Can’t See the Forest Through the Nanotubes

I only watched the first episode, but it infuriated me so much I had to write about it now, while the anger is fresh.

Making Stuff
Format: 1-hour 4-part television special (part of the Nova series)
Category: Education
Premise: We need materials that are Stronger, Smaller, Cleaner, and Smarter. This series shows us how we are finding and creating them.
Original Broadcast Channel: PBS
Off the Wire Locaton: Netflix (Episodes 1-4)




Making Stuff  is what we’ve come to expect from Nova over its 3.2 million year run. The goofy humor tries to appeal to a mass audience with that charming earnestness signature to public broadcasting. The demonstrations were pretty standard fare: slow-mo car crashes, slow-mo bullets, and the Periodic Table (though the PTOE animation was surprisingly slick for public television).

However, it was the carbon nanotubes that caused my only science-based emotional reaction to date. Carbon nanotubes are products synthesized in labs by combining carbon-rich gases over slides in an oven. The results are little patches of fuzz called “nanotube forests.”

A nanotube forest

When one tube in the forest is pulled away from the slide, it hooks the tubes next to it and forms a yarn forms that is the width of 1/100th of a human hair, about 20 feet long and stronger than steel.

Pulling the nanotube forest into a string

As the host (David Pogue, NY Times technology writer) illustrated the possibilities for nanotubes in engineering, I found myself getting deeply, inexplicably…depressed. When he mentioned that we could use nanotubes to build a suspension bridge across an ocean, I realized why.

We will never build a suspension bridge across the ocean. The technology may be there, but everyone (and I’m talking mostly about companies in the private sector) is too worried about acquiring and keeping wealth to take the risk, no matter how awesome it would be. We live in a country of dragons that snarl from of their caves of gold, shelling out the bare minimum and calling it excellence. It’s all so BORING.

I can’t see our generation building the Panama Canal or the Sears Tower. All we shoot for is NOT leaving a trillion dollar debt for our children. That is so LAME. That’s like saying, “For you’re birthday I’m NOT gonna punch you in the face. You’re welcome.”

This more than anything else (yes, even more than canceling cable) is what frustrates me about life in America today. We have the technology and (contrary to popular belief) there are people out there who do have the money. But they’d rather see the numbers in their bank account rise than build an underwater city or something.

It makes me really sad for the people who worked to develop those nanotubes. Nanotubes won’t be used to build an underwater city–they will be used to reinforce the bumper of some rich guy’s Jaguar. And we’ll be told that it’s an impressive leap forward, and we’ll accept it because we don’t have the energy or the courage to demand anything better.


About spark

In August 2011, after an entire lifetime of indiscriminate viewing, I had to cancel my DVR cable with the HD channels due to financial difficulties. Let's see what happens now.

Posted on September 16, 2011, in Netflix, TV. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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