Essay

Nano magic

I magine the car salesman hands you a car that is built out of super light materials. The nanomaterials make the car so light that the salesman literally hands it to you, and you take it from him with one hand and carry it outside for a test drive. Would you feel safe in such a car? What if it was explained that the materials are not only lightweight, they are also 200 times stronger than steel?

Imagine sitting in an airplane with a paper thin, completely transparent fuselage and delicate looking wings, like those of a moth or a dragonfly. Or, imagine standing at the top of a mile-high skyscraper that looks like a giant tornado-shaped spider web with a thin cellophane membrane stretched between the webbing.

We think we know that a super strong material will be super heavy and super dense. When we look at it, we expect a certain thickness. When we tap it, we expect a certain sound. And when we bend it, we expect a certain resistance, until it bends or snaps. Long years of experience with the physical world have firmly embedded those types of expectations in our minds.

What will happen when those expectations are no longer valid?

The use of nanotechnology allows us to alter the fundamental behaviors of the materials around us. Today, I expect that dropping a fine stemmed champagne glass on the floor will cause the glass to shatter. But, what if the nanomaterial that the champagne glass is made of has been programmed to bounce, like a basketball? Or to flatten out on the ground, like pancake batter in a pan?

What if the very same champagne flute is programmed to behave in different ways according to the strength of the impact, or the time of day, or something as unpredictable as the whim and fancy of the programmer? I will have no way of knowing, or even guessing, what might happen when the champagne glass hits the ground.

What about when it’s not just the behavior of champagne glasses that is programmed, but the behavior of everything in the world: the floors I walk on and the clothes I wear and the walls I lean against… literally everything? This will be possible in the near future. One of the consequences, probably unintended, of moving from our current world, where objects operate according to fixed chemical, electrical, and mechanical rules, to one where objects operate according to programmed rules, is that it will be virtually impossible for the average layperson to predict how the world will behave under different conditions. Only the programmers will have the secret knowledge that lets them know how things will behave.

The practical and paradoxical effect for the rest of us is that we will find ourselves living in a mysterious and unknowable world. The rise of nanotechnology will feel, for most people, like the rise of a new kind of magic and superstition.

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