The Small Bang of Nanotechnologies Publication date : January 13, 2011
A physicist specialising in questions of time, Étienne Klein is the author of many works of scientific popularisation and the director of the Materials Science Research Laboratory of the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), in Saclay, near Paris.
Nanotechnologies no longer concern just the manipulation of matter, one atom at a time: they now incorporate all the techniques that allow the manufacture of tiny objects with a precision equal to one billionth of a metre, regardless of whether only a few or billions of atoms are in play. Nanotechnologies now cover a wide range of very different activities, from state-of-the-art electronics to the latest biotechnologies, and include the development of “intelligent” materials and the production of ultra-fine powders.
The potential (real or supposed) of nanotechnologies is so vast and so attractive that for the past several years they have been drawing huge investments, and are thus regarded as the new horizon by research and development policymakers. Since nanotechnologies will doubtless concern every industrial sector, from the most traditional to the most high-tech, they are being associated with a “revolution of our civilisation” that could spectacularly change how we live, work, communicate, produce, consume, control, and carry out surveillance.
Because of the perspectives they open up, and the upheavals they render possible, nanotechnologies must immediately face up to the question of values, whether moral or spiritual. Nanotechnologies also make us re-examine our idea of society, of what it should be and of what it should never become.