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DOI : 10.2240/azojono0109

From Nautilus to Nanobo(a)ts: The Visual Construction of Nanoscience

“Nanotechnology is a rapidly advancing and truly multidisciplinary field involving subjects such as physics, chemistry, engineering, electronics and biology. Its aim is to advance science at atomic and molecular level in order to make materials and devices with novel and enhanced properties. The potential applications are exceptionally diverse and beneficial, ranging from self-cleaning windows and clothes to ropes to tether satellites to the earth’s surface, to new medicines” [1]. Some, however, have claimed that nanotechnology might lead to nanoassemblers and potentially self-replicating nanomachines swamping life on earth. This so-called ‘grey goo’ scenario was first described by Drexler in his book Engines of Creation [2], a scenario he now thinks unlikely (as of 11 June, 2004), but which has been integrated into fictional narratives such as Michael Crichton’s novel Prey [3], has provoked comments by the Prince of Wales, lead to inquiries by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, and, in general, taps into wide-spread fears about loss of control over technologies [4, 5]. Another popular image of nanotechnology, the view that it will lead to tiny robotic submarines travelling through the human bloodstream and repairing or healing our bodies is equally ubiquitous.

Nanoscience and Technology

However, there is, as Richard Jones pointed out in a recent article on “The Future of Nanotechnology”, an almost a surreal gap between what the technology is believed to promise (or threatens to create) and what it actually delivers [4] – a gap that certain science fiction scenarios can easily fill, be they of the dystopian, grey goo type, or the utopian, spectacular voyage, type. This view was echoed by López in his 2004 article “Bridging the Gaps: Science fiction in nanotechnology”, in which he explores how nanoscientists themselves have employed devices from sci-fi literature to argue the case for nanoscience. He comes to the conclusion that “the relation between SF narrative elements and NST [nanoscience and technology] is not external but internal. This is due to NST’s radical future orientation, which opens up a gap between what is technoscientifically possible today and its inflated promises for the future.” [6].

Vehicular utopias [7], from Jules Verne’s Nautilus voyaging under the sea to nanomachines navigating through our bloodstreams, have, for a long time, filled this surreal gap between the technologically possible and the technologically real and can have an immediate and long lasting hold on public imagination. They continuously serve to sciencefictionalise science fact and blur the boundaries between cultural visions and scientific reality [8,9].


This paper examines the visual and verbal imagery surrounding the various ‘submarines’ that have travelled through popular imagination from Verne’s Nautilus, driven by Captain Nemo, up to the more recent representations of nano-submersibles, some of them fact, some of them fiction and many more floating between the two. It retraces the voyages of iconic submarines from the 1870s, when Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, up to the present, from the journey through the hidden space of the world’s oceans on board the hidden space of a luxurious submarine, to expeditions into the hidden space of the human body and beyond to outer space.

Popular Culture and Nanoscience

The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that popular culture and imagination do not simply follow and reflect science. Rather, they are a critical part of the process of developing science and technology; they can inspire or, indeed, discourage researchers to turn what is thinkable into new technologies and they can frame the ways in which the ‘public’ reacts to scientific innovations. Popular culture talks about space-rockets before there are space-rockets, test-tube babies before there are test-tube babies and clones before there are clones. Before scientists do anything there is often a ready made public perception of how good or how bad it is going to be, derived from this social, literary and cultural precognition. So when science does these things for real, their image has already been formed - for good or ill. Fictional images, be they lithographs in 19th-century children’s books, stills from popular sci-fi films or nano-illustrations produced by professional science illustrators play an important part in this process. It might be going too far to say that science can only discover what has already been created in imagination, but it is certainly the case that science can only flourish in society when popular imagination does not strongly oppose its development. This might be why some nanoscientists have also become nano-visionaries, actively involved in creating an imaginative and imaginary space for nanoscience in modern society through writing and illustrations.

In the following I shall first summarise some insights into the way science and fiction interact inside nanoscience, then provide an overview of the iconographical voyage of progress accomplished in and by the Nautilus, to be followed by a section in which the Nautilus meets other science fiction influences and merges with nanoscience proper, only to be taken, finally, from the inside of the human body into outer space. I shall then try to draw some conclusions from this voyage through visual space and time.

Nanoculture and Nanowriting

A recently published book entitled Nanoculture: Implications of the new technoscience begins with the sentence “Imagine a world …” [10] and goes on to describe a world, our world, in which nanoscience and nanofiction have begun to interpenetrate each other in myriad ways and where the boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical and the real and the imaginary have become utterly blurred.

Nanobots, Nanomachines and Science Fiction

There is one discursive knot in what the contributors to the book call ‘nano-writing’ where this blurring becomes most obvious: the so-called nanobot. Nanobots have long been the stuff of science fiction and they have, more recently, become the stuff of science-fictionalisation when some nanoscientists talk about these not-yet-existing but soon-to-exist nanomachines as if they were as real as the metaphorical motors, machines or pumps that float through our body in the shape of enzymes or parts of bacteria. As one nano-writer points out in an article entitled “Of silicone and submarines”: “After all, the most successful nanomachines ever created are those operating inside every cell”. [11] Hence, writes Bensaude-Vincent, “the debate about the potentialities of nanotechnology basically boils down to the question ‘what is a nanomachine?’ However the notion of machine is itself polysemic, so that it can support dissimilar views of living systems and teach quite different lessons to nanoscientists and engineers” [12; see 13]. It can also support dissimilar images of the future and teach quite different lessons to the scientifically interested public. The nanomachine I am interested in in this article is the nanosubmersible, which has mainly positive associations, unlike the nano-assembler that replicates and destroys the earth. These two visions of a utopian or dystopian nano-future seem to match onto the different discourses of hope and fear associated with either medical GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which are regarded as rather beneficial, and environmental GMOs, i.e. foods and crops, which are not [14].

The Various Guises of Nanobots

Nanomachines, in the shape of nanobots, flip not only between the corporeal and the mechanical, the metaphorical and the literal and the fictional and the factional in an almost quantum-mechanical way, they also flip between good and evil, the past and the present and the present and the future. They can invade or heal the body, destroy the world or make it a better place. They are part of a future that will, as many nanowriters say, inevitably become the present and they have been part of our past imagination for many years. One incarnation of the nanobot in particular, the nano-submarine or, as one can call it, nanoboat, has, as we will see, a long and illustrious fictional and visual ancestry, which links the future to the past, woodcuts to computer generated images and lithographs to nanolithography [15].

The motor of metaphorical imagination which powers fictional imagination, be it verbal or visual, namely seeing something as something else, is all-important in the process of flipping between body and machine, fact and fiction, past and future, hope and fear. Machines are seen as biological phenomena, biological phenomena, including human bodies are seen as machines, small objects are seen as large objects and large objects are seen as small ones, the outside is seen in terms of the inside and the inside in terms of the outside, science is seen in terms of fiction and fiction in terms of science. This reciprocal metaphorisation of the real and the not-yet real in nanowriting is quite unlike traditional uses of metaphor and imagery in science and of science in fiction where scientists use metaphors or metaphorical models to describe as yet unknown aspects of the real world and where science fiction writers use science as a starting point beyond which to project imaginary scenarios – from the known to the unknown and from the esoteric world of the lab to the lay world of ordinary discourse. By contrast:

The blurring of potentiality and actuality in the nanoworld, and the lack of general knowledge about nanotechnology, create a fertile imaginary around the new discipline. A common nightmare speculates that, with the aid of nanotechnology, researchers will build nanostructures capable of replicating themselves like nano-robots. UCLA Professor James Gimzewski relates that when he worked at IBM “a newspaper called the Bild printed a front page story saying ‘IBM creates nanobots that can cure cancer’ with a pictures of them swimming inside the human body and describing it as having a cancer-killing unit that used lasers to ‘blast away’ the cancer cells.” Immediately, there were people from all over the world calling IBM and asking how to get these nano-bots. [16]

Nanoboats Break Down Barriers between Fiction and Reality

This story was not true (at the time) but it is indicative of how iconic and at the same time real nanoboats have become in the public imagination, in this case reproduced in the shape of a tabloid picture and nano-hyperbole [17]. Nano-writing, be it in scientific magazines, in novels or in tabloids, “removes”, as Milburn points out “all intellectual boundaries between organism and technology” and “causes ‘the distinction between hardware and life… to blur’ – and human bodies become posthuman cyborgs, inextricably entwined, interpenetrant, and merged with the mechanical nanodevices already inside of them.” [8] The imaginary, not yet real, nanoboat swimming inside our body is conceptualised as if it were already real, as ‘real’ as the biological ‘machines’ swimming inside our body on which the nanoboat is modelled. 

Nanotechnology in Children’s Culture

Whereas some parts of public/adult imagination about nanotechnology have been nurtured by the tabloids and by popular novels (where nano has been portrayed mostly in dystopian ways), children’s nano-imagination has been nurtured by cartoons, comics, novels and computer games, in which nano has perhaps not only negative associations (but more research is needed here). What links the two, adult and children’s imagination, are images taken from children’s literature and films, such as Verne’s novel and its Disney film adaptation Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, which were then transferred to adult films, such as Fantastic Voyage and Inner Space and transferred back again to children’s media, such as Dr Who and Invader Zim (see table 1), with the (nano)submersible weaving forwards and backwards between media and audiences. This process of interpenetration also involves a give and take between ‘éducation et récreation’ (the motto under which Verne’s novels were published in the 19th century), between fact and fiction and between rationality and imagination. This seems to contradict Peter Weingart’s claim that “[s]ociety obviously does not consider science a matter of amusement” [18]. When it comes to nanobo(a)ts it certainly does.

Modern children’s fiction refers to nanoscale creatures and machines so frequently that flippant remarks about ‘nano’ have become permissible. In a recently shown episode of the Disney cartoon Kim Possible one character points to something and calls it ‘nano’. The other character asks what that means and is told: “Small, mini, tiny, minute.” Asked why he then didn’t say ‘mini’, he replies: “because nano sounds a thousand times better, why else?” In short: Nano is cool.

Reality is Catching up to Science Fiction

But just as language, especially teenage slang and ‘teenage’ technology in the form of the iPod Nano, is catching up with imaginary nanobo(a)ts, so reality may be catching up with them, too. In a recent article about nanoscience (chosen amongst many) we are told about a new Institute at Leeds University dealing with nanotechnology:

Molecular-scale ‘trains’ and ‘submarines’ that will carry loads such as tiny doses of drugs and virtual reality software to enable operators to control matter on the nanoscale are projects planned by the Institute.


Professor Peter Stockley […] said: “[…] In the future we could imagine an engineered ‘nano-submarine’ swimming around a patient’s bloodstream to the site of a tumour too small to be tackled by surgery.” [19]

Nanosubmarines in The Press

In the year 2000 an image of a tiny robotic submarine travelling through a human artery travelled round the world and was even pictured in the UK tabloid newspaper The Mirror (Thursday, 7 September, 2000) under the title “Fantastic Voyage 2”. This tiny 4mm long craft was said to be able to save lives before the end of the decade, to be able to cruise through blood vessels using sensors to check for signs of illness and cancer and, it was reported, may one day be able to repair arteries and hearts. It was there to demonstrate in a visible way what could already be achieved in the field of micro- or nanotechnology. A similar picture was also exhibited at the Hannover Expo 2000 [see 11].

The year 2000 image of a prototype of a nano-submarine, which circulated widely in the press, appeared a century after a picture of Jules Verne’s Nautilus had graced the visitors’ guide to the Paris Expo in 1900 [20], a sign that the Nautilus had become part of modern mythology (see figure 1 for another example). We seem to have come a long way in a century, but we can’t seem to leave the Nautilus myth quite behind us yet – and, as we shall see, it would soon merge with the nano-myth. (It should be stressed however that the year 2000 image was not the first. An image of a nanosubmarine swimming through a capillary and attacking a fat deposit, such as normally may accompany an arteriosclerotic lesion, was published as early as 1988 in an article for the Scientific American, for example [21]).

Microsubmarine. Micro-submarines in the body, conceptual computer artwork. Microscopic machines such as these may be introduced into the body to augment the body's immune system. The submarines could be programmed to find and destroy tumour cells, for example, or to repair defects in organs and tissues.

Figure 1. Microsubmarine.
Micro-submarines in the body, conceptual computer artwork. Microscopic machines such as these may be introduced into the body to augment the body's immune system. The submarines could be programmed to find and destroy tumour cells, for example, or to repair defects in organs and tissues. CONEYL JAY / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Nanoboats in Defence Applications

Moving away from nano-medicine, the year 2003 brought news that ‘nano-fish-boats’ could be invented to spy on (real/real-size) submarines:

The concept of “nano under the sea” is not so far-fetched. The move to Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) minisubs, to torpedo-tube-launched unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) for minefield surveillance and other dangerous duty, and the planned armed unmanned undersea combat vehicle MANTA, can be viewed collectively as a trend toward miniaturization serving twin purposes: increasing stealth, and minimizing casualties if stealth were compromised. [22]

Before these various medical or military futures catch up with the present, I would like to look at the past and explore the genealogy and iconography of imaginary nano-bo(a)ts, especially nano-submarines, that have nurtured popular imagination and might still be nurturing the imagination of artists who produce nano-illustrations deposited at the ‘Science Photo Library’, for example, from which some of the illustrations for this article have been taken. Such images, which draw on both technical and aesthetic expertise, depict the progress of nanoscience while at the same time driving it forwards.

An Iconography of The Nano-Boat: From Nemo to Nano

As shown in previous studies [23, 24, 25, 8] popular culture and imagination do not simply follow and reflect science; rather, they lead and anticipate developments in science and technology. This is nowhere more apparent than in nanoscience, especially as far as the nanoboat is concerned. Let us now look more closely at the way it has travelled between popular and scientific and adult and juvenile imagination.

Evolution of the Nano-Submarine

The following (rather incomplete) table charts the origins and development of the nano-submarine that has enchanted readers and viewers for more than a century and a half:

Table 1. Nano-sciencefictionalisation (The shaded items are not directly related to nanosubmarines).

(Some) Fictional/Visual influences on nanoscience

(Some) Fictional/Narrative influences on nanoscience

Nanoscience meets nanofiction

1869 Jules Verne: 20,000 Leagues under the sea: popularises lithographs of the Nautilus

1916 silent film version of Verne’s book

1954 Disney version of the book: popularises new image of the Nautilus

1942 Heinlein publishes Waldo: popularises fictional image of tiny mechanical surgeons

Toys, games, mock-ups, comics, many different editions of Disney’s 20,000 leagues swamp children’s imagination

1947 Eric Frank Russell publishes Hobbyist: “atom fed to atom like brick after brick to build a house.”

1955 Russell publishes serial Call him dead: “surgical and manipulatory instruments so tiny they can be used to operate on a bacillus.”

1959 Feynman gives speech: “There is plenty of room at the bottom” – launches nanoscience – possibly influenced by Heinlein

1966 Fantastic Voyage: film popularises image of nano-surgeons and nano-submarines; image of sub called Proteus is based on popular 1954 image of Nautilus

1977 Episode of Dr Who: The invisible enemy parodies Fantastic Voyage

1982 FV released as computer game

1973 Mahr Beware the Microbots

1985 Bear Blood Music (A scientist has been carrying out research behind the back of the biotech firm he works for. When the company finds out, he is fired and ordered to destroy his work. Smuggles it out in his bloodstream)

1987 Inner Space – parodies Fantastic Voyage

1986 Drexler published Engines of Creation

1995 Goonan starts writing sci-fi stories about nano; Stephenson publishes Diamond Age

1999 1999 Freitas published Nanomedicine, first medical nanorobotics book.

2001 Episode of Futurama parodies Fantastic Voyage and Dr Who episode; episode of “Invader Zim”, called NanoZim parodies Inner Space

2002 Crichton’s novel Prey puts nano and ‘grey goo’ on the narrative map

2000 picture of nano spermsorter

2000 iconic image of a nano-submarine

2004 Marlow publishes Nano- a nano-‘swarm’ thriller

2004 fact/fiction image of nanobot appears on Physicsweb

In a recent article on nano-hyperbole, Chris Toumey wrote:

One of the ways people try to envision the future of nanotechnology is to tell stories about the past, expecting that the future will continue certain features of the past. If one tells stories which emphasize that the founders of nanotechnology past were heroic geniuses, for example, that kind of emphasis would bless nanotechnology present and future as a noble effort whose heroic qualities endure. [17]

Envisioning the Future of Nanotechnology

Another way in which people try to envision the future of nanotechnology is to show and use images of the past, including images of heroic geniuses, their vehicles and voyages, expecting that the future will continue these images of the past in the same glorious, spectacular and fantastic way.

The Roots of Nanotechnology – Twenty Thousand Leagues under The Sea

If we want to find the roots of some of the most popular images of nanotechnology, we have to look back to the 19th century, the century of industrial revolution and scientific progress, in particular to the year 1869 when Jules Verne published Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [26] (and one should not forget that some describe nanoscience as the next industrial revolution [27]). The novel describes the adventures of Professor Aronnax (a naturalist and scientist), his servant Conseil (named after an inventor of a real submarine which was tested in Paris in 1859) and Ned Land, a whale hunter, stranded on board the submarine Nautilus, steered by the nameless and timeless, misanthropic Captain Nemo, the forefather of modern superheroes.

This novel, illustrated with drawings by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou (a student of Gustave Doré’s, the most popular and successful French book illustrator of the mid-19th century), was the fifth in the series of novels entitled Voyages Extraordinaires, which also contained the famous novels In 80 days around the World, From the Earth to the Moon, and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea became one of the most popular of these adventure and discovery novels designed to ‘teach’ the reading bourgeois public, and most importantly children, in an amusing way about science and technology. Before being published as printed books, the Voyages Extraordinaires first appeared in the form of feuilletons in the Magasin d’Education et de Récréation, published by P. J. Hetzel in Paris. Pictures of otherwise invisible places, portraits of heroic travellers, images of sensational vehicles travelling on land, through the air and under the sea, maps, representations of spectacular fauna and flora, etc. became a means of bringing the unknown, unexplored, gigantic or invisible (at the bottom of the ocean, in the centre of the earth, on the moon, etc.) to a curious readership. Between 1920 and 1980 alone Vingt mille lieues sous les mers was reprinted 12 times with its original illustrations, until 1919 by the publisher Hetzel, after that by Hachette, and 15 times with new illustrations adapted to the taste of the audiences of the time. From 1930 onwards Hachette commissioned illustrations that would appeal more specifically to children; from 1960 onwards a general increase in interest in science fiction (especially after the moon landing) prompted Hachette to commission illustrations with a more avant-garde or modernist feel [28, 29].

In this process the Nautilus became, through various incarnations in print and film, the ‘Icon of the spaceship’, as Gary Wolfe has pointed out in his book The Known and the Unknown: The iconography of Science Fiction [30] (however, I would argue, since 1966, in iconographic competition with the Starship Enterprise).

Original illustration of the Nautilus.

Figure 2. Original illustration of the Nautilus.

Nanoboats Know No Bounds

The as yet virtual space explored by future nanoboats would be the inside of the human body. It all began however with the exploration of real, but largely imaginary, spaces on earth. The Voyages Extraordinaires begin an exploration of places of imagination that would eventually span the physical (from unexplored lands to outer space), the virtual and, finally, nano, where the unknown “is folded within the known objects and spaces we inhabit in our everyday life” [16], including our own bodies. By contrast, in Verne’s case, 19th-century everyday living (of the upper classes) is folded within the exploration of the unknown outside. The luxurious inner space of the Nautilus, inhabited by its heroic inventor Nemo, became even better known than it’s outer shape:

Original illustration of the interior of the Nautilus.

Figure 3. Original illustration of the interior of the Nautilus.

The voyages extraordinaires explore worlds known and unknown: the interior of Africa, the interior of the Earth, the deeps of the sea, the deeps of space. Characteristically, Verne’s voyagers travel in vehicles that are themselves closed worlds-his imagination projects itself in terms of “inside” and “outside”-from which the immensity of nature can be appreciated in upholstered comfort. The Nautilus is the most familiar of these comfortable, mobile worlds; inside all is cozy elegance, the epitome of the civilized and human, while outside the oceans gleam or rage in inhuman beauty or mystery. Roland Barthes finds the principle at the heart of Verne’s fictions to be the “ceaseless action of secluding oneself.” The known and enclosed space, the comfortable cave, is safe while “outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain.” The basic activity in Verne is the construction of closed and safe spaces, the enslavement and appropriation of nature to make a place for man to live in comfort. “The enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite.” [7]

Nemo looking out through window of Nautilus.

Figure 4. Nemo looking out through window of Nautilus.

Nautilus, A Template for Futuristic Travel

Transferred from outer space to inner space, the Nautilus has become the icon of the nano-boat and at one and the same time the icon of any ‘fantastic’ or ‘imaginary’ voyage whatsoever. It became a generic space-ship on which ‘micronauts’ began to travel through ‘inner space’, in an effort to appropriate ‘nature to make a place for man to live in comfort’. It also came to stand iconically for the ‘progress of science’, where the image of science as a voyage or journey is mapped onto 19th-century hopes invested in the positive outcomes of that journey, hopes which are still being conjured up by many biotech or nanotech entrepreneurs.

The Nautilus Myth Merges with The Nano Myth

Since 1869 the Nautilus has been represented in various shapes and forms, first in black and white then in colour in myriads of children’s’ books and comics together with its heroic inhabitant, Captain Nemo. But it also began to ‘move’: first in a rather silly adaptation by George Méliès in 1907, then in a silent movie in 1916 and, finally, in 1954, the Nautilus resurfaced in its most canonical form in Disney’s movie adaptation of Verne’s novel. It should be stressed that Walt Disney had the most famous Hachette edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea on his bookshelf (as reported by the French newspaper Le Figaro in 1952) and had carefully studied the original illustrations by Riou and de Neuville [29]. Nemo and the Nautilus were now transposed from the Victorian age of industrial progress to the atomic age of post-war fear and started to assume the double-edged associations of hope and fear which it would maintain once it had assumed nano-shape.

Nautilus Meets the Industrial Revolution

The age of the Industrial Revolution was taken up and used as a metaphor for the electronic and atomic revolutions that followed World War II. As Americans looked forward with excitement to the 1954 launching of Hyman Rickover’s “Atom Sub” significantly called the U.S.S. Nautilus, Disney was bringing to life the namesake of the Nautilus in Captain Nemo’s electric submarine boat and subtly altering its ideological texture to fit a new age. [7]

From 1954 onwards the Nautilus was no longer a Vernian creation but a Disney one, sprouting numerous reincarnations in the shape of toys, mock-ups, comics, illustrated children’s books, games, amusement rides and sequels.

The Nanoboat Begins Its Voyage

In the meantime, in 1966, the film Fantastic Voyage was released which incorporated a Nautilus-shaped submarine, the Proteus, into its script. The Proteus was created by the same man who had designed the famous Nautilus for Walt Disney's film adaptation of Verne’s novel: Harper Goff. In Fantastic Voyage the Nautilus, under the name of Proteus, entered the nano-age by being transposed from the outside to the inside of the body. In this film, based on a sci-fi story by the renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov (who had dubbed Jules Verne ‘the world’s first science fiction writer’), a group of scientists and doctors miniaturize themselves, are placed in a miniaturized sub and are injected into the body of a dying man in order to perform life-saving surgery. This is how the nanoboat began its iconic voyage of popularisation.

Illustration of the Fantastic Voyage, apparently the original book cover art

Figure 5. Illustration of the Fantastic Voyage, apparently the original book cover art. Reprinted with the permission of Prof. Raoul Kopelman; Laboratory website, Bio-Analytical NanoScale Chemistry & Materials, University of Michigan

Fantastic Voyage Meets Futurama

Fantastic Voyage and its plot inspired numerous parodies and meta-parodies. In 1977, for example, an episode of Dr Who, “The invisible enemy” merged speculations about cloning, which were around since the mid 1960s [31], and speculations about miniaturization in a pastiche of Fantastic Voyage: the Doctor and his assistant Leela are cloned, and the clones are miniaturized and injected into the Doctor to defeat invading parasites. The voyage leads him to the interior of his own brain. Another parody of both Fantastic Voyage and Dr Who appeared as a 2001 episode of Futurama (a cartoon inspired by Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons), entitled “Parasites Lost” (a play on Milton’s Paradise Lost). In this parody images of the nano-sub are merged with images of robotic droids – the heroes are Fry and Leela (!).

When Fry eats an egg-salad sandwich from a vending machine at a gas station, he begins to have strange side-effects -- he becomes stronger and smarter. Professor Farnsworth makes a diagnosis and concludes that Fry had ingested "intelligent worms" that have set up shop in his body. Because these worms are so smart, the regular means of flushing them out will not work. The Planet Express crew must shrink themselves to microscopic form and enter Fry’s body to fight off the intruders. Meanwhile Leela is left to divert Fry’s attention, but finds herself more and more attracted to the new man Fry has become. [32]

A Reaction to Fantastic Voyage Meets Futurama

A medical student who watched this episode recorded his reaction in a web blog:

I watched Futurama today, and I thought it was a pretty cool episode. First off, it was probably the first time someone had pointed out how absurd it would be [to] actually miniaturize people in order to enter a body (a la “Innerspace”). Instead what they did was create a bunch of nano-droid replicas and controlled them via VR gear and made the nano-droids get into a nano-spaceship. Second, when they finally did get into the body, it was pretty realistic. Well, as realistic as a cartoon can get. I never thought I’d hear a cartoon character utter the phrase “pelvic splanchnic nerve”. They even got their human anatomy right, as they entered through the ear, making a microhole through the tympanic membrane (which quickly sealed up because Fry--the guy they had entered--had been infested with worms that quickly healed all his injuries), and apparently travelling down the Eustachian tube to emerge in the nasopharynx. From there, they went into the nasal cavity, punched through a capillary, and got carried all the way to the heart. They even got the shape of erythrocytes right. By following the circulation, they eventually made it to the stomach, where they get pursued by some worms (Worms!) flying some TIE fighter-like craft [which appear in Star Wars, BN]. The heroes' nano-spaceship barely makes it through the pyloric sphincter (that's another thing I'd never thought would be uttered in a cartoon), leaving their pursuers to crash. And get this. You know what their objective was? To irritate the pelvic splanchnic nerves enough so that the motility of Fry’s bowel would increase, flushing the worms out. (In the Professor’s words, “After this bowel movement, he’ll be lucky if he has any bones left.”). [33]

Inner Space and Nanomedicine

This blog refers to Inner Space, the 1987 film that had, itself, also been a parody of Fantastic Voyage. This film took up the narrative of the nano-submarine once again when it told the story of a heroic sergeant who is miniaturized and injected inside the body of a hypochondriac and he, the hypochondriac and the leading lady get involved in various mis-adventures (which have no longer anything to do with medical issues as such or with visions of nanosurgery, as conjured up in Fantastic Voyage).

Posters of Inner Space show a ‘Nautilus’ that has sprouted robotic arms and legs swimming out of the open mouth of the hero. Between 1954 and 1966, when Fantastic Voyage was released, a different type of nano-machine had appeared on the fictional horizon and merged with the image of the Nautilus.  As Freitas explains in an article on nano-fictions which appeared in Nanomedicine:

Molecular Nanotechnology Nearly Invented in 1942

The late science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein nearly invented the concept of molecular nanotechnology in 1942 when he suggested a process for manipulating microscopic structures. Heinlein envisioned the extensive use of life-size teleoperator hands, called “waldoes”, complete with sensory feedback for full, remote-controlled telepresence. His fictional hero, Waldo, used a collection of these mechanical teleoperated hands for building and operating a series of ever-smaller sets of such mechanical hands. The smallest mechanical hands, “hardly an eighth of an inch across”, were equipped with micro-surgical instruments and stereo “scanners”, and were used to “manipulate living nerve tissue, [to examine] its performance in situ”, and to perform neurosurgery. Eric Frank Russell’s 1947 story “Hobbyist” described a fabrication process with “atom fed to atom like brick after brick to build a house”. In 1955, Russell’s serial “Call Him Dead”, also published in Astounding Science Fiction, had a virus-based alien intelligence that spread through contact with blood or saliva; the story features a “microforger”, a man who makes “surgical and manipulatory instruments so tiny they can be used to operate on a bacillus”. Also in the mechanical tradition, Isaac Asimov’s “Fantastic Voyage” in 1966 took its miniaturized human crew in a miniaturized submarine through the bloodstream of a human patient on a mission of repair. [34]

There is Plenty of Room at The Bottom

This was the (fictional) context in which Richard Feynman, renowned physicist and Nobel prize winner, was immersed when he wrote his famous speech “There is plenty of room at the bottom” [35] in which he explained that there is no reason why the miniaturization of production processes cannot be continued down to the level of atoms. The exploration of the bottom of the ocean (20,000 leagues under the sea) is here replaced by the exploration of the bottom of the atomic scale. In his speech Feynman “[t]ells stories about tiny writing, tiny computers, the actual visualization of an atom, human surgery accomplished by ‘swallow[ing] the surgeon,’ and “completely automatic factories” [8].

Fictional Nano-Machines become Part of The Factual Nano-Discourse

After merging the mechanical images of Heinlein with the vehicular ones of Verne, and transposing the technology from the outside to the inside of the human body, fictional nano-machines became part of the factual nano-discourse on the one hand and of modern (semi-factual/fictional) nano-illustrations on the other. These fictional nano-machines became instrumental in shaping the nano-origin ‘myth’ spun around the very inception of the field and are still used to shaping its (scientific, financial and political) future. It is highly probable, according to Milburn [8], that Feynman himself was influenced in his thinking by fictional stories about nano-surgeons “circulating in the discourse of science fiction long before science ‘grabbed the idea’”. Milburn comes to conclusion that: “If we really want to locate an origin to nanotechnology, it is not to Feynman that we must look, but to science fiction.” [8]

Science Fiction Evolves by Applying Miniaturization to Existing Ideas

This voyage from fictional to factual discourse, facilitated by one famous submarine, the Nautilus, seems to follow a general trend in science fiction writing that Vos Post and Kroeker have discussed in their article “Writing the Future: Computers in Science Fiction”. They claimed that many of the leaps in science fiction were made by applying miniaturization to existing ideas, in our case large submarines swimming in the oceans that become mini-submarines swimming in the human body:

Science Fiction and Moore’s Law

Generally speaking, science fiction has adhered to a kind of Moore’s law of its own, with each successive generation of writers attempting to outthink earlier generations’ technologies in terms of both form and function. Often, outdoing earlier fictions simply entailed imagining a device smaller or more portable or with greater functionality -- exactly the kind of enhancements at the heart of competition in the computing marketplace today. [36]

Journey of The Nautilus Continues

And, I would add: the nanotechnology marketplace as well. But this is not where the journey of the Nautilus ends. After having brought the Nautilus from the earth’s oceans to the veins and arteries of the human body, vehicular nanoboats were projected into outer space, especially inside the imagination of the physicist Michio Kaku. The Nautilus as the ‘icon of the spaceship’ began to boldly travel where nobody, not even Nemo, had gone before: to the final frontiers of size and space.

The Nautilus Turns into A Nano-Space-Ark

In 1998 Kaku, an internationally recognized authority in theoretical physics and the environment, wrote a book entitled Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century [37] in which he envisioned that soon swarms of nano-robots the size of viruses would scour our blood vessels, and that, with knowledge gleaned from the on-going Genome Project, we would be able to tweak our recalcitrant genes.

Nano-Space Travel

On November 22, 2000, Chris Wallace of ABC News interviewed Kaku. Kaku stated, “I believe that the first starship may be a nanoprobe, perhaps the size of your fist, which will use nanotechnology to miniaturize its propulsion systems.” [38] This idea was further explored in his book Parallel Worlds, published in 2004 [39]. Here Kaku goes into more detail about how nano-space-travel might work for a new generation of humans – what one could call post-humans. Merging ideas about cloning and about self-replicating machines with spaceships, space travel and space colonisation, he writes:

Self Replication

Given the astronomical number of possible planets in the galaxy, a Type II civilization may try a more realistic approach than conventional rockets and use nano technology to build tiny, self-replicating robot probes which can proliferate through the galaxy in much the same way that a microscopic virus can self-replicate and colonize a human body within a week. Such a civilization might send tiny robot von Neumann probes to distant moons, where they will create large factories to reproduce millions of copies of themselves. Such a von Neumann probe need only be the size of bread-box, using sophisticated nano technology to make atomic-sized circuitry and computers. Then these copies take off to land on other distant moons and start the process all over again. Such probes may then wait on distant moons, waiting for a primitive Type 0 civilization to mature into a Type I civilization, which would then be interesting to them. (There is the small but distinct possibility that one such probe landed on our own moon billions of years ago by a passing space-faring civilization. This, in fact, is the basis of the movie 2001, perhaps the most realistic portrayal of contact with extra-terrrestrial intelligence.) [40]

Speculation About The Future of Nanotechnology

Here, as everywhere in speculations about the future of nanotechnology, scientific visions meet science fictional visions and popular science meets popular culture – this time not only in the shape of popular images but also in the shape of popular tunes. One can just hear Strauss’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ playing in the background. Other musical backdrops to nanoscience stem from the Beatles (“We all live in a nano-submarine” [41]) and Disneyland (“It’s a small world” – used in the title of an article by a nanoscientist: “It's a small, small, small, small world”, [42]).


During its voyage through popular imagination, which began in 1869, the (nano-) submarine has become one of the most popular and most positive icons of nanotechnology and part of our visual repertoire. As a visual metaphor it has become part of Western culture, which makes it especially useful in the communication of science. However, like all metaphors, visual metaphors can highlight and hide aspects of reality; they can exaggerate or downplay issues; they can clarify or confuse arguments; new metaphors can create new perspectives on reality; old metaphors can project past promises and past controversies onto new achievements [43]. The use of verbal and visual metaphors and images should therefore be monitored very closely, especially at the inception of a new scientific field.

Recently, some of the most enchanting and seductive images of nanosubmarines and nanosurgeons have been produced by artists trying to imagine what a nano-future might look like or trying to illustrate real advances in nano-science. The following image, for example, shows artwork of nanosub inside a human vein.

Nanobot swimming through human vein.

Figure 6. Nanobot swimming through human vein.
Nanorobot. Artwork of a nanorobot (at upper left) removing a blockage of plaque (grey) from the wall of a human blood vessel. The nanorobot is using rotary blades to break up the blockage and sucking the fragments into nozzles. Around the robot are disk-shaped red blood cells. At right is the tip of the hypodermic needle used to inject the robot into the blood vessel. This type of robot, only 0.1 mm long, is a possible application of nano- technology to medicine. Plaque forms on the insides of arteries to cause atherosclerosis, restricting the flow of blood to vital organs. Nanotechnology is the science of constructing machines from microscopic components. JULIAN BAUM / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Another Science Photo, depicting a sperm sorter, was used in the New Scientist to illustrate an advance in medical nanoscience achieved by Australian researchers in the year 2000. [44] It was also used in the German newspaper Bild which had so irritated Professor James Gimzewski by publishing an article on nanobots blasting away cancer cells (see above). The photo was discussed on a Bild blogging site under the heading: Symbol(-photo) of the future [45].


Figure 7. Spermsorter.
Medical nanorobot. Computer artwork of a medical nanorobot holding a sperm cell. Microscopic robot technology could be developed in the future to treat disorders, such as infertility, in new ways. This machine has identified a suitable sperm cell (male reproductive cell) and is guiding it towards the egg (female reproductive cell, not seen) where fertilisation will occur. VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Just as the Nautilus became a positive symbol of the future at the end of the 19th century, so the nanoboat has become a symbol of the future at the beginning of the 21st century. Like the Nautilus, the nanoboat is there to make the invisible - an as yet utopian future - visible and, in the process it turns science into a spectacle promising spectacular cures for all sorts of evils. What Buisine wrote in 1974 about Verne’s descriptions of the oceans applies just as well to modern nanoboats: “Ce qui se donne comme description du visible n’est alors qu’une représentation au sens théâtrale, une mise en scène du discours scientifique.” (That which presents itself as a description of the visible is in the end nothing but a performance in the theatrical sense, a theatrical display of scientific discourse) [46]. There are other continuities between the Nautilus and nanoboats. In both cases, fact and fiction merge. Just as Verne projected what was technologically feasible at the time into a fictional future, so nano-illustrators today project what is nano-technologically feasible into a fictional future. In both cases the writers and illustrators believe (or hope) that, some day, this future will become the present. In both cases, too, education and recreation merge. The reading and viewing public are not only informed about science, science is presented in the shape of recreational images. There is a difference however: the imaginary Nautilus, once it became real, say in the shape of the U.S.S. Nautilus, could be used in various ways, to protect or to destroy life, but it could not transform life directly. Nanomachines, if ever they become real, might well do this [47].

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous 19th-century English poet, imagination was the link between man and the world. In the case of nanobo(a)ts, imagination penetrates into the core of this link between humans and the world and makes the boundaries between the two fluid. Imagination feeds on the past to represent the future and feeds on the future to mobilise the present. This article has tried to show how some culturally well-entrenched images are helping to construct and link visions of a posthuman future to the present. Like genetic engineering and biotechnology, nanoscience (as an amalgam, some might say, of both) conjure a up visions of both hope and fear and, depending on the images used up by scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs, different futures can be constructed on the back of such images. Whereas Drexler’s Engines of Creations have, in the main, been narratively integrated into a discourse of fear and destruction, the Nautilus, in its various shapes and forms, has become an icon of scientific progress and, after merging with other images, an icon of hope and healing in medical nanoscience.

As Hub Zwart [48] has recently pointed out with regard to genomics, previous analyses of literary and visual sources have shown that the public understanding of scientific research tends to rely on a limited number of basic, stereotypical images [49, 50] which the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard called ‘archetypes’. They refer to typical expectations that lay audiences tend to have vis-à-vis science, to basic images that incite both fascination and unease among the public at large. The Nautilus, once miniaturized, links up with such archetypical images and with human beings’ eternal fascination with little things that inhabit hidden or secret worlds, from Lilliput and Tom Thumb to Fantastic Voyage and Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who (where Horton the Elephant hears a cry for help from a speck of dust, and tries to protect the infinitesimal creatures who live on it). Most importantly however, it links up with myths and legends about intrepid explorers in fantastic vehicles exploring what some call the ‘endless frontier’ of nanoscience [51].

Without the nanosubmarine (evoking relatively positive attributes of nano, such as invisibility and micro-locomotion, but not self-replication), the voyage of nanoscience might have entered much murkier waters of public imagination and expectation. With the submarine as an icon or symbol it is much easier to ‘sell’ nano to the public (just as the use of the ‘book of life’ metaphor made selling the human genome project easier, see [52]). This positive potential has recently been exploited for example by General Electric in the United States. As Howard Lovy notes on his Nanobot site: “General Electric is working on real-life nanotechnology, but somebody in its ad department knows that lectures on the company’s R&D in nanocomposites and nanostructured optoelectronics will leave viewers running for the fridge or the remote. Instead, it chose to try for the imagination, using cultural icons and humor”. [53] Using images from Fantastic Voyage, General Electric invited the public in 2004 to ‘take a journey into the human brain with GE’s InstaTrak 3500 surgical navigation system from GE Healthcare’. Nautilus meets nano meets neuro…… the story continues.


This article has been written at the Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society, University of Nottingham, UK, which is partly funded by the Leverhulme trust. I would like to thank Robert Dingwall, Colin Milburn, Anita and Malcolm Boshier, Cecily Palmer and Nick Wright for their helpful comments, and my son Matthew for his inspiring suggestions.


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Contact Details

Brigitte Nerlich
Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society
University of Nottingham
Law and Social Sciences Building
West Wing, University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

E-mail: [email protected]


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