Week 9_Nanotechnology: Addressing Discoveries and Danger by Madeline Schwarz

Nanotechnology, as discussed by Professor Vesna as well as Particle Group guest speaker Professor James Gimzewski, is quite possibly the future of science and technology, from biomedicine to the chemistry of popular products. Both Tuesday and Thursday’s lectures gave me a comprehensive background in the history of imagining and achieving advancements in nanotechnology, and also got into its numerous applications, most of which I would have never even considered. As Professor Vesna humorously pointed out, the extent of many people’s knowledge of nanotechnology is familiarity with the iPod nano, and after learning more about the field, I think that the entire public should be fully informed about these technologies that could affect economic markets, healthcare, and industrial products throughout the world. Because of the Art/Sci Center’s close ties with the California Nanosystems Institute, many of the extra credit opportunities and recommended presentations for DESMA 9 have dealt with nanotechnology, and it was helpful to be given a better understanding of this field in class this week.

Professors Vesna and Gimzewski discussed the beginnings of nanotechnology’s conception; in particular, focusing on Richard Feyman and Eric Drexler. While Feyman’s 1959 lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” was credited with first proposing advancing science from a microscopic as opposed to a macroscopic level, Drexler’s Engines of Creation took a more mechanistic, engineering-related approach to envisioning the building of molecules. With Richard Smalley’s discovery of the Buckminsterfullerene carbon structure in 1985, nanotechnology in practice began to take off, since now, scientists could act as chemical architects, putting smaller particles inside “bucky balls” and thus building matter from the bottom up. 

Carbon nanotubes and buckyballs.

Carbon nanotubes and buckyballs.

Theoretically, this bottom up approach provides a means of expansion for technological progress, which, as Gimzewski expressed, may be nearing its limits in terms of top-down miniaturization and streamlining. Gimzewski showed several graphs projecting the evolution of human technology, comparing it to human brain power, advances in transportation, and artificial intelligence. I believe the purpose of this was to illustrate the danger in extrapolating infinite growth from a current pattern of development, and to propose the thought that we might be approaching our limits in decreasing the complexity of computerized systems. Therefore, nanotechnological advancements may be necessary as a new way of expanding our technological capacity.

The art of constructing and positioning atoms into new structures, whether through trapping atoms inside fullerenes or manipulating carbon nanotubes, presents several exciting new opportunities for medical use. Professor Gimzewski touched on the K@C60 molecule, and how although it has harmful abilities, it is often necessary to utilize in the treatments of certain neurological diseases. However, other nanoparticles eliminate the harm in other biological techniques, such as in gene insertion - using dendrimers instead of other methods could eliminate an adverse immune system reaction. This article explains the concept of dendrimers quite well.

The formation of dendrimers, an alternative type of nanoparticle.

The formation of dendrimers, an alternative type of nanoparticle.

Among its many potential benefits, biomedical therapies based in nanotechnology could be the pathway we need in discovering the cure for cancer (http://www.nanotechwire.com/news.asp?nid=4068). However, could nanotechnological products be more harmful than helpful, as Nina Waisman’s installation Particles of Interest implied? Gimzewski mentioned that about 1,000 products currently on the market involve nanotechnology, but that 2% haven’t been tested for their toxological effects. A myriad of products currently available and in development, from fuel cells, to sunscreen, to makeup, include nanoparticles which may be revolutionary and effective in their intended function, but may have additional unanticipated repercussions on the body and environment. 

Throughout this course, we have examined a variety of novel technologies and scientific developments which have both exciting new prospects and dangerous and/or controversial implications. Nanotechnology is a prime example to consider in the advancement of both science and art: though we may be eager to push our boundaries and propose novel approaches to society’s struggles, we may be nearing a point at which such proposals may cause more disruption than development, forcing us to compromise technological innovation for human safety.

- Madeline Schwarz

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