Up until now, the whole ‘nano’ thing had me perplexed. I know nanoscience is all about observing, manipulating, and fabricating on a scale of a few to hundreds of nanometers. I understand this is the size of DNA and proteins, individual macromolecules, and features in electronic devices. And that it's where new optical, magnetic, and electronic properties can be accessed.

But that's not quite what I mean. For a start, ‘nano’ isn't new. Chemists have long dealt with molecules at this scale, physicists have studied quantum effects for an age, and molecular biologists have engineered proteins for many decades. But it's now almost ubiquitous. When ‘nano’ appears in every paper title, symposium, or funding proposal, it's hard to distinguish what sets particular work apart. This makes it incredibly hard to pin down nano's identity. Nano doesn't really together as a discipline: what does a nanoscientist study? Is it even useful to define a field by a scale? What links those studying coatings for medical implants with researchers making efforts to build quantum computers? But of course, I've been looking at it all wrong and I have Carol Lynn Alpert's article on page 52 of this issue to thank for opening my eyes.

Nano is about a powerful vision. A vision of the bottom-up mastery of matter, the uniting of disciplines, and access to a new, nanoscale realm of reality. It is in this revolution, in extending our technical abilities and enlarging our awareness of the forces at work at this scale, that the excitement of nano lies. It is no wonder that conventions, publications, and funding have followed.

The potential for better materials and devices also holds marketing power. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has just launched The Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory. This lists 212 products identified by their manufacturers as using nanotechnology or containing nanomaterials. Not only is this number surprising – previous estimates had been less than half of this – a good proportion are cosmetics and sporting goods. These are not the high-performance materials, medical treatments, and solar cells we have been promised. “What I think we're seeing here is the ‘leakage’ of first-generation nanomaterials into everyday products – where entrepreneurial companies are seeing the benefits in applying a new and newly available nanotechnology into their products to increase their market edge,” says Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The nano vision deserves to be used for more than charging a premium for high-end tennis rackets and golf clubs. As Alpert says, it should be used to enthuse a wider audience and introduce young people to research. Communicating to a general audience is not easy, as many of us have found. Thankfully, Dietram A. Scheufele offers some sound advice on page 64 of this issue about framing the right message for the right audience.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71470-5