Monday, Aug. 11, 2008 | A hissing sound greets passersby in a tall, sterile walk-through portal with white vacuum tubes on the first floor foyer of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California, San Diego. In an adjacent room, a blonde woman with black rimmed glasses on a giant screen asks, “Are you lost in the infosphere?”
On the bottom floor of the busy Calit2 building, a group of artists has developed “Particles of Interest,” a new-media interactive art installation to draw attention to the growing use of nanoparticles — tiny particles on the scale of the nanometer, or billionth of a meter. Nanoparticles are being used to improve a wide and growing range of everyday products, such as beer bottles that are less likely to break, coating in glass that makes it easier to clean, improved water filtration systems, pants that liquid rolls right off of and stronger tennis rackets. Refined versions of the tiny particles are found in several brands of lipstick and sunscreens, and Hugo Boss is a fan of using them in his suits.
The artists behind the peculiar exhibit aren’t huge nano-fans. They’re trying to raise awareness of what they consider a lack of regulation of nanoparticles in consumer goods and “particle capitalism” — a future economy that could be strictly driven by nanotechnology.
“We want to get people to ask the big questions without bashing them over the head,” said Ricardo Dominguez, a visual arts professor at UCSD and member of “particle group,” a collective of artists, researchers and computer engineers that created the installation. “We don’t want to be overly didactic and propagandistic.”
Dominguez said he wants to provoke questions about the nature of scientific research. Patent-driven science, which results in consumer products, could shirk scientific responsibility in favor of profit, he said.
The hissing portal represents “sniffer boxes” at airports, security screening systems that detect, or sniff out, traces of microscopic particles that could indicate hidden contraband. Viewers can watch and listen to looping poetry videos about a nano-infused future installed in iPod Nanos. The bespectacled woman on the screen is set in the future, when books “are relics of the past” and nanoparticles represent a pervasive threat to human health.
“The poetry is giving us another version of the nanoparticle story,” said Amy Carroll, a member of the collective who authored the poems.
Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary field at the crux of scientific research and corporate investment, but many in the field believe more research into the possible health implications of nano-products is needed. It’s possible that some particles manufactured at such tiny scales could prove harmful to human health if handled improperly. If inhaled, the tiny slivers of particles can move fast and deeply penetrate and clog the lungs, heart and other body parts. Dominguez said he’s worried nanoparticles could become “the asbestos of the future.” UCSD chemist Michael Sailor said that because the particles are tiny enough to pass through cell membranes, there are potential health hazards that have to be assessed.
The Calit2 installation isn’t the first time artists have been critical of nanotech. In Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel “Prey,” self-replicating “nano-machines” multiply uncontrollably and overrun the human race.
Still, nanotechnology has become a booming industry. Experts predict that in less than a decade, at least half of all new products will stem from the field, and the National Science Foundation estimates that the nanotechnology market will be worth a trillion dollars by 2015. At UCSD, scientists are using nanoparticles to target specific cancer cells while avoiding healthy ones, sidestepping the need for chemotherapy. Sailor and a diverse team of researchers used nanotechnology to develop “smart dust,” silicon flakes that can detect chemicals and biological toxins in the air.
The “Particles” exhibit, which was transported to the university gallery from the San Diego Museum of Art, is on display at Calit2 through Oct. 3.