Nanotechnology hazard symbol misleading

We should assume that those participating the ETC Group’s nanotechnology hazard symbol contest are all trying to be helpful, and such a symbol may someday be of some use. However, of the three top symbols named as winners, the first one — by far the most vivid — has a real problem.

First, see the three symbols here.

As you can see, the first one has the atomic symbol, a skull, and the word NANOHAZARD. So, what’s the problem?

The atomic symbol is routinely interpreted to refer not just to atoms, but to nuclear reactions, as we can see by the keywords listed for the atomic symbol, which include fission, neutron, nuclear, nucleus, proton, and reactor. This is most unfortunate, since nanotechnology involves chemistry but not nuclear reactions, which are much higher energy.

So the natural layperson’s interpretation of this symbol is that they are being told of a nearby nuclear reaction which — since a skull is also shown — will kill them, and that — since the prefix NANO is shown — this nuclear reaction is a form of nanotechnology.

Most unfortunate, all around. However, though I believe the folks at ETC Group mean well, this is not the first time they have tried to conflate nanotechnology and subatomic particles: see their earlier report The Big Down: Atomtech — Technologies Converging at the Nano-scale (pdf):

Atomtech could also mean the creation and combination of new elements…

Atomtechnology refers to a spectrum of new technologies that seek to manipulate atoms, molecules and sub-atomic particles to create new products. Industry prefers the term nanotechnology.

Very unhelpful to the public debate, to put it mildly. Tsk, tsk, ETC Group: we know you know better. —Christine

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