Grey goo: it scares Prince Charles but makes professors chuckle. At least, it makes Professor Gabriel Aeppli -- head of the London Centre for Nanotechnology -- giggle quietly, which breaks the ice. Not that there’s much of that: he and I are facing the cameras for the BBC in a scorching courtyard outside the National Army Museum in Chelsea, and our own nanomachinery is desperately trying to maintain its operating temperature by evaporating salines.
We’re busy recording a discussion about all things nanotech, or at least we’re trying to. The old fashioned macrotech keeps getting in the way: microphone batteries dying (“We’ve got a fix for that” says the Prof, tantalisingly), lights going phzzzzt and the occasional army truck making a noise like unto mighty thunder. To give the BBC team their due, they steer well clear of the grey goo cliché – that one day nanotech will go wrong and a self-replicating nanobot will convert the entire world into one big puddle of the stuff – but it comes up in conversation anyway.
There may not be much chance it happening, but another self-replicating side-effect of nanotechnology is well on its way to taking over the world. According to this story, the nano-prefix itself is rapidly becoming the hip new buzzphrase that people automatically stick on the front of anything that needs to appear high-tech and cutting edge, whether it’s got anything to do with ten to the power of minus nine or not. Nanopants, nano-nappies and Nano Coffee Shops are all here.
Us ancient fogies can remember when micro – ten to the power of minus six – had exactly the same status, at the beginning of the 80s. My first journalism job was working for Micronet, writing about microprocessors and how to make friends with your micro, while sustaining myself with a saveloy bought from the Micro Chip Bar down the road.
On the basis that Moore’s Law applies to catchphrases just as much as to the circuits themselves, we’ll have just ten years until Pico – 10 to the minus 12 – kicks in. Register those domains now: Picopants has quite a ring to it (don’t worry, the nanobots will eat it clean). Then five years later, Femto’s time will come – that already sounds like a fizzy drink. Thirty months later, it’ll be Atto when, at 10 to the minus 18, we run out. Just time to convene an emergency committee: perhaps I’ll ask the Prof to contribute.