Nano Ethics In The Shower

Religion and Ethics Making Friends With Science

Religion and Ethics Making Friends With Science

Perhaps the sanest view of nanotechnologies so far came from Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, a two minute slot while I’m in the shower giving an ethical and religious view of recent events. Today, Vicar’s Wife and Author Anne Atkins argued that scientific curiosity is as essential to our human nature as caring for the poor, and used the recent fuss about nanotechnology as an illustration.You can listen or see the script here.

Thought provoking and unexpected.


Thought for the Day, 13 November 2008

Anne Atkins

Some time ago I was on Question Time – nervously hoping the presenter would forget I was there, as one does – when an audience member asked if we weren’t shocked at the money spent on the current space programme with so many starving in the world. Somewhat to my surprise, most of the panel agreed. I confess I’m pretty scientifically illiterate, but I do have scientists in my family, one of whom had punched the air that very morning at the probe landing on Mars… and his unfamiliar excitement had infected me.

Feeding the poor: exploring Mars. It must never be an either or. We’re put on this earth as stewards, and our irrepressible, inexhaustible scientific curiosity is as essential to our human nature as is creating beautiful music or caring for the vulnerable. The day we stop searching, ever-increasing the wonder and understanding of scientific knowledge, we might as well cease to be.

There have been lurid accounts, Evan Davies said yesterday, of the earth turning into gray goo thanks to nanotechnology; and while Today listeners may be too sophisticated for such implausible gruesome detail, it’s not that far removed from the superstitious mistrust we have of anything we don’t understand. Consider the connotations of “nuclear”. In truth, we know splitting the atom can be used for good or ill. And yet hospital scans which use nuclear magnetic resonance are referred to as “magnetic resonance imaging”, so fearful are we of the very word.

?????, Greek, means dwarf… and, oddly, cheesecake. The Latin, nanus, referred to pygmy peoples and bantam chickens. I once asked my son whether nanotechnology is dangerous, and he said this was about as meaningful as asking whether lunch is dangerous. Any discovery must be treated with respect, whether a new land or a chemical substance. Scientists understand this, and in nanotechnology exercise scrupulous responsibility.

Over the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge are the words, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein” – a manifesto for the scientific impulse. I happen to know this because the student who requested they be put back over the new Cavendish also taught me to read my bible: my brother, coincidentally now Professor of Nanomaterials in Oxford.

Like so many Gospel-believing scientists, he studies the world God has given him, rejoicing at future breakthroughs in his discipline. Chemotherapy, for instance, is a miserable treatment, indiscriminately attacking the whole body with its ghastly side-effects. The time may soon come when an artificial DNA cage could be designed with an oligomer tail, which attaches to a cancerous cell so that then – and only then – it unzips and releases the drug on target, precisely where it’s wanted. A kind version of chemotherapy. And exactly the exciting, therapeutic, God-inspired victory we are created for.

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