‘Magic nano’ and whistling in the dark

So a ‘frankenfoods’ situation is difficult to manufacture in the same way that it’s difficult to manufacture any fad or craze or panic. A case in point is ‘magic nano’, a situation I first heard about in a December 2007 webcast from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. A reporter who works with NPR, Nell Greenfieldboyce, asked the audience if they’d heard of it. When blank incomprehension met her question she went on to explain that  a cleaning product, marketed and sold in Germany, called ‘magic nano’ had occasioned concern a few years back in the nanotech community. Someone had gotten sick after using the product and, initially, there was a lot of news coverage in Europe along with some interest elsewhere. In the end, it all came to naught. It seems (Greenfieldboyce had been unable to confirm this definitively) that there was no nanotechnology component to the product and that the ‘nano’ was strictly for marketing purposes. For most people the story is dead; no one has heard of ‘magic nano’. Except for the people who keep mentioning the story in workshops and other events.

I heard the ‘magic nano’ story again in July 2008 at a local nano breakfast event that featured, Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, from ICON (International Council on Nanotechnology) and Rice University. she was talking about health and safety and asked us if we’d heard of ‘magic nano’. Again, there was the blank incomprehension and so she told the story. She then implied that the ‘magic nano’ story’s lack of impact proves that there won’t be any nanotechnology panics on the order of what happened with biotechnology, i.e. ‘frankenfoods’. That is possible but the failure of the ‘magic nano’ story is not evidence to support the conclusion. In other words, it’s whistling in the dark.

There can be many, many failures before something catches the public’s attention and, if it turns to panic, no amount of thoughtful commentary before or after  will help. And, sometimes the public is right and the brakes do need to be applied.

I do think public engagement/consultation/understanding of science projects and exercises are useful but they aren’t prophylactic treatments.

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