Back in the day, by which I mean the very early 1990s when I was a fresh graduate chemist first reporting on science, mainly chemistry, as you might have guessed, the buzz was around supramolecular chemistry, the concepts of building smart materials through neat design and the principles of molecular recognition and self assembly.

Now, these principles have not gone away, but as is the wont of funding agencies they like to see at least one buzzword in the title and abstract of any application and for those interdisciplinary grants, self assembly always sounded a bit too sci-fi and the term "nanotechnology" quickly displaced a whole crop of such phrases coming out of specialist labs. It not only acted as an enormous umbrella for the tiniest, but growing, areas of research with no single discipline in the headline, but it also hinted at applications, through that its technological aspirations. With the promise of tech, it also talked of wealth creation and what funding body can turn away such a suggestive application?


Of course, the nano science we have today is a milieu of Feynman's famous notion of plenty of room at the bottom, the chemists' building from the ground up and K Eric Drexler's almost forgotten, and rarely mentioned, Engines of Creation in which fanciful self-replicating nanobots work inside a machine the size of a microwave oven to convert leftover food and garden waste into fillet steak and French fries at the press of a button. In the middle of all that, we have some serious science, some serious safety concerns and some ludicrous grey goo anxieties and marketers who hope to exploit the buzzword not for technological advance but simply to sell more of the same products with the "nano" label.


It always worried me that the word would never live up to the promise. The nano prefix refers not to anything specific but merely the scale of the entities being researched and stretched given that entities as big as eight or nine hundred nanometres are discussed in the same breath as those that are truly nanoscopic rather than being fairly large fractions of a micrometre.


As to the technology, many of those senior supramolecular chemists never liked the term, preferring nanoscience and perhaps foregoing some of the bigger grant awards in the process by redacting the buzzword. Needless, to say, they're still working on their novel and functional materials, still designing systems that undergo molecular recognition and subsequent self-assembly. It doesn't really matter what you call it, it's the science that counts and when 2012 is eventually "back in the day" and another buzzword has come along to usurp nanotechnology, the scientists will still be increasing our understand of atoms and molecules and their interactions.


David Bradley blogs at and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".