Elon Musk is in the middle of a very public meltdown right now.
It began when the PayPal billionaire turned SpaceX and Tesla founder tangled with Twitter users about complaints of union-busting tactics in his factories, along with a report from the nonprofit investigative reporting outfit Reveal suggesting Tesla failed to disclose and properly guard against workplace injuries. But it's since spiraled, and Musk has doubled down against "the media" writ large, and gotten into snits with a number of other Twitter users.
At one point, Musk posted a tweet goading "the media" to perform better in a Twitter poll he created, writing, "Come on media, you can do it! Get more people to vote for you. You are literally the media."
Upulie Divisekera, an Australian molecular biologist, cancer researcher and nanotechnologist, responded with a tweet saying, "With all due respect, this is pathetic."
Musk tweeted back, "Ahem, you have 'nano' in your bio. That is 100% synonymous with bs."
Ahem, you have “nano” in your bio. That is 100% synonymous with bs.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 24, 2018
"Nano," of course, is a prefix refering to a particular very small size scale. (A nanometer is one-billionth the size of a meter.) This set off a bit of a firestorm between users taking Divisekera's side and Musk's online fans. And several scientists jumped in to say their piece.
Robert McNees, a physicist at Loyola University, pointed out that the computer Musk used to diss nanotechnology almost certainly involved nanotechnology.
I mean, the scale of transistors in a modern cpu is ~10 nm, so I assume Musk is sending his anti-nano tweets from a UNIVAC 1.— Robert McNees (@mcnees) May 25, 2018
Ajit Bhaksar, a chemist at Unilever, pointed out a number of important technologies that involve nanotechnology.
2. Fiber optics. Use of nano particles on fiber coatings really helps the way light or signals are bent/not bent and transmitted across a distance and this has massive impact on efficiency and transmission losses. 'Nano' is important. Micro is OK but nano is better. And no,— AB (@ajit_bhaskar) May 25, 2018
Automotive applications. Toyota had shown that by using clay and harnessing polymer clay bonding by splitting the nano spacing between alumino silicate layers, one could get great specific strength (strength per unit mass) over glass fibers, thereby making lighter parts and this— AB (@ajit_bhaskar) May 25, 2018
Ketan Joshi, a science writer, pointed out that the terminology of one of Musk's industries, solar power, is often used in silly ways, and suggested Musk's tweet verged on pseudoscientific thinking.
Pseudoscience isn't just harmful because it convinces people to rely on things that absolutely do not work; it de-legitimises real scientific terms.— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) May 25, 2018
Musk's anti-nano category errors play right into that function of pseudoscience.
Musk later doubled down in a separate tweet to the engineer Michelle Dickinson, writing that "Nano applies to everything & therefore means nothing. Definitely indicates bs. Sorry."
Here's how Divisekera explained what "nano" means in a series of replies to Musk:
Extremely weird how you aren't responding to me, but anyway. Your point does not stand. Nanotechnology is the application of specific properties found in materials at the 1nm-100nm level. It isn't the same as general chemistry and electronics https://t.co/4YeFUEEqgF— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
Even 200nm particles aren't strictly considered nanoparticles and veer into the macro range. The definition matters because of the observable and measurable properties at the 1-100nm range @elonmusk— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
The prefix you should be irritated by is "smart" because everyone thinks it means the device is partially sentient rather than specific for whatever it's measuring and well programmed @elonmusk— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
Perhaps you're confusing "nano" with "molecular," which does apply to everything @elonmusk— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
Except in the case of molecular biology. Think about it this way. Sure, everything is made of atoms and therefore molecules. But what's the smallest unit of the thing you're looking at? In a living thing, the cell is the basic unit of construction, right?— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
Cells are the bricks of living things. Some living things are only - you know - *a* cell. So what are cells constructed with? Molecules, but special kinds of molecules - biomolecules - that make up the scaffolding and internal transport and manufacturing of a cell— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
So that's what molecular biology is - not just examining how cells and organs function, but going further - what molecules do what, how they do it, what happens in disease states.— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
In nanotech, we're looking at materials at the 1-100nm level. So they still have some bulk, some mass, but they behave differently at this level than they do at the micrometer level. You end up using smaller particles and new properties to construct devices, circuits, everything— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
Since it's so specific and the properties are so unique, we give it a name - nanotech. It's a perfectly valid term with a strict scientific definition. Your feelings about the vibe sadly don't apply here @elonmusk— Some Tweeter User (@upulie) May 25, 2018
Originally published on Live Science.