Tag Archives: Colin Milburn

Nano’s grey goo and the animation series Futurama

You never know where you’re going to find nanotechnology. Most recently I found it in a review of the first few episodes of the animated US tv series, Futurama. Alasdair Wilkins recently offered a few thoughts about a recent ‘nanotechnology-influenced’ episode Benderama. From Wilkins’s June 24, 2011 commentary,

“Benderama” is an example of an episode type that pretty much only Futurama is capable of doing: taking an outlandish but vaguely plausible scientific idea and letting that guide the story. Some all-time great episodes have come from this approach: “The Farnsworth Parabox” did this with alternate universes, Bender’s Big Score used time paradoxes (or the lack thereof), and “The Prisoner of Benda” focused on mind-switching. This time around, the topic is the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology, as Bender gains the ability to create two smaller duplicates of himself, who in turn can each create two smaller duplicates of themselves, who in turn…well, you get the idea. Also, the crew deals with Patton Oswalt’s hideous space giant, who can only take so much mockery of his appearance.

The business about smaller duplicates creating smaller duplicates is very reminiscent of Waldo, the story by Robert Heinlein which according to Colin Milburn influenced the part about creating smaller and smaller hands in Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. From a transcript of Feynman’s talk (scroll down 3/4 of the way),

A hundred tiny hands

When I make my first set of slave “hands” at one-fourth scale, I am going to make ten sets. I make ten sets of “hands,” and I wire them to my original levers so they each do exactly the same thing at the same time in parallel. Now, when I am making my new devices one-quarter again as small, I let each one manufacture ten copies, so that I would have a hundred “hands” at the 1/16th size.

The ‘grey goo’ scenario was first proposed by K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation. He has distanced himself from some of his original assertions about ‘grey goo’ and there is still debate as to the plausibility of the  scenario.

From a more technical perspective, Feynman, Heinlein and Benderama present a top-down engineering scenario where one continually makes things smaller and smaller as opposed to the increasingly popular bottom-up engineering scenario where one mimics biological processes in an effort to promote self-assembly.

I’m not sure I’d call the science in the episode, ‘outlandish but plausible’ as it seems old-fashioned to me both with regard to the science and the humour. Still the episode seems to offer some  gentle fun on a topic that usually lends itself to ‘end of the earth’ scenarios so it’s nice to see the change in tone.

Nano Science Cafe workshop starts and other NISE Net tidbits

I signed up for an online workshop on how to host and produce a Nano Science Café that the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net) holds. It started this Monday and so far we’ve been introducing ourselves (approximately 80 people are signed up) and people are sharing ideas about how to hold these events successfully.  Most of the participants are located in the US although there are two Canucks (me and someone from Ontario). Of course, not everyone has introduced themselves yet.

There’s a blog posting by Larry Bell about NISE Net’s increasing focus on nano’s societal implications,

Just about a year ago NISE Net launched an expanded collaboration with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and you’ll hear more about upcoming activities in the months ahead. The conversation started when staff from seven science centers brought cart demos and stage presentations to the S.NET conference in Seattle on Labor Day weekend last year. S.NET is a new professional society for the study of nanoscience and emerging technologies in areas of the social sciences and humanities. I was a little naive and thought the participants were all social scientists, but learned that many were historians, political scientists, philosophers, and ethicists and really not social scientists.

I’m not entirely certain what to make of either NISE Net’s interest or S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) since this first meeting seems to have be focused primarily on hands-on demos and public outreach initiatives. There will be a 2nd annual S.NET meeting in 2010 (from the conference info.),

Second Annual Conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies

Darmstadt, Germany – Sept 29 to Oct 2, 2010

(Wednesday afternoon 2pm through Saturday afternoon 4pm)

The plenary speakers and program committee lists a few names I’ve come across,

This year’s plenary speakers are Armin Grunwald, Richard Jones [has written a book about nanotechnology titled Soft Machines and maintains a blog also titled Soft Machines], Andrew Light, Bernard Stiegler, and Jan Youtie.

Program Committee

Diana Bowman (Public Health and Law, University of Melbourne, Australia)

Julia Guivant (Sociology and Political Science, Santa Catarina, Brazil)

David Guston (Political Science/Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State University, USA) [guest blogged for Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science]

Barbara Herr Harthorn (Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Sociology/Center for Nanotechnology in Society,University of California Santa Barbara, USA)

Brice Laurent (Sociology, Mines ParisTech, France)

Colin Milburn (English, University of California Davis, USA)[has proposed a nanotechnology origins story which pre-dates Richard Feynman’s famous speech, There’s plenty of room at the bottom]

Cyrus Mody (History, Rice University, United USA)

Alfred Nordmann (Philosophy, nanoOffice, NanoCenter, Technische Universität Darmstadt and University of South Carolina – chair)

Ingrid Ott (Economics, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany – co-chair)

Arie Rip (Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Twente, Netherlands) [read a nano paper where he introduced me to blobology and this metaphor for nanotechnology ‘furniture of the world’]

Ursula Weisenfeld (Business Administration, Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany)

This looks promising and I wish the good luck with the conference.

As far conferences go, there’s another one for the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) in Hawaii, Oct 3 – 5, 2010, which will feature some NISE Net sessions and workshops . You can check out the ASTC conference details here.

Here’s the monthly NISE Net nano haiku,

Kit kit kit kit kit kit kit
There are no nodes now.

by Anders Liljeholm of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Those of you who may not remember that our regional hubs used to be call nodes (or those looking to brush up on their NISE Net vocabulary in general) can check out the NISE Net Glossary in the nisenet.org catalog.

Plenty of Room at the Bottom’s 50th anniversary; new advance in nanoassembly; satirizing the copyright wars; China’s social media map

There’s plenty of room at the bottom, Richard Feynman’s December 29, 1959 talk for the American Physical Society is considered to be the starting point or origin for nanotechnology and this December marks its 50th anniversary. Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of South Carolina NanoCenter, has an interesting commentary about it (on Nanowerk) and he poses the question, would nanotechnology have existed without Richard Feynman’s talk? Toumey answers yes. You can read the commentary here.

In contrast to Toumey’s speculations, there’s  Colin Milburn (professor at University of California, Davis) who in his essay, Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science, suggests that nanotechnology originated in science fiction. You can read more about Milburn, find the citations for the essay I’ve mentioned, and/or download three of his other essays from here.

Ting Xu and her colleagues at the US Dept. of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a new technique for self-assembling nanoparticles. From the news item on Physorg.com,

“Bring together the right basic components – nanoparticles, polymers and small molecules – stimulate the mix with a combination of heat, light or some other factors, and these components will assemble into sophisticated structures or patterns,” says Xu. “It is not dissimilar from how nature does it.”

More details are available here.

TechDirt featured a clip from This hour has 22 minutes, a satirical Canadian comedy tv programme, which pokes fun at the scaremongering which features mightily in discussions about copyright. You can find the clip here on YouTube.

I’ve been meaning to mention this tiny item from Fast Company (by Noah Robischon) about China’s social media. From the news bit,

The major players in the U.S. social media world can be counted on one hand: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn. Not so in China, where the country’s 300 million online users have a panoply of popular social networks to choose from–and Facebook doesn’t even crack the top 10.

Go here to see the infographic illustrating China’s social media landscape.

Happy weekend!