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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 14:58 GMT
Tiny science is lost on UK public
Glasses, BBC
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Nanotechnology is a total mystery to most people, an opinion poll reveals.

The BMRB survey shows just 29% of the public claim to have heard of it, while only 19% are able to give nanotech a definition, whether accurate or not.

The science is an emerging field in which new materials or devices are constructed by manipulating individual, or groups of, atoms or molecules.

It could lead to a range of materials with novel properties; to new drug delivery systems and smaller computers.

The full potential is only just being explored by researchers.

The poll was carried out for the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, which have a working group reviewing the potential impacts of nanotechnology.

No surprise

The group was set up after concerns were raised in media reports about the possible dangers particles engineered on the nano-scale - a nanometre is a billionth of a metre - pose to people's health.

Science fiction writers, notably Michael Crichton, have also floated the idea that "nanobots" could run amok, turning the world into a "grey goo".

Most people, though, have little idea what nanotech is - for better or worse.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, a member of the working group on nanotechnology, said: "Nanotechnology involves studying and working with matter at an ultra-small scale, and a nanometre is just one-millionth of a millimetre in length.

"It is not really a shock to discover that most people have not heard about nanotechnology, because it is still a relatively young field."

Of those who are able to offer a definition of nanotechnology, the survey found 68% said it would make things better in the future.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering have also jointly published the results of two workshops conducted by BMRB with the public to explore their views in more depth.

These found that people responded both positively and negatively when the concept of nanotechnology was explained to them.

There was a view that the smaller length scale which nanotechnology works on would lead to smaller goods, such as computers, and would mean better performance and usability.

Participants were excited by the medical possibilities arising from nanotechnology and also responded favourably to potential uses in materials and cosmetics.

However, greater miniaturisation due to nanotechnology also prompted suspicions about the use of surveillance equipment and loss of privacy, whilst others expressed concerns about how much the development of nanotechnology would cost the UK.

Participants drew a parallel with GM when considering the ethical implications of nanotechnology because of the perception that both involve changes at the most fundamental level to form something that does not occur in nature.

Both GM and nanotechnology could be seen as "messing with nature" in a specific way by "manipulating the building blocks of nature". They expressed concerns about whether scientists are trying to "play God".

Not so extraordinary

Materials fabricated on the nano-scale have novel properties not displayed in normal, large-scale crystalline solids or glasses of the same chemical composition.

Nanophase materials, as they are often called, have these unusual electrical and optical properties because of the very precise way in which their atoms are arranged.

By carefully controlling particle sizes, it is possible, for example, to make "superplastic" ceramics that stretch like chewing gum and liquids that are magnetic.

Scientists say they have only just begun to consider how they might exploit these amazing properties but they warn that many potential applications have been overhyped.

Real uses include the more mundane - such as stay-clean glass, more efficient catalysts, and improved techniques for biomedical imaging.

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30 Oct 03  |  Technology
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08 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature
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12 Jun 03  |  Technology
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28 Apr 03  |  Science/Nature
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27 Jan 03  |  Science/Nature

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