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Microscopic Doctors and Molecular Black Bags: Science Fiction's Prescription for Nanotechnology and Medicine

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 20, Number 1, Spring 2001
pp. 55-70 | 10.1353/lm.2001.0009

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Literature and Medicine 20.1 (2001) 55-70


Science fiction provides not only an opportunity for imagination, discovery, and invention, but also a medium to explore the ramifications of science and technology, including ethical, philosophical, political, economic, behavioral, and personal issues. Recent works of science fiction and contemporary scientific research agree that nanotechnology will significantly influence our future. Literary and scientific opinions differ primarily with regards to when nanotechnology arrives, how great an impact it produces, and whether or not it represents a panacea or an uncontrollable nightmare. Science fiction has already written a new prescription for medicine in the twenty-first century, and its name is nanotechnology. It does not appear that it will be very long before scientists begin delivering it.

Nanotechnology can best be described as "the art and science of building complex, practical devices with atomic precision." It is a type of molecular technology in contrast to our current bulk technology. The power of altering or creating structures by manipulating atoms and molecules is the promise of nanotechnology, which involves the fabrication of materials and devices so tiny that they are measured in nanometers (billionths of a meter in size or a scale of 10-9). In fact, one nanometer is only about six carbon atoms wide. Many different disciplines will contribute to nanotechnology, including molecular biology, chemistry, physics, robotics, engineering, and computer science.

Embraced by many recent works of science fiction as a breakthrough that will revolutionize not only health care but also the very way we live, nanotechnology has been proclaimed by some commentators as a fundamental element of science fiction's future: "In science fiction...nanotechnology is already here, an accepted part of the consensus vision among sf writers as to what the future is going to be like -- to the point where, if your future society doesn't feature the use of nanotech, you have to explain why it doesn't in order to give your future world any credibility at all."

The idea of molecular manipulation and miniaturization seems firmly entrenched in contemporary science fiction, but the concept of nanotechnology seems to have evolved from much older works of literature. "Waldo," a story published in 1942 by Robert Heinlein (under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald), foreshadows science fiction's current infatuation with the possibility of microscopic technology. This story describes robotic gizmos small enough to repair tissue. As early as the 1950s, science fiction already postulated one key element of nanotechnology. Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety" depicts robotic devices that self-replicate. Unfortunately, these same devices also kill human beings. Isaac Asimov popularized the concept of miniaturization with his novel Fantastic Voyage. Published in 1966, it chronicles the miniaturization of a crew of scientists and their nuclear-powered ship, which are injected into the body of a man. Their mission -- to destroy a blood clot in his brain-- was as successful as the novel, which was made into a motion picture. Fantastic Voyage proposed the idea that miniaturization represented a unique technology capable of repairing the human body internally, especially in situations where conventional surgery was ineffective or posed unacceptable risks.

Perhaps inspired by Asimov's early vision of a microscopic technology capable of performing medical miracles, recent works of science fiction have further elaborated on the promise of nanotechnology. Some contemporary authors imagine a future where self-replicating, molecular machines cruise through the human bloodstream, patrolling our bodies for signs of disease. These microscopic devices would have the ability to enter cells and detect structural, degenerative, infectious, and malignant changes. Such microscopic machines might be capable of neutralizing or destroying offenders such as parasites, bacteria, viruses, and cancerous cells. Genetic mutations could be repaired inside the cell nucleus. Even more astonishingly, these nanodevices would be able to recycle atoms to create new molecular machines and provide construction materials for normal cells and the process of healing. If the notion of billions of microscopic robots circulating throughout your body doesn't give you the shivers, then surely the idea that these same subcellular inventions might one day have the power to eradicate cancer, cure infections, and even reverse aging will give you goose bumps.

It was, however, the musings of...

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