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Philosophy of nanoscience and nanotechnology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q153-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are two interrelated fields of study centred on designing, synthesising, analysing, and investigating nanoscale materials, their properties, and their behaviours. Nanoscale materials are materials with at least one spatial dimension confined to the nanoscale, which is roughly one to 100 nanometres. A nanometre, abbreviated nm, is one billionth of a metre, and is approximately 1/200th the width of a human hair. Nanoscale materials exhibit properties and behaviours that are distinct from macroscopic, i.e. bulk, materials made of the same type of matter, and they also exhibit properties and behaviours that are distinct from molecular materials of similar sizes. For instance, nanoscale carbon materials are touted for their functionality as semiconductors, while bulk carbon is not a conductor at all and is rather an insulator. Likewise, large carbon-based molecular materials, such as proteins, exhibit structure, properties, and functions distinct from those of carbon nanomaterials.

The unusual and scale-dependent properties and behaviours of matter at the nanoscale are the main source of scientific interest in nanoscale materials. These changes also raise a variety of puzzles within the philosophy of science and technology. While many of these puzzles are interrelated, they can be divided into six main categories: (1) puzzles related to the applied or synthetic character of nanomaterials, nanoscience, and nanotechnology (2) puzzles about how to classify and model nanoscale materials in relation to bulk materials, (3) puzzles related to reduction and emergence in physics and the quantum–classical interface, (4) puzzles arising from the interdisciplinary nature of nanoscience and nanotechnology research, (5) puzzles arising from technological peculiarities in the detection instruments, simulations, and experimental techniques that are used to study nanomaterials, and (6) ethical, legal, and social puzzles about the societal impact of nanoscale materials.

These puzzles are united by a common interest in reckoning with the very basic challenge of trying to make sense of what nanoscale materials are and how they fit into the existing fabric of scientific thought about the nature and behaviour of matter. The very act of shrinking a material down to the nanoscale can profoundly change its physical and chemical properties. This challenges a widely held scientific and philosophical assumption that the composition of a material dictates its properties. As such, nanoscale materials can inspire thought experiments and examples relevant to a wide range of areas of philosophical thought even outside the philosophy of science and technology, including metaphysics and the philosophy of language.

Citing this article:
Bursten, Julia R.S.. Philosophy of nanoscience and nanotechnology, 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q153-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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