Today’s science news includes the idea that scientists have created stain-free pants! I confess, my knee-jerk reaction to this news was “Wake me when they are sold at Mervyn’s for less than $100 a pair.” To my great surprise you can actually purchase them at Eddie Bauer, for a mere $10 premium. The company claims they have sold well since their introduction in 2001 — begging the question of why this is in today’s news. Shirts of similarly treated fabric are supposedly available, with jackets to follow this fall. This is clearly a boon to those who still have a propensity towards spilling things on themselves, usually at inopportune moments, such as right before a job interview.
Strictly speaking, nanotechnology is nothing more than the science of making things that are very small. Things like better skin lotions, batteries that last longer, or anti-stain coatings for fabric. The public idea of nanotech, however, includes such “flying car” ideas as microscopic robots that cure disease, and cars that can repair themselves. Nanotech is seen as “revolutionizing” everything from medical products to environmental cleanup to crime prevention. Even the government wants in on this act.
Intelligent people who you may or may not agree with, like Steve Forbes and Joe Lieberman, say this is such a clearly up and coming field that people should invest in it. Not just as individuals, but as corporations and venture capitalists and governments. They cite figures saying that it could be a $1 Trillion business in 15 years.
Others say this is a dangerous trend, which should be closely monitored, lest there be horrible unforeseen results. This is particularly true of military applications of nanotech. It does not take a tin-foil hat to see the possibility that weapons using the technology of the very small — say, pocket sized nuclear devices, or listening devices no larger than a flea, or even weapons-resistant coatings for tanks and aircraft — could be very dangerous in the “wrong” hands.
Still others think nanotech a tempest in a teapot, perhaps interesting, but not paradigm shifting. Sure, nanotech is interesting, but is it cost effective? Can it ever live up to its promises? Remember that not long ago, everyone was convinced that the Internet would change everyone’s lives in unimaginable ways. When all is said and done, the biggest change for most of us is the ability to find a startling amount of information without leaving home, and without living in a research library. The nay-sayers have a half-century of “world of tomorrow” exhibits to point to as they say that things rarely turn out exactly as planned.
I think I’d be very careful about investing in nanotech. Investors might be better off waiting for 3M and DuPont to buy out the small companies with actual viable products. In the meantime, I think I’ll see if those Eddie Bauer pants come in a 26″ inseam.