Sciency Words: Zettatechnology

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:


There’s a process in linguistics called semantic generalization, whereby a word that means something specific evolves into a broader, more general meaning.  This seems to be what happened to the word nanotechnology.

American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited for coining the word nanotechnology.  For Drexler, the word referred to nano-scale robots that could grab atoms and assemble them into molecules for us: whatever molecules we wanted, whatever molecules we could imagine!

But this idea soon came under assault from two sides.  On the one side: the public and elected officials who became increasingly nervous about the grey goo scenario, another term Drexler gets credit for.

And on the other side: specialists in Drexler’s own field who liked the idea of nano-scale technologies but didn’t think nano-scale robots could ever really work.

So Drexler’s colleagues took the word he created and started using it to mean other things: things that seemed more feasible to them and that the public would find less scary.  In other words, they semantically generalized nanotechnology.  In this article from, Drexler has this to say about what happened:

I never expected that a bunch of researchers would pick up the label nanotechnology, apply it to themselves, and then try to redefine it.  That’s a shock, and it has led to a tremendous mess for everybody.

So Drexler lost his word, and as a result federal funding for nanotechnology research (as Drexler defined the term) went to other things that now also fell under the (now larger) nanotech umbrella.

Having coined not one but two new science-related terms, Drexler now came up with a third.  What he originally called nanotechnology he now started calling zettatechnology.  As explained in this news stub from AZoNano:

Since a micro-sized product of future molecular manufacturing techniques is likely to have around a sextillion (1021) distinct atomic parts [Drexler] has based the name on the prefix of that number—“zetta”.

I like this word.  Who doesn’t like words that begin with the letter Z? Unfortunately, this one doesn’t seem to have caught on.  This isn’t the first time I’ve profiled a word that didn’t quite make it. After all, the process of linguistic evolution is as much about the words that fail as the words that succeed.

Next time on Sciency Words, what do you call it when a moon has a moon?

Sciency Words: Grey Goo

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:


American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited with coining the word nanotechnology, a term which essentially made his career and his reputation.  Ironically, Drexler also created the term that, according to this article from, seems to have destroyed his career.

Nanotechnology, as Drexler envisioned it, involves nano-scale robots swimming around in a sea of atoms, assembling whatever molecules we have programmed them to build for us.  But what if we program our nano-assemblers to build more of themselves?  What if we can’t get them to stop building more of themselves?

Drexler warned of this possibility in 1986, in his book Engines of Creation. He described the growing mass of nano-assemblers as a grey goo, a blobby thing that just keeps growing and growing and growing until it consumes the whole planet.

That article from Wired is kind of dated (it’s from 2004), but the story it tells is fascinating, especially for our purposes here on Sciency Words.  It portrays Drexler as a shy, nerdy kid who grew up to be a shy, nerdy adult.  He had a revolutionary idea (nanotechnology) which propelled him to success and prestige.

But he also planted the seeds of his own downfall.  The grey goo scenario got picked up by science fiction writers and the media.  Fear and anxiety grew among the general public, and ultimately Congress cut off funding for nanotechnology, or at least they cut off funding for the kind of research Drexler wanted to do.  Drexler’s career was ruined as a result.

This sounds so much like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps the origin story of a super villain, that I can’t help but think Wired was embellishing some of the details.  Even so, words have enormous power to shape public discourse about any issue. Drexler seems to have learned that lesson.

Next time on Sciency Words, we’ll look at one more word Eric Drexler invented in an effort to salvage his vision of tiny, molecule-assembling robots.

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.