Several scholars gathered in the Engineering Science Building last night for the public launch of the UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society – a national education and research base.

The CNS is funded by the National Science Foundation’s National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal program that centers on the development of nanotechnology: Microscopic tools created to the scale of one-billionth of a meter, used to create and improve a wide range of materials.

The various speakers at the commencement included professionals in the sciences, arts and humanities – each of which presented a differing and sometimes skeptical view of the emerging field’s future. Dr. Barbara Herr Harthorn, CNS principal investigator and co-director, said the study of nanotechnology is a unique science because unusual properties can be found at such a small scale.

Harthorn said CNS focuses on bringing together researchers from many disciplines and universities around the world.

“The mission for the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB is to serve as a … significant national and international network,” Harthorn said. “Social science and its humanistic friends have an interest in technological change and the societal change that accompanies it.”

California NanoSystems Institute Director Dr. Evelyn Hu stressed CNS’s role in bringing different groups together.

“We’re coming to a convergence in time … a convergence of understanding the possibilities of what we can do at this point in time,” Hu said.

English professor Dr. Christopher Newfield, CNS co-principal investigator, said he was raised on futuristic, semi-utopian visions like those presented in the “Jetsons” and “Star Wars.” These days, however, he said he is more concerned with the social effects of new and developing technologies.

“Our center is not working on these technical problems but we are working with the researchers who are,” Newfield said. “A new society is not only the effect of technological advancement, but also its cause. … We have our rockets, but what do we do after we actually take off and land?”

Hu said nanotechnology promises many advances such as stronger and lighter materials, better batteries and improved medicine.

“I think there’s a strong basis for every one of these claims,” Hu said.

Still, Hu urged a cautious approach.

“Can it be a panacea?” Hu said. “The potential of nanotechnology is more sophisticated than that and therefore requires more thought.”

National Public Radio Science Correspondent Richard Harris said he was not as certain about the promises of nanotechnology.

“I’m going to be a little skeptical today,” Harris said. “There is a problem here of possibly hype, possibly credibility, and that needs to get sorted out.”

Harris said scientists have made many false promises in the past.

“Obviously they didn’t cure cancer 20 years ago,” Harris said. “It’s interesting to see how these stories get recycled. … It’s not to say that nanotechnology is unimportant, but there’s a difference between what’s important and what’s news.”

Yet, Harris said he recognized the importance of studying the implications of new technologies.

“It’s always great for academia to come in and ask the big questions,” Harris said