Iain M. Banks’s 2000 novel Look to Windward closes with a grisly scene of revenge. A priest, or Estodien, of a tiger-like advanced race called the Chelgrians is assassinated for his role in planning a mass-murderous terrorist attack. The instrument of vengeance is EDust, a cloud of weaponized nanoparticles that can rapidly coalesce into different forms, including, as in the following extract, that of a Chelgrian female:
Estodien Visquile opened his mouth to scream for mercy. She became insects—they represented something of a phobia for the Estodien—and poured into his throat, choking him and forcing open the route to his lungs and to his stomach. The insects packed each tiny air-sac in his lungs tight; others bulked out the Estodien’s stomach to the point of bursting and beyond, then invaded his body cavity, while others rammed down into the rest of his digestive system, forcing an explosion from his anus.
The Estodien crashed and battered about the shower cabinet lift capsule, smashing the ceramic fittings and denting the plastics. More insects streamed into his ears and forced their way around his horrified, staring eyes, burning their way into his skull while his skin crawled and writhed with the insects which had invaded his body cavity and and gone on to slide their way under his flesh.
The killing of Estodien Visquile is the most horrific use of nanotechnology I’ve encountered in fiction. EDust, as it’s explained in the novel, consists of particles smaller than 100 μm (but with the single exception of a 1-mm-long antimatter missile). “Interestingly,” the explanation continued, “the dust had originally been designed as the ultimate building material.”
Banks is not opposed to nanotechnology or other advanced technologies. Indeed, his socialist convictions led him to devise the Culture, a pan-galactic civilization of such astounding technological accomplishments that all its citizens, humanoid and AI, are free from having to earn a living.
My first news story about manmade nanoparticles appeared in Physics Today‘s October 2003 issue. As you can tell from the story’s title, “Nanoparticles locate and flag the blood vessels that nourish tumors,” the goal of the research I wrote about—treating cancer—is clearly remote from assassination.
But despite the benevolent aim of such research, nanoparticles scare the general public and worry scientists. Nanoparticles seem threatening, I think, because even the power to treat cancer implies an awesome capability that could conceivably be bent toward evil ends. What’s more, nanoparticles, like alpha particles and other kinds of ionizing radiation, are invisible.
Reassuring the public that the nanoparticles they might encounter are safe depends on establishing and following strong standards. That effort is under way and is far from easy. Nanotechnolgy Standards (Springer, 2011) contains a chapter on nanomaterial toxicity, which describes the challenge:
While chemical structure is the most important consideration when testing conventional chemicals, nanomaterials are much more complex structures where multiple physico-chemical characteristics are likely to play a key role in defining a nanomaterial’s potential toxicity and hazard. For example, researchers have reported relationships between nanomaterial toxicity and parameters such as size, shape, aggregation state and surface chemistry.
Marie Sk≈Çodowska-Curie died of a disease, aplastic anemia, that is thought to have been caused by her prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation. Safety standards that might have protected her didn’t exist at the time. We know more about nanoparticles than Curie did about radiation. Researchers who work with nanoparticles can presume the particles are toxic and guard against accidental inhalation or ingestion.
The case of medical nanoparticles is different because it involves not just researchers but also patients, doctors, nurses, other hospital workers, and the environment itself. In a September 2011 news story for Nature, Jessica Marshall noted that roughly 250 nanomedicine treatments are currently being tested on humans.
Marshall’s story was prompted by the release of a preliminary set of comprehensive recommendations for the oversight of nanomedicine. The final recommendations are expected before the end of the year.