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.

What Kind of Writer Do I Want to Be?

Today’s post is about a personal revelation I recently had.  You see, I spend a lot of time researching for this blog, making sure I understand what I’m talking about, and doing my best to explain it all clearly and concisely.  And all this work, in theory, is supposed to benefit my science fiction writing.

But I don’t want to write hard Sci-Fi.  I used to think science fiction existed on a spectrum from hard science fiction, where everything is super scientifically accurate (and here’s a full chapter explaining the math to prove it), to soft science fiction, where everything’s basically space wizards and technobabble magic (lol, who cares if unobtainium crystals make sense?).

I’ve since discovered another way to think about science fiction, and I find that to be more useful.  But sometimes I’m still left wondering why am I doing all this extra work?  What’s it all for if I’m not trying to write hard Sci-Fi?

Recently, I was talking with a new friend, and somehow the conversation turned to quantum physics.  I swear I wasn’t the one who brought it up!  My friend had seen a video on YouTube, and I felt the need to disillusion him of the weird quantum mysticism he’d apparently been exposed to.  I was doing my best to explain what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle actually means, and I ended up digging into what I remembered about the math.

Mathematically speaking, the momentum of a quantum particle is represented by the variable p, its position by the variable q, and the relationship between p and q is often expressed as:

pq ≠ qp

I don’t have the math skills to explain how this non-equivalency equation works.  I think it has something to do with matrices.  My high school math teacher skipped that chapter. To this day, I still haven’t got a clue how a matrix works.  I just know it’s an important concept in quantum theory.

But by this point, my friend was staring at me with a sort of dumbstruck awe, and he said: “Wow, you really do understand this stuff!”

That brought me up short.

“No, not really,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed. I couldn’t help but recollect the famous line attributed to Richard Feynman: If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.

So I told my friend about this blog and about my writing, and how I use the research I do for my blog to flesh out the story worlds in my science fiction.  And then I said something that I don’t remember ever thinking before or being consciously aware of, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true: “I just want to make sure I know enough so that I don’t make a total fool of myself in my stories.”

And that’s it.  That’s the answer I needed.  I’m okay with stretching the truth if it suits my story.  I’m okay with leaving some scientific inaccuracies in there.  I just don’t want to make a mistake so glaringly obvious to my readers (some of whom know way more about science than I do) that it ruins the believability of my story world.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing.  The fiction kind of writing, I mean.  And on Wednesday, we’ll have story time here on the blog.