Q. What is Nanotechnology?

A. It is a breathtaking area of scientific inquiry that is going to redefine life on earth. It is about working with the building blocks of matter – at a nano scale – one billionth of a meter.

Q. What are the implications of Nantoechnology?

A. It is going to be the basis of the next industrial revolution.

Q. Is there any need for regulation of nanotechnology in order to manage the various health and environmental risks that have been identified by groups like the Royal Society?

A. Oh, well, you see, strictly speaking, Nanotechnology doesn’t really exist…

In the language of politics, drivel, gobbledegook and nonsense abound.  Weasel words allow politicians and decisions makers to get out of the tightest of corners and the language used to describe nanotechnology is no exception. To quote from George Orwell from his classic ‘the politics of language’, written in 1946 –  “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

Practically speaking, nanotechnology is a slippery creature to define. At one level it is simple enough – anything under, say, 100 nanometres in size falls under the nano umbrella. At another level, does this then mean that we should regulate incidental nanoparticles (such as vehicular emissions) or naturally occurring nanoparticles (the relatively few that have been identified)?

What we do know, is that it isn’t OK for industry to squirm out of the need for regulation by defining nanotechnology out of existence.