November 30, 2023
The Factual Price of Stain-Resistant Pants
The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology. The Man in the White Suit. Universal Pictures Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. This piece is adapted from Films From the Future: The Technology…

The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology.

A silent image of Alec Guinness and a girl in The Man in the White Suit.

The Man in the White Suit.

Universal Photos

This piece is adapted from Motion pictures From the Future: The Expertise and Morality of Sci-Fi Motion pictures, by Andrew Maynard, revealed by Mango Publishing.

In 2005, protesters from the community THONG (Topless Humans Organized for Pure Genetics) paraded start air the Eddie Bauer store in Chicago. They were protesting a relatively unique line of merchandise being supplied by the store: “nano pants.” It became once never relatively certain why the protesters were topless, though it did construct the tournament memorable. However it absolutely did allow a frightful however artful appropriation of the title of a 1959 lecture given by the physicist Richard Feynman. No longer decrease than in fact one of many protesters had an arrow drawn on their help pointing to their nether regions, alongside with the title of Feynman’s focus on, “There’s a spread of room at the underside.”

Eddie Bauer’s nano pants feeble Nanotex®, a nanoscale cloth coating that construct the pants water-repellent and stain-resistant. By enveloping each and every fiber with a nanoscopically skinny layer of water-repellent molecules, the nano pants took on the reputedly miraculous capability to shed with out leaving a stain water, espresso, wine, ketchup, and many other things that folks are inclined to inadvertently spill on themselves. It became once an limitless expertise for the congenitally messy. However because it became once marketed as being a made from nanotechnology, there were issues in some quarters—including the THONG protesters—that putting this form of cutting-edge expertise in user products would possibly perhaps lead to unique, surprising, and doubtlessly catastrophic risks.

Sadly for THONG, the 2005 pronounce failed. It appeared that, for most other folks, the advantages of avoiding brown espresso stains were relatively extra dazzling than speculative worries a pair of dystopian nano-future. And to be just correct, the chance of this expertise (which indubitably wasn’t that radical) leading to vast misfortune became once relatively negligible.

The nano pants incident became once, in many ways, a pre-emptive parody of the 2014 movie Transcendence, with the existential risk of nanobots being replaced with stain-resistant clothes, and the neo-Luddites searching for to keep the enviornment being accomplished by a bunch of topless protesters.But both the pronounce and the expertise touched on the continually-mundane reality of most modern nanotechnology, and the complex ways thru which reputedly priceless innovations can from time to time threaten the location quo.

If the pronounce anticipated Transcendence, however, it became once also itself an echo of one other film: The Man in the White Suit. The Man in the White Suit became once released in 1951 and is, remarkably, a movie about stain-resistant pants. However bigger than this, it’s a movie in regards to the pitfalls of blinkered science and socially unaware innovation. And whereas it is no longer a movie about nanotechnology per se, it is a long way remarkably prescient in how it foreshadows the complex social and economic dynamics around nanotechnology, and estimable materials extra on the full.

Sidney never thought to inquire of someone else what they wished or wished.

The movie is made up our minds in the textile mills in the north of England in the early- to mid-20th century. This became once a time when the burgeoning science of chemical synthesis became once leading to a revolution in synthetic textiles. Nylon, Draylon, and other man-made materials were becoming an increasing form of main commodities, and ones that were rising from what became once then cutting-edge science. Spurred on by these advances, mill householders persevered to envision out for unique materials that would possibly perhaps give them an edge in a extremely aggressive market. These textile mills were rooted in an Industrial Revolution that had began nearly 200 years earlier. But they marked a tipping point from the employ of strive-it-and-seek engineering in manufacturing to counting on predictive science in the teach of most modern products.

In the slow 19th and early 20th centuries, it became apparent that, by the employ of a extra scientific methodology in keeping with predictive laws, models, and associations, companies would possibly perhaps construct breakthroughs that a long way exceeded the constraints of invention by mere trial and error. At the identical time, a ambitious labor movement doggedly strove to provide protection to the rights of team and be positive unique applied sciences didn’t sweep jobs and other folks aside relatively as indiscriminately because it had accomplished a century or so earlier.

In opposition to this backdrop, The Man in the White Suit introduces us to Sidney Stratton (accomplished by Alec Guinness), a self-absorbed chemist who is satisfied he has basically the most main to an out of the ordinary unique superstrong stain-resistant cloth. In Stratton’s scientist brain, his step forward goes to transform the enviornment. He assumes that folks are in unlucky health of washing, mending, and replacing their clothes, and that his invention will liberate them. He dreams of a future the build you handiest want to pick one location of clothes—ever. In Stratton’s head, what’s correct for him can be correct for everyone, and a world with out the messiness of procuring, washing, and taking a peruse after clothes is with out problems person that he’s pondering about. However there’s a topic—loads of, because it looks. And in fact one of basically the most attention-grabbing is that Sidney never thought to inquire of someone else what they wished or wished.

After he cracks the secret of his unique cloth, be conscious of the invention leaks out, and the full lot begins to give map. These in the textile industry keep in mind that this is no longer going to total properly: They need their products to wear down and desire replacing if they’re to preserve in industry, and the very final thing they need is clothes that final eternally. Mill householders and their traders aren’t the generous ones who stand to lose from Sidney’s invention. If the industry collapsed as a consequence of his unique textile, the group of workers would possibly perhaps be out on the streets. And so, in a Luddite-fancy wave of self-curiosity, all of them location about anxious Sidney, no longer because they’re anti-science, however because they’re professional–having jobs that pay the bills. Even Sidney’s landlady plaintively asks, “Why can’t you scientists leave things by myself? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to achieve?”

As the full lot involves a head, Sidney finds himself in his white suit, made of the unique indestructible, unstainable cloth, being chased by producers, laborers, colleagues, and relatively extra special all people else who has realized that what they indubitably can no longer abide is a smartass scientist who didn’t middle of attention on to focus on over with them sooner than doing review he claimed became once for their dangle correct.

Correct as he’s cornered by the mob, Sidney discovers the paunchy extent of his hubris. His surprise topic cloth is unstable, and after a pair of days, it begins to disintegrate. And so, in front of the crowd, his clothes start to relatively literally give map. Scientific hubris turns to humility and ridicule.

And Stratton? His pride is dented however no longer his ambition—nor his scientific myopia, it would appear. In an admirable label of disdain for studying the teachings of his social disasters, he begins work on fixing the science he got depraved in his quest to manufacture basically the most attention-grabbing cloth.

The Man in the White Suit admittedly feels a chunk dated lately, and even by Fifties British comedy standards, it’s dry. But the movie efficiently manages to address some of basically the most attention-grabbing challenges we face in rising socially responsible and responsive applied sciences, including institutional slim-mindedness, scientific myopia and hubris, lack of consciousness over the broader social implications, human greed and self-curiosity, and the inevitability of unintended outcomes. And naturally, it’s remarkably prescient of Eddie Bauer’s nano pants and the protests they impressed. Whereas the movie makes employ of polymer chemistry as its using expertise, extra special of it applies straight to the rising science of nanoscale construct and engineering that led to the nano pants and a myriad other nanotechnology-basically based mostly products.

Potentially as a consequence of my decades working in the lab as a scientist, I indubitably own a chunk a delicate location for Sidney Stratton. Here is any individual who’s in fancy with his science. He’s captivated by the joys of the scientific plod, as he makes employ of his records to resolve the puzzle of a stronger, extra sturdy textile. And whereas he justifies his work when it comes to how this can toughen other folks’s lives, I believe that it’s indubitably the science that’s using him.

Stratton is, in many ways, the epitome of the obsessed scientist.He captures basically the most attention-grabbing-mindedness and benevolent myopia I seek in many of my chums and even myself from time to time. He has a single using reason, which is synthesizing a brand unique polymer that he is satisfied it’s ability to manufacture. He has a obscure thought that this would possibly perhaps be an correct thing for society, and this is an limitless allotment of the account he makes employ of to justify his work. However his notion of social correct is indistinct and relatively naïve. We seek no indication, let’s assume, that he’s ever even handed studying in regards to the opposite folks he’s searching for to attend, and even asking them what they need. In its build, he is blind to the opposite folks he claims his work is for. Moderately than indubitably working with them, he finally ends up appropriating them as a useful justification for doing what he wants.

No longer that Stratton needs to location off any misfortune—a long way from it. His intentions are relatively properly-that manner. And I believe if he were interviewed about his work, he’d trot a memoir in regards to the necessity for science to construct the enviornment the next location. But he suffers from social myopia in that he is reputedly incapable of recognizing the broader implications of his work. In consequence, he is blindsided when the industrialists he thought would lap up his invention desire to suppress it.

Staunch-life scientists are, no longer surprisingly, a long way extra complex. But ingredients of this construct of behavior are no longer that unfamiliar.

Most scientists (including engineers and technologists) I’ve met and worked with desire to toughen and enrich other folks’s lives. They own what I take into consideration is a kindly dedication to serving the general public correct in most instances. And they also freely and overtly employ this to justify their work. But surprisingly few of them terminate to contemplate what the “public correct” manner or to inquire of others for their opinions and solutions. Time after time, I stride into scientists who claim, nearly in the identical breath, that they are dedicated to bettering the lives of others however that they don’t own any curiosity in being attentive to these other folks they’re supposedly committing themselves to. This became once brought dwelling to me some years ago, once I became once advising the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Expertise on the protected and priceless teach of nanotechnology. In one assembly, I pushed the purpose that scientists want to be challenging with members of the general public if they want to make positive their work ends in products which would possibly perhaps be relied on and indispensable. In response, a truly prominent scientist in the topic answered relatively tritely, “That sounds fancy a truly faulty thought.”

I believe that this utter scientist became once pondering in regards to the horrors of a presumed scientifically illiterate public telling him attain his review. In spite of the full lot, he would possibly perhaps be just correct to be frightened if he were expected to bewitch scientific route from those that aren’t consultants in his utter topic. However most other folks own a pretty high stage of craftsmanship in what’s main to them and their communities, and as antagonistic to inquire of members of the general public to mumble complex review, it’s this expertise that it would be main to employ in guiding review and teach if naïve mistakes are to be shunned.

The reality right here is that scientists and technologists don’t own a monopoly on expertise and insights. For tag unique applied sciences to own a positive impression in a messy world of other folks, politics, beliefs, values, economics, and a plethora of other pursuits, scientists and others want to be a allotment of larger conversations around map on expertise that spans all of these areas and further. No longer being a allotment of such conversations ends in scientific elitism and lack of consciousness that’s shrouded in self-importance. In spite of the full lot, there would possibly be nothing depraved with scientists doing their science for science’s sake. However willful lack of consciousness of the broader context that review is conducted within ends in myopia that can in the rupture be unhealthy, no topic the generous of intentions.

Making growth on this front would possibly perhaps attend foster extra positive discussions all the map in which thru the priceless and responsible teach of most modern applied sciences. It would possibly perhaps presumably perhaps perhaps, however, imply other folks being challenging to concede that they don’t own the final be conscious on what’s just correct and being start to no longer handiest being attentive to others however altering their perspectives in keeping with this. This goes for the scientists as properly as all people else, because, whereas scientists would possibly perhaps understand the technical intricacies of what they attain, correct fancy Sidney Stratton, they’re from time to time no longer equally knowledgeable in regards to the broader social implications of their work.

Book duvet of Motion pictures From the Future: The Expertise and Morality of Sci-Fi Motion pictures.

By Andrew Maynard. Mango Publishing.

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