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Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D. Headshot

What Henry Ford Can Teach Us About Nanotechnology

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We are embarking on the age of the very small--nanotechnology. By miniaturizing matter, science fact will look like science fiction. Very soon we will create human tissue, make super-fast computers, and invent new cures building them atom-by-atom. Despite how mind-boggling the future will be, there are many lessons it can learn from history, particularly the automobile.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T; his assembly lines made cars more affordable. It seemed like a great idea at the time. Before that, traveling took a long time, so a horseless buggy was certainly viewed as progress. What Ford did not imagine, was all of the changes that would occur due to his creation.

The automobile changed everything.

It led to the creation of suburbs, highways, traffic jams, malls, urban sprawl, and fast food. Society turned sedentary, so the car contributed to this age of obesity too. And, we have not even mentioned global warming or carbon footprints yet. It might have been better for our waistlines, the polar ice caps, and the planet if we continued to travel by bicycles and horses. If only Ford and friends gave more consideration about the impact of the automobile back then.

Today, we sit at such a critical juncture with nanotechnology.

The late Richard Feynman said there's plenty of room at the bottom when he envisioned it. What exactly is nanotechnology? It is the world of the small and strange. By small, I mean one-billionth of a meter--a nanometer. Imagine whittling one of your hairs into 100,000 shavings. One of the shavings will be a nanometer thick.

And strange? That means that it doesn't act like it did when it was big. Take gold for example. On our scale gold looks yellow. But, nanogold, consisting of 100 gold atoms stuck together, appears red. Strange. Other properties of gold change too. Gold is a metal that conducts electricity and is inert. (Meaning it is safe to be used as wedding bands and as grills.) However, nanogold helps chemical reactions as a catalyst, and conducts electricity like a semiconductor, similar to silicon in our computers. Again very strange.

So, what can nanogold do? Nanogold will eventually help fight cancer. By injecting nanogold into a tumor and heating it with light that does not burn skin, the tumor will be cooked. Also, nanosilver cleans up toxic arsenic from water. Nanotechnology already penetrates all parts of our lives from suntan lotions to cosmetics to stain-resistant pants. Nano is everywhere.

But, wait.

Do we want small particles--which we can't imagine let alone see--swimming in our water supply and covering everything around us? There is a list of other good ideas that we all bandied around before they bit us back. Asbestos was cool once. Radium was the bee's knees for luminous watch dials. And, the automobile was certainly a game changer.

A good idea can carry unforeseen changes. If you step back, you'll witness this happening now. Facebook has changed the way we socialize. Automated checkout counters eradicated cashier jobs. Twitter is slowly killing the comma. For this reason, inventors, scientists, engineers, and coders must consider the long-term impact of their work. Being unsentimental about the cause and effects of invention is misguided.

After finishing my book Newton's Football (Random House), I started working on a new book project on how what we create recreates us. There are two types of impact for inventions: the seen and the unseen. While the unseen impact is hard to predict, these conversations and considerations are a must. It might be wise for creators and inventors to not get so caught up in their inventions and speak to social scientists too. And, national dialogs about new technologies should be hosted at universities, think tanks, churches, and science museums. While there are institutes that consider the repercussions of nanotechnology, like the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, these centers are rare. And, they will become even more rare as the National Science Foundation continues to cut funding for grants to social science.

It is up to all of us not to get too caught up in the wave of excitement of invention, but think of its impacts. Ask questions--lots of them. We are still in the early stages of nanotechnology, so there is still time to heed the lessons that the automobile offers. While it is true that the next big thing will be very very small, that should not include our thinking.