Nanotechnology is one of the most interesting relatively new sciences to evolve. First predicted by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, nanotechnology finally become feasible in 1981 with the arrival of the scanning tunneling microscope. Today, nanotechnology is common throughout our world and promises to pervade it even further. Although nanoparticles have been used for centuries, it has only been in the last several decades that our technology has allowed us to build and manipulate nanomaterials.
Nanotechnology is one of those fields that offer incredible application yet potentially massive unforeseen danger. For example, on the positive side (Ryan Bradley, “The Great Big Question about Really Tiny Materials” Fortune, March 15, 2015, pp. 192–202):
“Nanomaterials . . . deliver highly targeted drugs to specific areas of the body and root out cancerous cells. Antibacterial nanoparticles like silver and copper are, when used properly, undoubtedly responsible for limiting the spread of disease. A new tool for fighting cancers and viruses is a nanoscale explosive nicknamed a buckybomb, which can reach a temperature of 7,232° F and attack exactly what needs destroying inside the body without harming the surrounding cells.” (pp. 201–202)
On the cautionary side, quite a bit of research is continuing (as it should) on the dangers of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is so great precisely because it is so small. Just imagine having a team of nanorobots injected into your bloodstream that would automatically locate and destroy arterial plaque. However, this same ninja quality renders nanotechnology so potentially dangerous. We do not have all the answers on unintended consequences of any particular nanoapplication nor do we necessarily have absolute protection from nanotechnology’s negative consequences. Because the science is so new, we remain at that tenuous phase in which we do yet know what we do not know. For example:
“In 2011, just a few months after an international definition of a nanoparticle was agreed on, the Environmental Protection Agency released a remarkable report that stated, in effect, that it had no idea what was going on with nanomaterials and was not equipped to regulate them.” (p. 200)
As with every branch of science, nanotechnology’s knowledge refinement shall continue. Equally important is the passionate commitment to advance our knowledge of nanotechnology’s deleterious effects while applying our ethics to the science. It is much better to do that today than to have regrets tomorrow.