Nano Day and the Obligation of Stewardship

I was walking on a beautiful day through a section of Penn I rarely visit and ran headlong into nanotechnology. I rubbed my head and remembered the last time this happened — it was just as startling.

First off, you may have seen the spectacular new Singh Center for Nanotechnology at 32nd and Walnut that is part of Penn’s creep back toward Center City.  This was a giant reminder that nanotechnology is moving right along. It may be about tiny things, but it is not a tiny matter.

Then a little farther down my route home, I went through “science land” near the Rittenhouse Lab and there was a banner over the walkway advertising Nano Day at NANODAY_11_12x3Penn. It is designed to get people into nanotechnology. The high schoolers can make posters and win a prize! I paused and looked at the sign, trying to remember why nanites scare me (thanks Star Trek) and then had to pause a bit longer in awe of the millions of dollars available to spend on a very exciting piece of architecture and the capacity Penn has at hand to round up young people for the latest indoctrination.

 In a move that would have made Gutenberg's head explode, Israeli scientists have printed the entire Old Testament onto a silicon chip that is only 1/1000th of an inch square—tinier than a pinhead. Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa

In a move that would have made Gutenberg’s head explode, Israeli scientists have printed the entire Old Testament onto a silicon chip that is only 1/1000th of an inch square—tinier than a pinhead.

Tiny little machines might do all sorts of wonders — like reassemble the molecules of your trash into a T-bone steak, thus eliminating feedyards and dumps. Plus, as you can see, it can already put the Old Testament on the head of a pin. But I will not dwell on the benefits. In a world where ethics are negotiated after the disaster is well under way (cue the melting glaciers), I will skip over the benefits and go right to the scary applications that are almost inevitable.

Weapons are an obvious negative use of nanotechnology. Simply extending today’s weapon capabilities by miniaturizing guns, explosives, and electronic components of missiles would be deadly enough. However, with nanotechnology, armies could also develop “disassemblers” to attack physical structures or even biological organisms at the molecular level. A similar horror would be if general purpose disassemblers got loose in the environment and started disassembling every molecule they encountered. This is known as “The Gray Goo Scenario.” Furthermore, if nanomachines were created to be self replicating and there were a problem with their limiting mechanism, they would multiply endlessly like viruses. Even without considering the extreme disaster scenarios of nanotechnology, we can find plenty of potentially harmful uses for it. It could be used to erode our freedom and privacy; people could use molecular sized microphones, cameras, and homing beacons to monitor and track others. The abilities would give us god-like powers, as if we needed more. The government is creating them and has no non-government regulation; there are no generally recognized design guidelines, just a rush to do stuff — I am sure I am not the only one that alarms.

The United Methodists summed up what a good Christian response to all of these scary facts might be. It is based on a call to stewardship. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1) — this means that in every scientific venture, including but not limited to nanotechnology, we are dealing with something that belongs to someone else.  That fact calls for a certain respect, humility – even awe.  As one discovers the mechanisms that drive the created universe, one is walking on sacred ground.

Another important response is to assert that people don’t own discoveries. We are still getting over Columbus claiming ownership of North America when he “discovered’ it. We sure don’t need the flag of some biological research corporation planted on the genes God created to guide our bodies! What’s more, if the government funds the discovery, we all own it, for sure. So we’d better hurry up and decide what part of the industry is obligated to the public good before the corporatocracy privatizes nanotechnology.

We also need to talk about power. Huge investments, government encouragement, super-educated scientists working relative secrecy lead to a lot of power and the corruption that goes with it.  For instance, we need to keep teaching people who apply research that “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.” The “dominion” that God gives us over the earth, implies responsibility, not just power.

Even more, this stewardship of God’s creation has all sorts of conditions based on our ongoing relationship with God. One must ask the question, “What does God want to do with nanotechnology?” As of yet, the government has not even set up the typical regulations that accompany most new technologies; so they haven’t even got to “What does the government (which ought to be “What do the people…”) want to do with this new capability?” much less “What might God have to say about it?” Nanotechnology could be well on its way to becoming another fallen power and principality, another “power  of this dark world”  that consumes the resources of many and benefits only a few. The philosophy that got the United States organized (for the benefit of the few who organized it, by and large) assumes that humans and their commercial enterprises, if left alone, will do the right thing. We are awaiting science to prove that assumption, I guess.

« ...It looks like a single flower bud, but it's actually an entire quick-growth forest with tens of millions of "trees" in the cluster. You can't see them, but each tree is a single-wall carbon nanotube, roughly 3 angstroms across and 2 millimeters tall...» (Paul Marshall)

« …It looks like a single flower bud, but it’s actually an entire quick-growth forest with tens of millions of “trees” in the cluster. You can’t see them, but each tree is a single-wall carbon nanotube, roughly 3 angstroms across and 2 millimeters tall…» (Paul Marshall)

I am amazed again and again at what the scientists can do now. Things develop so quickly that I often run into them after they are fully grown rather than tripping over them when they are small. You may feel the same way about nanotechnology — a surprisingly big thing with a big building in your neighborhood about which you know little. Maybe the nanites are not colonizing my cells right now, but the academic discipline that might unleash them has planted its flag quite  dramatically nearby and the natives are being infected with the new bug even as we speak. Can we get Penn to practice good stewardship? I doubt that they feel like Jesus can even be considered, maybe even legally, during the board’s dialogue! But we can try — and shouldn’t we?


About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, PhD in MFT from Eastern University.
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