Journal of Nanoparticle Research

, Volume 10, Issue 7, pp 1141–1148 | Cite as

Numbers, scale and symbols: the public understanding of nanotechnology

  • Carl A. Batt
  • Anna M. Waldron
  • Natalie Broadwater


Nanotechnology will be an increasing part of the everyday lives of most people in the world. There is a general recognition that few people understand the implications of the technology, the technology itself or even the definition of the word. This lack of understanding stems from a lack of knowledge about science in general but more specifically difficulty in grasping the size scale and symbolism of nanotechnology. A potential key to informing the general public is establishing the ability to comprehend the scale of nanotechnology. Transitioning from the macro to the nanoscale seems to require an ability to comprehend scales of one-billion. Scaling is a skill not common in most individuals and tests of their ability to extrapolate size based upon scaling a common object demonstrates that most individuals cannot scale to the extent needed to make the transition to nanoscale. Symbolism is another important vehicle to providing the general public with a basis to understand the concepts of nanotechnology. With increasing age, individuals are able to draw representations of atomic scale objects, but these tend to be iconic and the different representations not easily translated. Ball and stick models are most recognized by the public, which provides an opportunity to present not only useful symbolism but also a reference point for the atomic scale.


Nanotechnology Public awareness Public understanding Survey Models Visualization Numbers Scale Symbols Societal implications 



This work was supported by that National Science Foundation. The author thanks Anna Waldron for her help in conducting these studies and Natalie Broadwater for data analysis.


  1. Anonymous (2003) Nanotechnology faces GM-style backlash. IEE Rev 49(3)Google Scholar
  2. Bainbridge W (2002) Public attitudes toward nanotechnology. J Nanopart Res 4:561–570CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beer V (1987) Great expectations: Do museums know what visitors are doing? Curator 30(3):206–215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Booth JL, Siegler RS (2006) Developmental and individual differences in pure numerical estimation. Dev Psych 41(6):189–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cobb M, Macoubrie J (2004) Public perceptions about nanotechnology: risks, benefits and trust. J Nanopart Res 6:395–405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cohen DJ, Ferrell JM et al (2002) What very small numbers mean. J Exp Psych 131(3):424–442Google Scholar
  7. Crommie MF, Lutz CP et al (1993) Confinement of electrons to quantum corrals on a metal surface. Science 262(5131):218–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. DeLoache JS, Kolstad V et al (1991) Physical similarity and young children’s understanding of scale models. Child Dev 62:111–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. DeLoache JS, Uttal DH et al (2004) Scale errors offer evidence for a perception-action dissociation early in life. Science 304:1027–1029CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. DeVellis RF (2003). Scale development: theory and applications. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CAGoogle Scholar
  11. Dowling A (2004) Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties. Available
  12. Ferk V, Vrtacnik M et al (2003) Students’ understanding of molecular structure representations. In J Sci Educ 25(10):1227–1245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Friedman SM, Egold BP (2005) Nanotechnology: risks and the media. IEEE Tech Soc Magazine 24(4):5–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Harrison AG, Treagust DF (2000) Learning about atoms, molecules, and chemical bonds: a case study of multiple-model use in grade 11 chemistry. Sci Edu 84(3):352–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kesidou S, Roseman JE (2003) Projecte 201 analyses of middle-school science textbooks: a response to holliday. J Res Sci Teach 40(5):535–543CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kjolberg K, Wickson F (2007) Social and ethical interactions with nano: mapping the early literature. NanoEthics 1:89–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Knight H, Pierce J (2003) To kill a technology. The Engineer 291:24–29Google Scholar
  18. Kozma R, Russell J (1997) Multimedia and understanding: expert and novice responses to different representations of chemical phenomena. J Res Sci Teach 34(9):949–968CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Krajcik J, Stevens S et al (2007) Big Ideas in Nanoscience. Retrieved November 26, Available
  20. Laszlo P (2000) Playing with molecular models. Int J Phil Chem 6(1):85–97Google Scholar
  21. Mills K, Fledderman C (2005) Getting the best from nanotechnology: approaching social and ethical implications openly and proactively. IEEE Tech Soc Magazine 24(4):18–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Morrissey SR (2004) Harnessing nanotechnology. Chem Eng News 82(16):30–33Google Scholar
  23. Parr D (2005) Will nanotechnology make the world a better place? Trends Biotechnol 23(8):395–398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Pasachoff JM (2003) What should students learn? Stellar magnitudes. Astro Educ Rev 2(2):162–165Google Scholar
  25. Robinson WR (2000) Learning about atoms, molecules and chemical bonds: a case study of multiple-model use. J Chem Educ 77(9):1110–1111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Roco MC (2003a) Broader Societal Issues of Nanotechnology. J Nanopart Res 5(3–4):181–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Roco MC (2003b) Public affairs forum—national nanotechnology initiative to advance broad societal goals. MRS Bull 28(6):416Google Scholar
  28. Roco MC, Bainbridge WS (2005) Societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology: maximizing human benefit. J Nanopart Res 7(1):1–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Rodriguez MA, Niaz M (2004) A Reconstruction of structure of the atom and its implications for general physics textbooks: a history and philosophy of science perspective. J Sci Educ Tech 13(3):409–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Scheufele DA, Lewenstein BV (2005) The public and nanotechnology: how citizens make sense of emerging technologies. J Nanopart Res 7:659–667CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Schulz WG (2004) Nanotechnology under the scope. Chem Eng News 82(10):23–24Google Scholar
  32. Selin C (2007) Expectations and the emergence of nanotechnology. Sci Tech Human Values 32(2):196–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Service RF (2004) Nanotech forum aims to head off replay of past blunders. Science 306(5698):955CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Thurs DP (2007) Tiny tech, transcendent tech. Sci Commun 29(1):65–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Toumey C (2007) Cubism at the nanoscale. Nature Nanotech 2:587–589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Waldron AM, Spencer D et al (2006) The current state of pubic understanding of nanotechnology. J Nanopart Res 8:569–575CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wilkinson C, Allan S et al (2007) From uncertainty to risk?: scientific and news media portrayals of nanopart safety. Health Risk Soc 9(2):145–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carl A. Batt
    • 1
  • Anna M. Waldron
    • 2
  • Natalie Broadwater
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Food ScienceCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Waldron Educational ConsultingFairfaxUSA

Personalised recommendations