Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Defines a Revolution?

Back in May, I wrote a blog post on the commercial uses of nanotechnology.  I was supportive of an editorial in Nature Nanotechnology (January 2009), titled "The Other Nanotech" which argued that current uses of nanoscience and nanoengineering, while for the most part mundane and low tech (sunscreen and anti-bacterial socks), are providing a framework for more advanced applications later on.

In a recent (November 2009) issue of ACS Nano, Associate Editor Jillian Buriak presents an editorial (it seems like nanotechnology inspires more editorializing than any science I can remember) called "The Quiet Revolution".  In this piece, she laments the fact that most commercial uses of nanoscience have been in the creation of common consumer products, vide supra, and that there is no "killer app" or revolutionary technology yet available.  On the other hand, she postulates that the ultimate revolutionary aspect of nanotechnology is that it has brought a variety of disciplines from international collaborators together to solve important problems from the ground up, and that this may be nanotechnology's long-lasting legacy.

Even though I found myself nodding in agreement with most of the editorial, I felt compelled to respond to Dr. Buriak.  Here is the text of an e-mail I wrote her:

"I read your recent editorial, “A Quiet Revolution”.  Although I agree with your conclusions, that nanoscience is fostering a new kind of inter- and multi-disciplinary environment that is eager to tackle the hard problems of energy, environment, and health, I also think you might take a look (if you haven’t already) at a recent (Jan. 2009) editorial in Nature Nanotechnology (attached).  As this editorial argues, and that I have supported in several of my blog posts, we should embrace the mundane uses of nanotechnology (the sunscreen and anti-bacterial silver nanoparticles) as the lessons learned from these initial commercial ventures will ultimately (and hopefully) be used to create the more ambitious applications (the killer apps).  I would even argue that the electronic circuitry in your iPod Nano is just one of many uses for the nano-sized transistors and other components being developed, and that we often miss the revolutionary nature of technology because the changes occur slowly on the human time scale, but rapidly when put into historical context.  Is nanoscience responsible for all of the societal changes we have witnessed in the last several decades?  Of course not, but it certainly has abetted some major transformations in computers and electronics, and all the things that these touch."

Perhaps we are not in the midst of a technology revolution akin to the industrial revolution or the advent of the computer age.  Rather, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we will know the nanotechnology revolution when we see it.


  1. while i'm just a potential consumer of nano-products, i agree with your point that the mundane usage will help lead the way to these yet to be discovered killer apps. The first integrated circuits, in 1958/59 had several transistors and limited usefulness, today's ICs have billions of transistors and are key to all of today's communication, manufacturing and service industries. All this in 50 years.

    the killer apps will likely come and then proliferate in the years ahead.

  2. Our descendants, perhaps 200 years from now, will read about the technological revolution in their history books, and will be able to see the trajectory of this revolution. We are living in the middle of history, without the benefit of that perspective.

  3. I agree with you both. And if the pace at which Nobel prizes are being given to nanoscience and nanoengineering discoveries is any indication, we may be able to look back at the end of our lifetimes and tell our grandchildren that we were there when the revolution began.