Herd Mentality Propelling Nanotechnology


Because my phone hardly stopped ringing, I thought it would be worthwhile to spend a few more words on this topic.

The Department of Agriculture is focused on the production and quality of the nation’s food supply. It is part of the department’s mission to ensure that each and every American has access to an abundant variety of food products and the means to counter the effects of excessive indulgence in those food products.

In managing food, the department follows the herd mentality in much the same way herds of cattle routinely boarded trains a century ago en route to the North & Sheffield Commons slaughterhouse. Simply put, whatever nanotechnology is, everyone wants a piece of it.

The NNI has attempted to come to grips with a definition of nanotechnology, which reminds me of the definition of organic chemistry. Originally, organic chemistry was supposed to concern itself with those chemicals and chemical processes that were somehow involved with the processes of living organisms.

As it matured in the middle 19th century, organic chemistry lost its attachment to living organisms and redefined itself as the chemistry of carbon and its compounds. Essentially, reality interfered with the original ideas. Nanotechnology has matured to the point in which its fundamental meanings have similarly evolved.

N. Taniguchi first used the term “nanotechnology” in 1974. He defined it as “production technology to get the extra high-accuracy and ultra-fine dimensions, i.e. the preciseness and fineness on the order of 1 nanometer.” Such precision proved to be politically unacceptable in the game of grantsmanship. It was simply too small to be funded.

Ohio native Thomas Kuhn set the stage for what happened next. Kuhn, who is a renowned philosopher of science, is most noted for his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. He suggested that typical scientists are not objective and independent thinkers and are instead conservative individuals who accept what they have been taught and apply their knowledge to solving problems that their theories dictate.

He went on to suggest that the advancement of science can only occur as one generation of younger scientists replaces older generations who have the courtesy to retire or die.

If we remember our hero Richard Feynman, he suggested in 1959 that manipulating matter at the atomic scale was both possible and useful. By Kuhn’s definitions, Feynman created a new paradigm. Still, it took the die off of a generation of scientists before Feynman’s concepts achieved serious recognition.

After a new generation of scientists achieved success in implementing Feynman’s core concepts, Kuhn’s model said that the current crop of scientists is by definition a bunch of conservative individuals who accept what they have been taught.

In short, nanotechnology has acquired the following of the herd, which of course makes the Department of Agriculture politically correct in pursuing nanotechnology research.
The problem with the herd mentality is the Kuhnian idea that scientists solve the problems that their theories dictate. While the NNI may clearly dictate what nanotechnology is supposed to be, as the money courses through the veins of various federal agencies, the dominant local paradigms give a distinct hometown flavor to what nanotechnology becomes. For example:

The Department of Defense thinks nanotechnology will equip the foot soldier of the future with uniforms and gear that can heal them.
The Department of Energy thinks nanotechnology will build better solar cells and batteries.
The National Institutes of Health thinks nanotechnology will build better lab-on-a-chip devices.
The Department of the Treasury thinks nanotechnology will make counterfeit proof currency.
The intelligence community thinks nanotechnology will make insect-sized mobile surveillance vehicles.
The list goes on and on. When you take a look at the physical size of various agency nanotechnology expenditures, the targeted outcomes span nine orders of magnitude from 10-9 to 10-0 meters and the smallest feature sizes span five orders of magnitude from 10-9 to 10-4 meters.

According to the NNI, the acceptable range of nanotechnology is supposed to be anything smaller than 10-7 meters. If you remember Kuhn, of course this makes a lot of sense. The sloppier the definition, the more funding is available. The neat thing about government process is if you’re off by a factor of 1,000 or 1 million, it can easily get lost in a footnote to a footnote in the Federal deficit ledger.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ardesta (one of the leading venture capital firms interested in nanotechnology) struggled with this issue before finally realizing (from the investor’s point of view) that they really didn’t care what nanotechnology is supposed to be. They completely sidestep the problem by stating: “Ardesta has established a leadership position in the emerging field of small tech” (to which I say “bravo!”).

One of Ardesta’s subsidiary companies is a small magazine called Small Times, which tries to bring a business perspective to MEMS, microsystems and nanotechnology. As far as money is concerned, nanotechnology can be defined as anything too small to see without a microscope that has at least one investor attached.

Next week, we’ll look at some small regional companies that exist in the nanotechnology (I mean, the small tech space).