Are You Helping to Build a Bomb Today?

Sept. 6, 2011
How fear-mongers can arm nano-terrorists.

Nano-terrorists mailed a dynamite-stuffed pipe-bomb to a college professor at the Monterrey Technological Institute campus in Mexico early last month. The good news: the two victims weren't badly hurt and will recover from the second degree burns they suffered.

The bad news? There's plenty. Let's start with the fact that the group's manifesto praises the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Not a big surprise from a group whose name translates "Individuals Tending Toward the Savage."

There's more. The bombers claim responsibility for similar attacks against Mexican researchers in April and May (in which no one was seriously hurt), and name five other researchers they oppose.

But I've saved the worst for last. The Mexico State Attorney General reports the group has been linked to attacks in Europe, including Spain and France and opposes nanotechnology anywhere in the world.

The shockwave has reverberated through the nano-community. Some colleges have alerted their faculty to be cautious. Colleagues have called sharing their concerns, and I know some have even taken them to government nanotechnology officials.

Fortunately, no one is in lock-down mode or headed for the bunker. I think most of them would echo the words of Ian Ferguson of the University of North Carolina, who works on nanotech projects. "Driving on the road is problematic," he told a reporter. "Today I was driving behind a truck and its tire blew out," which almost caused a crash. "Do I stop driving? No way."

So for now, anyway, the threat to life and limb seems minor. Still I'm worried. Not about real explosives so much as the verbal bombs in an escalating war of words. The terrorists' manifesto rages about "gray goo," "nano-bacteriological war," "the explosion of nano-pollution" to justify their promise to "Open fire on the development of nanotechnology and those who support it!"

What's the basis of the profound ignorance that drives their madness? I think it's painfully clear. We are. The nano-terrorists have built a movement on the wild claims, half-truths and incendiary accusations that are becoming all too common in the not-so-civil discourse about nanotech. Why are we surprised that extremists latch on to them, stir them around in their twisted minds, and then act? This is certainly not the first time outrageous words have incited extremist deeds.

Professors and researchers won't be the only victims of our destructive raging. The global economy will be a casualty, too. Nanotechnology is providing breakthrough innovation in industries from transportation to medicine, electronics to personal care. It's the powerful fuel for new products that drive manufacturing, recovery and growth. We simply can't afford to let the shouting match drown out the voices of reason.

It's time to put aside the rhetoric of supermarket tabloids and late-night news-talk shock jocks. It's time to have an adult dialog about nanotechnology and environmental issues. The subject is complex. It's not well suited to sound bites and won't yield to emotion. Our discussions should reflect that. We need facts and figures. We need reason and rationality. We need to move ahead by sensible steps and shared understanding -- as collaborators, not adversaries.

Are you ready to hear all sides of the discussion, as well as the expertise and experience that back them up? Are you ready to help the bridge-builders instead of the bomb-builders? We are responsible for the consequences of our words -- even the unintended consequences. Let's be sure we're choosing them wisely.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio.

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