What’s in a Name? In Search of Nano

by | Aug 25, 2011

When we say nanoscience, what do we really mean? And where’s all the research on nanoscale properties and materials coming from?

Observant readers will note that in the teaser I didn’t say “nanoresearch”. Long ago, when I was a very new assistant editor, I had a sloppy approach to nomenclature for nanothings carefully kicked out of me. My mentor would have no truck with the proliferation of names for nanostructures flowering in the materials science literature. ZnO was big at the time, I remember, and people were getting very excited about the structural control that could be exerted, such that every other paper had some newfangled ZnO nano-whatsit to report. Charged as we were with the responsibility of clarity and accuracy in the papers that we published, discussions such as this were commonplace:

“I’ve got a nanohedgehog here.”
“No.” A sigh. “Not allowed.”
“It looks like a hedgehog.”
Another sigh. “Is it actually a hedgehog, created on the nanoscale?”
“Well… no.”
“Well, no, then. It’s a hedgehog-shaped nanostructure.”

My personal favorite was nanocloudberries, which was excluded on the grounds that 1) not only were they not cloudberries, but 2) I had no idea what a cloudberry was. I still don’t, if anyone cares to enlighten me. The permutations were almost endless, and we fought the good fight until it became apparent that the task was roughly equivalent to trying to bail out the Titanic with a teacup. Nanostuff was here to stay, and language is a living thing; it evolves, and you, editorial people, must do so too.

The question of what “nano-” actually represents is, of course, not a new one. It is asked more and more frequently as the fields of research dedicated to it continue their seemingly endless boom. The traditional definition (having one dimension between 1 and 100 nm) seems now to have been recognized as a scientific straitjacket into which we cannot hope to crowbar all things nano. Many materials continue to demonstrate size-dependent properties at sub-micrometer dimensions, so should they be classified differently even though they behave the same way? If the materials themselves refuse to yield to an arbitrary cut-off point imposed by nice, neat, numerical thresholds, shouldn’t we classify by behavior instead? How then, do you begin to draw a distinction between what is nano, and what is not? Purists will say the scale restriction will stand no matter what, cynics will say that much of what is now published as nanoscience is simply rebranded to secure funding; others will have views on the behavior defining the classification, or even that ”nano” is an approach, a method or framework with which to interrogate the properties of materials that remain distinct to themselves, at different sizes. (And let’s not even pause to consider differences in shape.)

All this conjecture notwithstanding, it appears that within the communities dealing principally in nanotechnology and nanoscience, there is a broad consensus of definitions that are considered relevant by editors, authors, and reviewers alike, according to an essay published recently in Small by Michael Grieneisen and Minghua Zhang. Using the ISI Web of Knowledge database, they analyzed records from a group of journals whose core discipline is nanotechnology to assess the global scope and distribution by country and discipline of nano-related publications. They found that the nomenclature and classification of research as returned by a query on nano* had jumped to 80% (from 21.5) in twenty years. Geographically, China was shown to output the greatest number of nano papers in 2010 (20 186), amounting to 15% of its published research output. Asian countries overall were shown to be focusing much more research effort on nanoscience than other countries: Singapore, China, South Korea, Iran, and India being the top 5 in terms of % of total published output. Subject-discipline wise, what I found interesting was that in 2009 more than 50% of research categorized as materials science were papers on nanoscience and technology, a much higher percentage than in general chemistry (ca. 30%). This year I’d guess it’s probably higher still.

The essay’s a fascinating read, but in closing I want to pose a question: what’s your take on this? What, to you, does nanoscience or nanotechnology mean? Should we be stricter in our attempts to classify, or should we let it grow organically and define its own path? I’d be fascinated to see how many different answers we could come up with. And if someone can educate me on cloudberries…

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