"Nanoscience Is More Than A Revolution, It's A Profound Mutation in The History of Humanity."
25 May, 2007 03:56 pm
Interview with J?el de Rosnay, scientist, essayist, and a consultant to the president of la Cit? des Sciences (Paris).
It’s the world of infinitely small, and it’s the capacity of man to reconstruct this world of infinitely small.
One has to reason by analogy. When you have in front of yourself a “lego”, one can make very complicated things. The pieces are molecules. Indeed, with molecules, we invented chemistry.
We randomly put them together by shaking them up in a balloon or by heating them.
Through nanotechnology we can assemble molecules in an intentional way. We put one next to the other to create active membranes, nanochips, medical products, substances that can disseminate in the body, etc..
In the infinitely small goes from milli, micro, to nano. I’ll provide a scale: being 5 foot 10 inches tall, if I was enlarged with my head in Paris and my feet in Greece, on this scale, a nanometer would be the size of a grape.
Have we begun to make products at this scale?
There are 350 nanotechnology products on the market. We normally don’t see them. They are present, for example, in the automobile industry, in the tires, which are made silent, in resistant surfaces thanks to this technology. Nanoparticles are in cosmetic products like sun blocks, which furthermore is criticized. Some are very interesting like carbon nanotubes, which we will use more and more of in TV screens or to store hydrogen in cars of the future.
There is even an extraordinary application which is nearly a month old and of which the press has little spoken about: new batteries that use carbon nano-fibers to store electricity. Basically, it’s about capacitors. But one needs a lot of surface space for a normal capacitor, and it is difficult to put an enormous capacitor in a car or a cell phone. If you want to dry a sheet, the process isn’t very efficient, but a sponge towel is made of small pieces of tissue, and each part soaks up a drop of water. It’s the same for the new capacitor: nanoparticles charge a little bit of electricity each and then charges its battery in a few seconds. This will be a true revolution.
Nanoscience also has applications in medicine….
Bio-chips for example. They are little plastic surfaces on which we can grow DNA chains that can recognize other DNA pieces and attach to them. Thanks to fluorescent tags, we know what is attached at which spot, and we can make a diagnostic of dangerous viruses or bacteria in water.
There are also intelligent batteries that are put under the skin instead of being swallowed, and that can free everyday the active substance at the right place and the right time based on information received from a receptor somewhere in the body.
Nanoscience is very criticized. Does it contain certain risks?
We have the following approach at the Cité des Sciences: we put on display the technology, and we always discuss the impact on Man and on society as a whole. We debate Science. We present the products and the risks.
Regarding nanoscience, the first risk is that the particles are so small that their surface of interaction with the outside living world or the chemical world is immense- we have seen it concerning new batteries. Therefore, there is a risk of new properties being created from the surface of these particles.
Next, they can be absorbed, inhaled like asbestos. We know that carbon nanotubes have created problems in the lungs of laboratory animals that were tested. We don’t know very much or where were going, hence the importance of deep reflection.
Some put the ethical problems first. Some even imagine the transformation of human beings, “transhumans”. What do you think?
The serious scientific community is very critical of the “transhumanists”. We know about them, we know where they come from, what they say. It’s a “nietzschean” idea of a superhuman equipped with electronic chips with artificial skin, etc.. We can create science fiction, but from that point to creating human beings different from other human beings – alphas, megas, omegas in a Aldous Huxely way- making “subhumans” because we create “superhumans”! It’s imperative to avoid this kind of mistake.
Is any kind of regulation possible?
In general no one regulates research. What is regulated, are the budgets (is this enough or not), it’s the competent people (are there enough or not enough), therefore the critical mass of intelligence. And in a way there is governmental regulation via major policies.
Regulation must take place by two means:
- regulation through the market, which is open, free, and dangerous: industry, which wants to increase its profits, will launch products, like we saw with GMO, without having studied the risk on Man
- -a citizen co-regulation, more interesting on the democratic level, regulated by votes, purchases, habits, in relation to products considered as risks. This is called the precaution principle.
Will the benefits win out over the downsides, or the opposite?
I would say it’s a 50-50 shot. It depends on our human responsibility to direct science in the right direction for Man, and not in an opposite direction that could destroy human liberties and creates a challenge that Man cannot overcome.
It’s more than a revolution, it’s a profound mutation in the history of Humanity. The movement is already in motion. There are more and more nanotechnological products. Therefore, let’s get informed!
Interview by Jean-Luc Prigent and Gilles Prigent for Newsteam Press Agency and Scitizen. The video podcast can be seen here (in French).
Joël de Rosnay is a scientist, an essayist, and a consultant to the president of la Cité des Sciences (Paris). He's author of the book recently published 2020 Les scenarios du Futur, Des idées et des hommes, 300p, 21 euros.