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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 47 - January 2006   
 Living with influenza
 The unexplored territory of low-dose radiation
 The strategy of coexistence
 The reality in the field
 Ordering the chaos of life
 A look at what the elderly eat
 Jean Audouze and the paths of good fortune
 The little prince of R&D

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Title  The miracle and the infinite

A doctor and psychoanalyst, Emilio Mordini teaches bioethics at La Sapienza University School of Medicine in Rome. Director of the Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship, he also coordinates the BIG (Bioethical Implications of Globalisation) and BITE (Biometric Identification Technology Ethics) European projects. RTD info talked to him about the new ethical realities and the psychological implications of the ‘infinitely’ small.

Do you believe that the current boom in nanotechnologies and future prospects raises new ethical issues? 
The Moon’s ‘Alpine Valley’, viewed by Smart-1. © ESA
The Moon’s ‘Alpine Valley’, viewed by Smart-1.
Probably not. Nearly all the ethical issues raised by nanotechnologies – respect for human dignity and private life, social equality, limitation of military uses, alternatives to tests on animals, etc. – had already been raised by biotechnologies some 20 years ago. We just have to adapt the procedures for the evaluation of nanomedicine projects by the ethics committees, in particular by adding new competences. But that is no more than a technical adjustment. Ethical questions are rarely completely new. What is new, rather, is the conditions under which they develop and the solutions these require.

So how do you explain the concerns that are beginning to be expressed? 
These concerns – which are, moreover, mainly apparent in the Anglo-Saxon countries – must first be put into perspective. A recent survey commissioned by the Ecology Party in Italy, for example, showed that the vast majority of citizens were totally oblivious to nanotechnologies.

Then you must look at the nature of these concerns. The most known and popularised expression of them, notably in Michael Crichton’s novel Prey, is based on the fantasy that man-made nanoparticles could reproduce by themselves and invade the planet. For a psychoanalyst, this is a very traditional subject of myths and fairy tales: that of invisible creatures and magical objects. Again, as for ethics, there is nothing really new here. It is rather a good example of the idea that technologies can penetrate and fuel a culture.

That said, a very interesting study published by a research team from the University of North Carolina in 2004 showed that people who had read Prey were generally less afraid of nanotechnologies than those who had not read it. It is better to try and understand what these fears express, from the point of view of the collective imagination and unconscious, than to try and condemn their irrationality. Why are we afraid of things we cannot see or understand? No doubt for reasons linked to the history of mentalities. I find, for example, that there are great similarities between our postmodern age and the baroque age.

What kind of similarities?
Emilio Mordini
Emilio Mordini
In particular, the fascination, that is the mixture of attraction and repulsion, with everything to do with miracles and the infinite, including in the scientific field. In the 17th century, miracles were present everywhere in society, for both good and evil – take witchcraft, for example. As to the infinite, it was precisely at this time that people started to view it as a mathematical notion and to consider it in the context of astronomy.

Today, the infinitely small of the nanosciences has replaced the infinitely big of astronomy. As to miracles, there are the negative miracles that we have just referred to – the fear of seeing nanoparticles invade the planet, for example.

It also seems to me that our decision-makers should be ready to draw on this fascination with miracles. In the past, the portrayal of the miracle was a tried-and-tested technique of exercising power – such as the rising of King Louis XIV, resplendent every morning. The Americans used this strategy at the time of the Apollo missions. Everybody agrees that there was no scientific reason for going to the Moon, but that these trips made it possible to collect some very important information. This would not have been possible if public opinion, fascinated by the mythical dimension of the project, had not accepted its phenomenal cost.  

If we really want nanotechnologies to enjoy popular support, we should not be afraid to apply this example, by appealing to the mythical fascination with the nanotechnological world. In what way? I don’t know. Perhaps the image of these nanorobots, travelling through our blood vessels to repair the body from within could be compared to the symbolic dimension of the army of Lilliputians treating the body of the giant Gulliver…

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