Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Dateline Today

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

The plot of Robin Cook’s new thriller on medical nanotechnology is unfolding now – April 2013. Unlike several other science-fiction narratives on the tinier than microscopic realm of nanotechnology, this page-turner is not set in some distant future. The dateline is today.

The prolific novelist’s latest offering Nano emphasises the here and now of a technology that a lot of people still imagine to be futuristic.

The plot of course has many of the ingredients of a popular thriller – an attractive and headstrong woman scientist determined to bring to light the unethical practices of a billionaire playboy businessman who heads a secretive nanotech corporation; international business deals; gangsters; spies; security devices; and the usual rollercoaster twists and turns of the storylines. But it’s not so much the story that hooks the reader but the possibilities of nanotechnology in curing medical conditions – Alzheimer’s, for one.

That the author dedicates the novel “both to the promise nanotechnology brings to medicine and to the hope that any downside will be minimal”, points to the potential of the new and emerging technology. The disclaimer about the dodgy ethics of human experiments notwithstanding, this novel is more upbeat about the ability of tiny nano-robots to destroy bacteria, viruses, and other disease-inducing organisms. This is in sharp contrast to the work of another bestselling science fiction novelist Michael Crichton who presents a far more dystopic view of nanotechnology in his novels Prey and Micro. The more recent Micro not only outlines the possibilities of nanobots annihilating the vital organs of a person without leaving a trace of the causes of death but also talks of bio-prospecting of natural resources at levels unseen by the human eye.

As we said in an earlier blog, regardless of its utopic or dystopic potential, nanotechnology is now entrenched in the present and nanoparticles are ubiquitous in several products of everyday use. Even tiny robots are already in use in medical surgeries. Yet, public understanding of this new technology is still extremely limited and this is something that science communicators and researchers alike have to take up.