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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper
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It's a small world after all

If you survived the annual Independence Day bombardment, which this year started on Friday night in anticipation of Rhythm & Booms and continued through The Day itself, welcome to the resumption of life as we know it. Well, not exactly as we know it, since the mid-week holiday has resulted in a thinner-than-usual "Isthmus."

But we're back to informing you of the happenings in our burg and the trends that are influencing our future. And this week, contributor Nathan J. Comp delivers a report on what is touted to be the next big thing, even though it deals with the very, very, very small. So small, in fact, that small" may not be good enough to describe it; perhaps "infinitesimal" is more like it.

Comp reports on what some have called "the next Industrial Revolution" - the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. Not surprisingly, the UW, which is one of the nation's premier research universities, is right in the middle of this revolution. It is a revolution that the eye cannot see.

In some ways the world in which nanotechnology operates is more mysterious than the vastness of outer space. It is, in a way, the frontier of inner space. It seems that the laws of physics as commonly understood are altered in the world. That discovery has opened up unanticipated opportunities. It also holds the specter of unrecognized threats, so while there is the possibility that nanotechnology can, say, extend the human lifespan, it could also alter our environment in not-so-desirable ways.

As science and industry forge ahead on this new frontier, there are some parallels with the early nuclear age. When scientists detonated the first atomic device they were pretty sure they knew what would happen, but not positive. Having never unleashed nuclear forces on such a large scale, they could not say for certain that they wouldn't destroy the world. That didn't happen, or at least it hasn't yet. But the uncertainty made for plenty of B movie plots.

So as we prepare once again to go where humankind has never gone before, it might be a good idea to tread more circumspectly. Still, it does not seem in our nature to turn our backs on a transcendental technology. We will pursue it, and by making that decision we will guarantee that the world will change - in some way. Once again we will prove that the end is never in sight, or that we never saw it coming.

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