Friday, November 14, 2008

Plastics

I am republishing some of my earlier writings. This is the first one, which was published online in The Edge in July 2006. Yes, it is a bit out of date.
“Plastics!”


Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you - just one word.

Ben: Yes sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics!

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shhh! Enough said. That's a deal.

Anyone who has seen The Graduate will remember that famous one-liner, “Plastics!” And those of us old enough to have seen the film’s initial theatrical release have indeed witnessed a slow but inexorable creep of plastics into virtually every aspect of our lives. Plastics have revolutionized the world, but there really was never an “ah-ha moment” that caught the public’s attention. Yet that didn’t stop plastics and many newly found applications. Perhaps Mr. McGuire was a visionary.

Fade to black. Jump to the 21st Century. Remake The Graduate. What word would it be today? If I were writing the screenplay, it would be “Nanotechnology!” In my youth, I never paid much attention to plastics. It was a different time and I had other worlds to conquer and parties to attend. But now as I near retirement, I have become a bit of a techno geek. When I use the “nano word” with many people, I see both confusion and glazed eyes. But perhaps it was just my deodorant fading for the day.

Nevertheless, here we have a relatively new technology that is making leaps and bounds in many areas of society, but few people know much about it, assuming they have even heard the “nano” word used in polite conversation. As with plastics, there will probably be no “ah-ha moment.” But one day, many of us will live in a world filled with nanotech items and processes. There is already an iPod nano, so apparently the word is creeping into our collective consciousness though the device is not exactly nano-sized. Oh goodie, here is my segue.

For you newbies, let’s start with the basics. Nano is usually shorthand for nanometer, which is one billionth of a meter, 0.000000001 meter, or 10-9 in scientific notation. This is near or at the scale of atoms and molecules. I have read in many sources the ordinary comparison of a nanometer to a human hair, which is about 50,000 nanometers wide. I prefer to know that a molecule of DNA is about 2.5 nanometers wide. But then that is the geek in me.

While plastics took a relatively long time to permeate our lives (starting before the film’s debut in 1967) and are still continuing, don’t expect nanotechnology to take long. Be warned. You are on notice. Nanotechnology is upon us. For those of you with the “deer in the headlight” look, let me continue. Technology tends to have a snowball effect. The more we know, the faster we learn, and the faster we imagine. Such is true with nanotechnology. Imagine being the virtual “fly on the wall.” Really.

Yes, there are those Luddites who would have you believe that this relatively new technology will ultimately do more harm than good. However, I contend that technology is inherently neither good nor evil. Technology has no ethics, but people do. Will nanotechnology be used to create a world of 1984, a score of years too late? Or will it open up the world of Star Trek? Perhaps somewhere in between? Ultimately, it is incumbent upon us to demand that this technology be used wisely and ethically. (As a side note for you Trekkies, Nano was the name of the communications officer on Captain Christopher Pike’s Starship Enterprise.)

But enough background. Where’s the beef? There are already many available applications, and we are only at the dawn of what will be available. Here are a few examples to lure you to more exploration.

Researchers at Rice University and Nanospectra Biosciences determined that gold-covered nanoparticles, twenty times smaller than red blood cells, will quickly pool in tumors when injected into the bloodstream. Once in the tumor and illuminated with a near-infrared laser, these nanoshells heat enough to incinerate the entire tumor. This was proven in every test. Otherwise, the chosen laser wavelengths have maximum penetration of light and cause no damage to surrounding tissue. The company is seeking FDA approval for human tests this year. Think of all the cancer patients who will benefit with just this one application.

Imagine a material that bends and stretches similar to rubber, but conducts electricity like metal. Metal Rubber is here, and it could make some amazing things a reality, including parts of artificial limbs and flexible aircraft wings.

You can already purchase stain and wrinkle resistant clothing, more brightly shining computer monitors and televisions, nano coatings for your automobile glass that more effectively resists rain and pock marks, and soon there may be a cure for certain forms of blindness.

I could continue, but you can Google and read as well as I can. Welcome to this new world and imagine.

Spock: Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected. In this case, I should think "interesting" would suffice. – Star Trek: The Squire of Gothos, Stardate 2124.5.