Sciency Words: Nanotechnology

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Caltech entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (here’s a transcript).  In that lecture, Feynman said:

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.  It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.

This is often cited as the point at which the science of nanotechnology was born, but it would be a few decades yet before the word nanotechnology came into use.

American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited with coining the term in reference to machines that would operate on a nanometer scale—on the scale of atoms, in other words.  Drexler envisioned what he called nano-assemblers which could maneuver about among atoms, picking individual atoms up and sticking them together like Lego blocks.

There was, and still is, a lot of debate among scientists about whether of not this could really work.  Atoms, in a sense, have minds of their own.  They’re not going to sit passively and let us do whatever we like with them.  You can’t circumvent the usual chemical processes that allow molecules to form.  Rather than sticking Lego bricks together, it might be better to compare a nano-assembler’s job to herding cats.

But for the purposes of this post, I’m going not going to say anything more about the actual science of nanotechnology, because there’s an interesting story to tell about the word itself.  While the word may have been coined by a scientist, it was laypeople (especially the media) that embraced it and turned it into a popular scientific term.  As explained in this paper from Interdisciplinary Science Reviews:

Interestingly, there was no process of consensus in the scientific community that nanotechnology was to be the term to describe the science, but then no one had come up with a competing word and it rather succinctly described what the activity was all about.  Like clothing fashion, however, the term rapidly became the norm without anyone actually stopping to ponder where it came from and why.

The word nanotechnology nicely demonstrates the role that the media can have in spreading a new scientific term and thus, in turn, influencing the parlance of the scientific community who came up with the science in the first place.

So if not for the media and public interest, maybe nanotechnology would not have become as well established a term as it is.  This is important because universities have established departments of nanotechnology, and grant money is allocated specifically for nanotechnology research.  That might not have happened if the word weren’t so well known.

However, the case could also be made that media attention has held nanotechnology research back.  But we’ll talk about that in next week’s episode of Sciency Words.

4 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Nanotechnology

  1. The interesting thing is that nanomachines actually already exist. It’s essentially what proteins are. Arguably the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system is nanotechnology. So the question isn’t whether they’re possible, but what’s possible with them.

    They do have to follow the laws of physics, including in their core mechanisms, which does rule out a lot of the sci-fi versions. For example, an individual nanomachine couldn’t have enough substrate to hold a sophisticated computer. (At least unless there are undiscovered structures smaller than subatomic particles.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there was something in the paper I referenced here, or maybe it was in the thing I’m referencing for next week’s post, about how something like CRISPR sort of stretches our definition of what a machine is. Is an enzyme or a protein “mechanical” in the way most people understand that word?

      I thought it was an interesting linguistics question, but you’re right: for all practical purposes, CRISPR really is nanotech.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Proteins, as natural evolved mechanisms, do fall outside of what many people consider to be a machine, since they’re not a result of human engineering.
        CRISPR/Cas9 blurs the distinction since it involves altering viruses so that they target and remove specified genes.

        But these nano-sized mechanisms do work at the molecular level using molecular chemistry, which is built on top of electromagnetic interactions. It seems like any engineered technology would have to work using similar mechanisms.


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