The World of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology, when perfected, may lead to developments including robotic muscles, solar cells, or synthetic muscles for humans.

In my book Visions, I state that nanotechnology was first proposed by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman in a seminal but witty article entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Feynman envisioned the theoretical capability of nanotech in 1959, stating: “I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously...The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.”

There is a whole new world at the nanoscale that's revealed by electron microscope, and even with scanning microscopes we can now move individual atoms. In fact, for a BBC Discovery documentary that I hosted, called "Visions of the Future," I flew down to San Jose, where they had a scanning microscope and where I could move individual atoms--each about the size of a ping-pong ball--across a computer screen.

One main criticism of the full-scale development of nanotechnology has been that there is no equivalent of a wire by which to conduct electricity connecting the various parts of the nanomachine, giving it the power to operate and perform its necessary functions. This very problem, however, is currently being tackled by scientists with the implementation of carbon nanotubes (allotropes of carbon with a cylindrical nanostructure), which were discovered in 1991 by researchers at NEC. These tubes are among the stiffest and strongest fibers known to man and have outstanding electronic properties in addition to being able to function at extremes of temperature. Recent studies have shown, however, that a severe amount of damage can be caused to your lungs if carbon nanotubes are accidentally inhaled. Japanese researchers have shown that the tubes can eventually reach the outer tissue of your lungs, which just so happens to be the same location where asbestos causes cancer. These same researchers were able to induce mesothelioma in mice using the carbon nanotubes.

In my Science Channel series SCI-FI Science: Physics of the Impossible, I filmed an episode called “How to Become a Superhero” in which I explore the science behind carbon nanotube sheaths, testing the possibility of constructing a superhero suit with super-strength. (You can watch a short clip from the show via The Science Channel.) These sheaths are being used for the creation of carbon nanotube muscles which can expand and contract with a tremendous amount of speed. Normal muscles contract, for example, at a maximum rate of about 10% per second, while the carbon nanotube sheaths can contract at an astonishing 40,000% while still maintaining their strength and stability. These types of ground-breaking achievements, when perfected, hold considerable promise for revolutionizing all sorts of new developments, including robotic muscles, solar cells, organic light-emitting displays, or synthetic muscles for humans.

One of the goals of nanotechnology is to create nanomachines on the scale of living cells--such as proteins, DNA, or bacteria--and design them to perform equally complex tasks. These miniature mechanical devices could turn toxic waste into harmless matter, or they could travel through our blood vessels to mend cells from within. The first step toward building these nanomachines is to hack living systems at the molecular level and engineer them to do what we want.

These devices will be smart and autonomous, but just like the viruses and bacteria they are modeled on, they will have the potential to do enormous damage. For example, you may have heard of the scenario of gray goo and how nanobots or assemblers could run the risk of going haywire. In principle, gray goo is a large mass of self-replicating nanomachines that would eventually consume all matter in the galaxy by building copies of themselves, consuming everything in their path. This scenario has been brought into the mainstream by authors such as Michael Crichton, in whose book Prey, bacteria produce chemicals that are modified and then combined to form assemblers The final product gives rise to tiny flying robots. The main character lets a swarm of nanorobots loose into the atmosphere, where they prey on wildlife and replicate themselves along the way. These scenarios are farfetched and the complexities behind developing grey goo are presently beyond the capabilities of science, even though they aren't ruled out by the laws of physics.

One application of nanotechnology that is currently in development is the use of nanoparticles to deliver various chemotherapy drugs specifically to cancer cells. Other medicinal benefits may include bone repair, nanochips for limb control (which could help revolutionize the treatment of paralysis), nanobots for gene therapy, or even microscopic nanodevices programmed to clear out your clogged arteries. In the future, swarms of invisible robots might permanently be patrolling our blood systems, repairing tissue and keeping us healthy.

The world of nanotechnology isn’t going away anytime soon, and it has already began to infiltrate literally every sector of industry. This trend, in turn, is creating a wide range of business opportunities, including drug delivery concepts, next-generation computer memory, bulletproof clothing, receptor enhancers, and even non-porous membranes that react to weather. The United States military is also paying close attention to the scientific advances of nanotechnology. It is currently working on the development and implementation of a 21st-century battle suit that would be able to stop bullets, detect biological and chemical agents, monitor a soldier’s vital signs, administer basic first aid, and communicate with headquarters. In fact, back in 2002 the Army granted $50 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. In 2007, more than $60 billion in products incorporating nanotechnology were sold. According to estimates, the amount may grow to over $2.5 trillion by 2014.

As we approach mid-decade we will be seeing the word "nanotechnology" a lot more as it's limitless uses venture into the world of consumer products. You can already find nanotechnology being used in new dress shirts, household cleaners, sporting goods, toothpaste, cosmetics and even antibacterial water taps. The Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies for example, provides 800+ manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market in addition to a variety of other useful information.

You may even have products in your own home that have nanotechnology crontrolling things at the subatomic level and not even know it. You can use a variety of resources such as ScienceDaily's Nanotechnology News or PhysOrg's Nanotechnology News which inclues audio and video.

There is no doubt that the world of nanotechnology holds vast promises for innovation in virtually every industry known to mankind. The nano industry in itself is still quite new however, so only time will tell how much of a change it will actually have on the human condition. In the meantime, keep an eye on the headlines as you may find something that peaks your interest.

To be continued....

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.