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Science, Maths & Technology

Too small for comfort?

Updated Wednesday 27th April 2005

Derek Matravers responds to Lord Broers' fourth Reith Lecture by suggesting that it's the difficulty in picturing nanotechnology which makes people fear it.

Fear can take many forms. We can be scared of things we know about, which we have good reason to be scared of (this tiger running towards me).

We can be scared of things we do not know about (walking down the lane in the pitch black). In the past, fear of technology seemed to be of the first form more than the second.

We knew about the bombs and the planes, and we had good reason to fear their being around.

Carbon nanotubes [Image: NASA/Yuki Kimura, Tohoku University] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: NASA
Carbon nanotubes [Image: Yuki Kimura, Tohoku University]

I am simply open-mouthed in astonishment at some of the achievements Lord Broers describes, up to and including working at the level of placing individual atoms.

It is all too easy to think that if people are able to do that, they are able to do pretty much anything. This is one reason, I suppose, why it is easy to scare people about technology.

There is enough of an object there (a self-replicating nano machine), for fear to take the first form but also elements of the second.

My idea of 10nm is not different from my idea of 100nm, or even many orders of magnitude of nm above that.

By contrast, whether the nearest shop is 1 mile, 10 miles or 100 miles away is something I can grasp.

Like the dark night, I suppose the best way to overcome fear is to find out if there is really is something out there worth being fearful about.

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