Environment, Health, and the Nanotechnology Age: An Interview with Professor George Whitesides


A person may be able to ignore developments in nanotechnology for a while. But eventually, it seems, practically any field you may be paying attention to is in some way impacted by developments on the nano level. Nanotech is not so much a specific technology or field of science as it is a paradigm, a truly different way of manipulating matter on the molecular and atomic levels. The word conjures up a dramatic spectrum of responses. Some people are confident that nanotech will render humans immortal in a matter of decades and propel us into a post-human, post-scarcity world. Others fear it will just help us destroy ourselves with even greater expediency. Even more moderate views acknowledge that nanotechnology will come to overturn many of our assumptions about what is and isn’t possible. While we are just now beginning to glimpse what is in store for us, nanotech is being actively applied in virtually every scientific and technological field. The more refined and efficient method of atomic building and the properties of nano-sized particles hold great promise for applications that can benefit the environment. Fuel cells, solar power, and water purification are central focuses. But self-cleaning windows, self-cleaning clothes, fuel additives, printable inks that generate power from the sun, and nano-particle clothes washers, are all part of an ever growing list of consumer-level applications that we may all soon be familiar with. But the rapid advancement of nanotech and the new properties it introduces is raising concern over new risks. Most immediate are potential health risks from tiny particles, far smaller and with different behaviors than those typically regulated. The EPA’s recent efforts to tackle safety standards and regulations for the mushrooming nanotech industry reflect a building trepidation.

I grew up in a Boston suburb across the street from George Whitesides, a Harvard professor who juggles scientific disciplines like so many oranges. His research spans biochemistry, materials science, catalysis, and physical organic chemistry. He is one of the most cited researchers in his field and an oft-sought voice on the subject of nanotechnology. When I was in high school, I built a sculpture on my parent’s lawn from weathered wooden debris found in the garbage of our affluent suburb. Professor Whitesides seemed to like it. Apparently he never forgot it, and maybe that’s why he was kind enough to answer a smattering of my questions based loosely around issues of nanotech and the environment.

George Whitesides is a Professor at Harvard University where he researches in the areas of biochemistry, materials science, catalysis, and physical organic chemistry. His research in nanoscience spans across disciplines and his work is among the most highly cited in his field. Prof. Whitesides was on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor at Harvard. He also heads the Whitesides Research Group. He was kind enough to respond to a smattering of questions loosely based around issues of nanotech and the environment.

Jacob Gordon: Although new risks may be introduced by nano-based substances, do you see grave new danger to health or the environment? Do you think that existing regulatory structures are sufficient to address any unique risks posed by nanotech?

George Whitesides: I don't see anything grave. We live in a world that is full of nanoparticles--sand, smoke, dust, sea spray, all have nano-scale stuff in them. There are issues that should be carefully explored about nanoparticles (as about any new chemical) if they are going to go into large-scale commercialization. OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] procedures--correctly done--should be able to handle it. I don't think there is anything there they have not seen before, but you never really know for sure until you look.

JG: If we can draw parallels between the safety and regulatory issues of nanotechnology and biotechnology, do you see the handling of biotechnology as an encouraging precedent? That is to say, has biotech been handled well?

GW: I think that biotech has done very well. I don't know of any safety issues, other than those associated with the use of biopharmaceuticals. But the biotech world is heavily regulated by the FDA; the world of commercial chemicals/materials is also regulated, but in a different way (we are not intentionally injecting most materials).

JG: So, why not self-assembling nanobots? From your writings it does seem that you agree, at least in theory, with many of the predictions made by the likes of Eric Drexler and Ray Kurzweil. The issue of assemblers seems like it might be the biggest issue you don't agree on. Is that true?

GW: Agreement is a complicated word. In some cases we agree, in others we don't. But for the assembler--I simply think that they can not be built.

JG: The basis for the predictions of Kurzweil and others are often based on projections of exponential technological evolution, one reflection being Moore’s Law. Is this a compelling model? Where are the holes?

GW: They all come to an end. Moore's law will come to an end in 20 years (or severely change its slope). Nothing goes on forever. I don't know what it means to say that technological evolution is exponential. In general, it's sigmoidal. A book today is much like a book 100 years ago. Computers are getting faster, but Microsoft Word is getting worse. It still takes me the same 20 minutes to drive home that it did in 1960. Food production is getting more efficient, but employing fewer workers. Personal safety is probably decreasing. The lifespan in Russia is shortening. Where does one see a trend in that?

Now is the era of information technology, and it IS growing rapidly, and has lots of room left for growth.

JG: What are the most important ways that average citizens can take a participatory role in the evolution of science and technology in society?

GW: Ah...terrific question. First, by learning enough about it that there is some shared vocabulary among those interested in a subject (that knife, of course, cuts both ways--technologists have to learn to talk in jargon-free language). Writing local representatives of government has bigger effect than people understand. But where to go to debate pros and cons--it's a tough question. We do not have good fora (is that the plural of forum?) for discussions. Maybe the web will provide such a "place."

JG: What is one central thing you wish the general public understood better about science?

GW: How exhilarating it is to begin to see how the world works.

JG: How does the scientific community typically view the "environmental movement?"

GW: With great sympathy. We all live on the same world. There may be differences of opinion on specifics, but there is no unified "environmental movement" and no unitary "scientific community." The scientific community is as interested as environmentalists in having the world habitable for the generation born in 2500.

JG: What is the relationship between federal government and the science community like these days?

GW: The major underlying problem is financial: Iraq and Katrina/Rita. This problem is making everyone's life very difficult. Parts of the scientific community and the White House (different from the federal government, which is a much more complicated organism) have had some visible friction over various subjects (stem cells, climate change...). But the government understands that science and technology contributes to prosperity and safety, and the S&T; community is interested in contributing. So the differences are what you read about in the media; the long-term relationship is sympathetic.

JG: Will society’s ethics be able to keep pace with its technological progress?

GW: There is no unitary "ethics": Ethics is as divided as any other area. Ethics poses thoughtful problems, from different points of view; ultimately society (that is individuals and groups) have to decide. Ethics does not provide answers. We have to decide how we want to live.

But basically we humans have proved ourselves amazingly adaptable.

(Image courtesy of Jim Harrison. Copyright Jim Harrison)

Environment, Health, and the Nanotechnology Age: An Interview with Professor George Whitesides
A person may be able to ignore developments in nanotechnology for a while. But eventually, it seems, practically any field you may be paying attention to is in some way impacted by developments on the nano level. Nanotech is not so much a specific