody agrees with him.
You know, a lot of these issues have kind of moved on and they are not fully addressed. So that is where, from my perspective, I see it and there’s no regulations. There’s no… for example, nano cosmetics is a whole different area. Nano nutraceuticals, there’s no pre-market regulatory authority or approval needed. So you have a lot of these agents that are out in the market and they do have side effects, serious side effects, but only after that side effect becomes universally known or rises to a threshold level will the agency come in and regulate.
There are studies that suggest, for example, that silver nanoparticles can kill and mutate fish embryos. Other researchers have bemoaned the lack of studies on the impact of these nanoparticles on both human health and the environment. And some have even wondered if, by sprinkling nanosilver on so many different things, we’re just going to wind up breeding resistant bacteria just like we did with antibiotics.
I’ve been to major conferences overseas, like in Thailand and so on, where the nanosilver products were quoted on almost everything from toothpaste to toothbrushes. You name it. And you’re introducing… They’re leeching off into other entities of the body constantly, so there’s really no universal regulatory authority like that, obviously.
But everybody agrees that engineers, and designers, and chemists should keep thinking about how to design these materials to be safe from the get-go.
For example, like carbon nanotubes. One of the early concerns was that, because they were long and thin, they would behave like asbestos and cause lung disease, mesothelioma. And the concern is that if the material is long and thin and it’s very stiff, like a crystal or a really stiff fiber, our immune cells that go around mopping up debris inside our bodies won’t be able to remove those materials, and you get this adverse immune reaction that, in humans, eventually turns to mesothelioma of the long.
And because we’ve been aware of the issue, what manufacturers have done with carbon nanotubes, and this is a good example of safe by design, is that they’ve designed them so they’re flexible and they fold. They’re not stiff. So when our immune cells see them, the immune cells can mop them up. And so, understanding the physical properties of the material and how that works in a biological system is helping us avoid making dangerous materials.
I found Richard’s work because earlier this month he published a paper on using worms to test for the bioaccumulation of nanomaterials in the environment. In Europe, nanomaterials have to go through a set of safety tests that often includes using fish to study the potential impact they might have on a biological system.
And so we started asking the question, “Well, why are we doing this with the fish? Why can’t we do it with an earthworm or something else?” And so this paper that we published last week was basically a scientific argument to show that, actually, an earthworm bioaccumulation test is just as good as a bioaccumulation test in a fish or indeed in the lab rat. And so, do we need to be doing any vertebrate animal testing on this tool? Why can’t we just do it with earthworms?
Along with trying to find alternatives to the fish models and testing for environmental safety, Richard also works on designing nanomaterials that might strengthen the human body.
We’re taking titanium implants, we’re enhancing them with nanomaterials to give them new properties, and with those new properties, we’re able to grow things like bone cells, living human tissue on those implants. And so that kind of thinks, “Well, haven’t we heard that before?” You know, this guy, human tissue over a metal endoskeleton. I hadn’t realized I was doing that, but that’s the beginning of this guy.
At this point in our call, Richard had pulled up some slides to show me, and the picture on the screen was of Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator.
And so, you know, where’s that future going? Well, we don’t know.
And this brings us to some of the other ethical questions around nanotechnology and nanomedicine, a lot of which revolve around scale; the level of detail that the nanoscale, in theory, provides. If we really are in this world where tiny nanobots in your blood can be monitoring your body at all times, on the lookout for anything unusual or problematic, that raises some interesting questions. For one thing, who owns all of that data about you?
Medical privacy is a topic we’ve talked about before on the show, and adding a ton of nanoscale data is just going to make those questions more complicated. But there’s another thing that nanomedicine impacts that’s a little bit more… philosophical. When you can detect things on this scale, what does that mean for the definition of disease?
So, let’s look at the simplest one, which is cancer diagnosis. Cancer diagnosis, now at the nano level would mean… could it mean diagnosing a tissue where only a few cells are cancerous because now you have the tools, you have the nanotools to detect that level of resolution? So will that tissue then be considered cancerous? Or do we need to wait and let it develop to a certain level where you have a size that is cancerous and then the tissue should be taken out?
It all sort of changes because your perspective changes. And so the whole definition, you know, “What is disease itself and therefore how it should be treated?” That totally changes.
Raj also had some bigger, weirder ideas about some of the ethical questions that scientists might need to ask in the future.
And what about controlling their mind with some sort of smart dust? As you walk into a room, you have a meeting going on and thereby, you know, opposing adversary, governments, let’s say. And then you release this nano dust in the room and it ends up crossing the blood-brain barrier and is able to have an impact on their thinking. I mean, these are realities that could appear. This is very science fiction life right now, but the science fiction of today is really, a lot of times, the technology of the future.
You might have noticed that a lot of people that I’ve talked to so far have referenced science fiction of one variety or another. Fantastic Voyage, The Magic School Bus, The Terminator. Now, obviously, science fiction features heavily in a lot of episodes of Flash Forward – that’s kind of what we do here – but with nanotechnology, sci-fi has actually had a really big role in its history.
There was a huge push to educate the general public about nanotechnology that happened over a decade ago, and it was in response to the book Prey by Michael Crichton, which was going to make people, like, freak out. People were very afraid that this, you know, blockbuster was just going to make people have a negative opinion.
And when we come back we’re going to talk about the ways in which science and science fiction are often in communication and what that has meant for nanotechnology specifically.
But first, a quick break.
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Most people credit the same guy with first really talking about nanotechnology.
People often talk about Richard Feynman when they think about nanotechnology.
The perceived wisdom is that it was Feynman in his speech at Caltech.
DR. LISA YASZEK:
Feynman had been invited to give an after-dinner talk at the 1959 meeting of the American Physicists Association, I think. And I get the impression this was meant to be sort of a light, fun but provocative thing for, you know, while everyone is having their cigars and brandy.
This is Dr. Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech.
And in this talk, Feynman challenges people to use all of their smarts, all of the different kinds of engineering skills that we’ve accumulated over the last couple hundred years to attack the problem of small scale, truly small scale, engineering; atomic level and subatomic level engineering. And so the examples he gives us, for instance, perhaps why not store not just the words of the Bible on the head of a pin, but the entire library of Congress? And why not create cars for insects and for other tiny little beings?
The talk is fun, and zany, and very Feynmanny, and you can read a transcript of it online, which I’ll link to in the show notes.
But what’s interesting is every single example he gives is actually drawn from a science fiction story that had been published within the last, I think, 10 or 15 years. And Feynman himself didn’t read science fiction, but apparently, everyone in his lab did. And there was a lot of records of the fact that Feynman had gone around asking everyone in his lab like, “Tell me, what are your favorite small-scale engineering stories you’ve been reading? What have you been thinking about?” And he really whipped that together and used that to put together that talk, “Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which a lot of people say is the founding lecture in the discipline of nanoscience and technology. And if that’s the case, then it is a discipline literally built on science fiction.
But Lisa says that if you really want to understand how science fiction and science have thought about scale and the world of the very tiny, you have to go a lot further back than 1956.
We see stories of scale from… really from the Scientific Revolution forward, so the late 1700s, early 1800s forward. And I think that this makes sense. The minute that we have technologies that allow us to look at the microscopic world or the, you know, the solar system at different scales from what we’re used to looking at, we want to tell stories about what that might be like to encounter or move between those different kinds of realities.
There’s Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726 for example. Swift wasn’t really interested in the science or tech. He’s using scale as a metaphor for cultural differences and power. But some of his contemporaries were specifically trying to get people to think about the technologies that allow us to see tiny things. And not just think about those technologies… purchase them.
Sci-fi writers, at the time, were trying to sell microscopes. And to do so, they wrote fantastic tales of finding entire worlds in a drop of water. My personal favorite from this era is a story called The Diamond Lens, by James O’Brien, who did sell microscopes, which tells the story of a man who finds his perfect, true love through the lens of a microscope. She lives in this drop of water on his slide, and he’s so head-over-heels in love with her that he loses track of time and lets the drop evaporate, killing his one true love.
Lisa has her own favorite from this time period.
It’s a story by Henry Hasse called He Who Shrank, and it is… a scientist realizes that the visible universe at the largest scale, or the scale that we encounter every day, maps to microscopic universes at the smallest scale. And so he’s like… he has this lab assistant, and he’s like, “Hey, lab assistant, why don’t you come in here? And I need you to drink this liquid.” And the lab assistant’s like, “Sure,” just tosses it back and it shrinks him. And so the mad scientist, who it turns out, right, he’s a mad scientist, kind of, he’s like, “Okay, lab assistant, I’m shrinking you and you’re going to shrink down to the subatomic scale. And I’ve implanted you with radios. So you’re going to explain to me what this world looks like.”
And so, this lab assistant’s like, “Oh, okay.” He’s like a little upset for about five minutes and then he decides he’s just going to be excited about the journey. It’s a good pivot. I’ve got to say, I wish most of us could deal with disaster so cheerfully. But it turns out to be really exciting for him. He has all the kinds of adventures as he shrinks and he gets smaller and smaller and smaller. He literally has, like, all of the adventures that you expect your classic science fiction hero to have. Like, he has to, sort of, MacGyver together ships to get from one place to another, and he encounters strange aliens to battle, and of course, beautiful alien ladies to rescue, and perhaps even eventually marry. So, you know, it all actually works out really well for him.
But I just love the ruthlessness of this scientist who doesn’t even bother to tell his lab assistant that he’s going to shrink him. And then it’s not until the guy is living at the atomic level. He’s like, “Well, you’re actually going to keep shrinking for forever and ever, and I don’t know how to reverse this. So good luck to you.”
And this is how nano stories go for a while. Adventures at tiny scales, mad scientists, true love in tiny droplets! It’s not until World War II that we start to get a new kind of nano story in science fiction.
From about 1940 to 1970, you see a cluster of stories that really are about not just exploring these miniaturized worlds, but doing engineering in them. And I think it makes sense. This is the moment when American science fiction in particular is really coming together in its classic formations and it’s becoming central to the American imagination. At that time, science fiction stories are really synonymous with stories about engineering the future.
These stories feature inventors who don’t just explore and have adventures, they build stuff at the tiny scale. In these stories, you also see a bunch of other new-ish scientific fields popping up, like microbiology and biochemistry.
I love James Blish’s Surface Tension, where humans have gone out into space, and a group of space colonists make it to pretty much the Water Planet, essentially. But something goes wrong when they land and they recognize that they’re not going to be able to establish the colony that they had hoped for if they stay the size they are currently. But they realize if they could re-engineer themselves to, basically, the nanoscale, that then they would have enough resources to engineer themselves to be essentially aquatic creatures that live in these puddles. The whole planet is covered with very shallow puddles. It’s not even oceans; it’s just these little puddles. So they re-engineer themselves and humanity becomes, sort of like, merpeople living in this puddle.
But this is also where we start to get a lot more cautionary tales of nanotechnology. World War II was a time of innovation, for sure, but those innovations also included really horrific technologies like the atomic bomb.
And so, you do find stories such as Theodore Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God, which a lot of people will tell you is one of the best science fiction stories ever. But it’s really trying to think through some of the potentially deadly uses of nanoscience and nanotechnology before we even have a name for that discipline. And it’s about a very uncreative scientist. He can’t come up with any good ideas on his own. So he engineers a race of little, tiny human beings, microscopic human beings, and tortures them so that they’ll invent great things and then he can pass them off as his inventions at his level.
And of course, inevitably, a power-mad banker learns about this – it’s one of his backers, I believe – and decides to use the technology to try to take over the world to build a new power source that will allow him to take over the whole world.
If you are a Rick and Morty fan, this might sound familiar… and I’m pretty confident that “Microverse Battery” is based on this story.
[clip of Morty: That just sounds like slavery with extra steps!]
And this is also the era of nanotech in science fiction where we start to get our first movies. We’ve mentioned Fantastic Voyage already, but there were others as well. And while it is easy to look at these movies today and maybe laugh at how silly they look, these were big deal, legit movies at the time.
And they all got really great reviews. Like very, very favorable reviews everywhere, except in the print science fiction magazines. And all of the science fiction reviewers thought they were terrible movies full of plot holes.
But the real era of nanotech going off the rails in science fiction doesn’t really get going until the 1970s, right around the same time as the actual field of nanotechnology is taking off, when our tools and techniques in the lab were getting good enough to be able to build and manipulate stuff on the nanoscale.
One of the great proselytizers, the great advocates of nanotechnology was Eric Drexler, a scientist who has been very honest about how he was really inspired by science fiction and about, especially, Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas about building, you know, space needles using some sort of crazy cable, space cables, to anchor things up in the atmosphere to Earth. And that was part of what got him all excited about nanotechnology.
In 1986, Drexler wrote a book called Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.And in that book, really in like, a tiny aside, just a paragraph or two in this whole book, he raises this one caution.
The fact that there are potentially dangerous things that could happen and that when you’re programming… when you’re programming machines, that you want to have become self-replicating assemblers, that you’re running the risk that you don’t know what they’re really going to do.
This became known as the gray goo problem.
The idea, of course, that these assemblers would become rampaging robots; they would gain some kind of sentience, or we would just screw up their programming. Both are perfectly legitimate possibilities. And then that what they would build would go way out of control and essentially turn the universe not into the desired future we want, but one undifferentiated mass of material of stuff.
Drexler had no idea that this, out of all the other stuff in the book, was going to be the thing that totally blew up. And he has said that he regrets calling it gray goo and that he really does think that nanotechnology has more positive than negative potential. But science fiction writers ran with this idea.
Greg Baer writes Blood Music in the 1980s, and that’s the science fiction book that really popularized the gray goo scenario, although it does it in a very, kind of, funny and clever way that turns it on its head.
And then, in the early 2000s, three books are published that kind of symbolize the different ways of thinking about nanotechnology. There was Kathleen Goonan’s Queen City Jazz, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Michael Crichton’s Prey. Queen City Jazz is an absolutely bananas book that really embraces the weird and wacky potential of science fiction. I personally love Queen City Jazz; it is a really fun read. The Diamond Age is a much more somber, kind of serious take on nanotechnology, looking at its potential, and it’s actually largely based on Eric Drexler’s research. And then, there’s Michael Crichton’s Prey.
All of a sudden, once again, nanotechnology gains consciousness and gets out of control. And it really did make people lose their minds.
Mentioning Prey to nanotechnology researchers can sometimes be like detonating a bomb. They hate it.
Now, as a mostly impartial observer over here, I find the reactions to Prey in the field of nanotech kind of weird. The book is fine. It’s very plotty, it’s exciting, it’s an action-adventure. It’s everything that you have come to expect from a Michael Crichton book, right? And there are a ton of other books and movies about nanotech going rogue that are just as scary, just as negative about the nanotechnology. We’ve talked about a bunch of those stories already on this episode. And yet, Prey elicited a kind of panic that none of the other stories did.
Prince Charles of the United Kingdom got all twisted up after reading Prey and was really pushing for the British government to put all these new rules in place regarding NST research. So, that was a big, interesting thing and that got covered in the paper a lot. Like, imagine a royal actually weighing in on science and technology. That is kind of huge, right?
And in fact, Prey is actually what got Lisa interested in nanotechnology in the first place.
My science colleagues at Georgia Tech really were trying to figure out why it was that they hated Prey so much, and why they were so upset about it, and why they thought it was doing so much damage to people’s understanding of nanoscience and technology.
And Prey even had an impact on how nanotechnology researchers talk about their work.
I decided to go look at the National Nanotechnology Initiative website just to see if anything… I go look at it every now and then to sort of see what’s going on and keep up to date with what the government’s thinking about in terms of NST. And it’s interesting… and it makes sense that, really, a lot of the website focuses on ways we already use nanoscience and nanotechnology to improve things we already have in the world.
The phrasing is almost defensive. Like, “No, no. Don’t worry. This isn’t actually brand-new stuff. This is stuff you know. We’re just making it better.”
And perhaps because of this, today, Lisa says that we’re in an era of nanotech in science fiction that is… kind of boring. Okay, maybe not boring, maybe that’s not fair, but it’s not the world of magical tiny adventures or all-consuming gray goo.
So just at the moment when most science fiction authors are actually kind of moving away from these really exciting and dramatic stories about nanotech coming alive, and having ideas and preferences, and sort of pushing back on the human world in really cool ways, suddenly we shift over and, somewhere around 2000, nanotech simply becomes a tool. It’s one more tool in the toolkit that people use to build different kinds of futures. And it’s almost not exciting.
If you look at nanotechnology papers today, they often will explicitly stress that they are not talking about science fiction, that this is totally different, real science that is worlds away from the fantastical stuff that you might read or see. And yeah, I get it, you don’t want people to freak out about this stuff. But it’s also kind of sad. Remember, the thing that people point to as, kind of, the foundational text of nanotechnology was Feynman talking about the science fiction that his grad students were reading. The whole field started with ideas like “Hey, what if we made tiny cars for insects?”
[clip of Derek Zoolander: “What is this, a center for ants?!”]
And science fiction can offer some really amazing ideas. I mean, again, the entire field of nanotechnology is proof of this!
It’s a virtual laboratory and a playground where scientists can conduct thought experiments they couldn’t do elsewhere. When scientists work in the real world, they have to get funding for their work, and to get funding, you have to write grants that promise certain kinds of developments within a certain, pretty limited, timeframe. Authors don’t have those kinds of limits on them. They can speculate about whatever they want. Five years out, 50 years out, 50 billion years out. And that kind of creative thinking outside the box can really inspire real-world research and development as well.
And even if you are a researcher who just doesn’t like science fiction, it can still offer a window into how the rest of the world views your work.
It becomes a chance for everyday people to get into conversations about the future and what we hope and what we don’t hope we’ll do with our sciences and technologies.
Besides, you might find the love of your life in a droplet of water! Just try not to kill her this time.
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Flash Forward is hosted by me, Rose Eveleth, and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Mattie Lubchansky. Ad sales are provided by Multitude.
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