Why Elon Musk was dead wrong to tell me nanotechnology is BS

Last week Tesla billionaire Elon Musk launched a bizarre Twitter tirade against the media, as part of which he ended up @-ing everyone from Jemaine Clement to Michelle Dickinson. Here the NZ scientist explains why she leapt to the defence of a fellow nanotechnologist

Ah, Twitter, that digital echo chamber where you can keep up with or have conversations with people you may or may not know in real life. It’s a fabulous place to chat in real time to people who may be thousands of miles away as if you were all in the same room.

A couple of days ago Evan Hadfield, son of Canadian astronaut commander Chris Hadfield, sent me a Twitter message with a screenshot showing Elon Musk tweeting to Australian molecular biologist Upulie Divisekera that the term “nano”, which she had used in her bio, was 100% synonymous with bullshit.

As a nanotechnologist (an engineer who studies the properties of materials that are 100 nanometres or less in size) this obviously raised my hackles. Also I’ve known Upulie in the virtual space for years, ever since she co-founded the science Twitter programme Real Scientists, where scientists from around the world take turns to run the Twitter account for a week and communicate what they are up to. The co-director of New Zealand’s MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Nicola Gaston, has just finished a week in charge of the account.

Now, Elon Musk has a huge profile and following. When he tweets, thousands of his 21 million followers tweet back to him. This is why when I saw him reply to somebody I knew in a way that mocked the research field she is currently a doctoral candidate in it seemed out of line to me.

As a nanotechnologist I obviously believe that “nano” is a thing and have been researching materials with nanoscale features for almost two decades. Technically us science types define nano as a size scale where one nanometre is a billionth of a metre.

I tweeted a reply to Elon, including a screenshot of the dismissive tweet that he had sent to Upulie, and said that calling nano BS wasn’t helpful as it was an “integral part of current and future technology”.

Feeling like I had said my piece and defended my Twitter friend – and my science discipline – I carried on with my day, figuring that my tweet would get lost in the thousands of others in Elon’s replies.

Apparently not. Elon tweeted back: “Nano applies to everything & therefore means nothing. Definitely indicates bs. Sorry.” He then included an Uncyclopedia link which claimed that nano is just advertising BS.

Elon wasn’t really sorry. He defended his bizarre views with an odd satirical link, meaning I still don’t know if he was being sincere or not.

I tend not to take things on Twitter too seriously, as too often I’ve seen tiny things blow up, with armies of tweeters taking to the online battleground in ways they never would in real life. What did bother me was Elon’s apparent indifference to how his dismissive tweet could negatively affect the female graduate he directed it at. Studying for a PhD is hard enough without somebody coming in and telling you that the subject you have dedicated years to is BS. Now Upulie is an amazing, confident researcher who was able to stand up to the flurry of abuse she has been receiving online. Elon didn’t know that, however, and nor did he seem to care about any repercussions.

What’s so ironic is that the majority of Elon’s businesses – from his SpaceX spacecraft to his battery powered Tesla cars – only work thanks to nanotechnology.

So is nanotechnology actually a thing?

In 1959 physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk to an American Physical Society meeting entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. In it he discussed a future process in which scientists would be able to manipulate individual atoms and molecules to create unique properties in materials. This concept was coined “nanotechnology” by Professor Norio Taniguchi a decade later, as technology improved and equipment such as scanning tunnelling microscopes were developed that enabled scientists to view the shape of individual atoms.

Although the term nanotechnology is relatively new and is typically used to describe materials or structures with designed features that range in the 1-100nm size range, its properties have been known for a long time.

If you own gold jewellery you will be familiar with its golden colour because we are used to seeing gold at the macro-scale or a scale that we can see with our eyes. But gold can appear blue or red when the gold particles are reduced in size to the nanoscale thanks to a phenomenon called surface plasmon resonance. Medieval artisans experimented with gold chloride in their molten glass art and found that it added a beautiful red tint. This led them to produce some of the world’s most incredible bright red stained glass windows that decorate cathedrals around the world. What they probably didn’t realise at the time was that the red colour was coming from the gold nanoparticles that had formed in the glass which acted as quantum dots to reflect red light.

These unique properties that happen when materials are really tiny are what have allowed scientists and engineers like myself to develop materials that show very different physical, chemical, mechanical and optical properties to their bulk or larger form.

This has led to many advancements in the scientific world as researchers learn to tune these tiny materials to give the properties that they need.

Nanotechnology is in a huge number of things that you regularly use, from the tiny titanium dioxide nanoparticles in your sunscreen to protect you from the sun’s UV rays to the conductive nanowires in your smartphones touchscreen that you press on every day. The technology is not only making electronic devices smaller and smarter, it’s also powering more efficient solar panels for sustainable energy collection and more powerful lithium-ion batteries to store and release this energy from. With its huge surface area to volume ratio, nanotechnology is helping deliver drugs in a more targeted way, with fewer active ingredients needed, and helping doctors to visualise tumours and other abnormal tissue growths by glowing or fluorescing in the body.

So I’m sorry Elon, but “nano” is not BS. It’s actually a fascinating field that people like myself, Nicola and Upulie have spent years researching to help create positive new solutions to global challenges in healthcare, electronics and sustainable energy, to name just a few.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research

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