Editorial Physics World  April 2018

The wets and the dries

The nanodoctor is in. (Shutterstock/aphaspirit)

The terms “wet” and “dry” have a surprisingly complex history. In early 20th- century America, a “dry” was someone who campaigned for the prohibition of alcohol, while the “wets” lived it up in speakeasies and concocted illicit gin in their bathtubs (at least in the Hollywood version of history). Half a century later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the labels took on new meanings, with the word “wet” used to deride British politicians who opposed the economic policies of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whereas “dry” referred to her supporters.

Somewhere between the end of Prohibition and the rise of Thatcherite economics, the tags “wet” and “dry” also acquired a scientific meaning. Initially, the distinction was straightforward and practical: a wet laboratory contains hazards associated with chemical or biological spills (along with equipment designed to minimize the attendant risks), while a dry lab is more likely to specialize in electronics or data analysis. More recently, though, the division between wet and dry science has become less about equipment and more about the actual systems under study. Someone who works on wet science, for example, is probably dealing directly with biological materials or systems (and often with entire living organisms), whereas dry science might take place entirely within a computer simulation.

This Physics World focus issue offers a balance between the wet and dry sides of nanotechnology. In the cover story, Peer Fischer explains how nano-devices can be made to “swim” through wet environments like those found inside the human body, while an article by Anna Demming reviews ways that nanomaterials could be used to fight both cancer and antibiotic-resistant infections. Over on the dry side, Andrea Ferrari shares his thoughts on how 2D materials such as graphene and boron nitride might make their way into commercial devices, while authors from two very different printed-electronics firms describe some of the strategies that helped their companies develop new products. And of course, the issue also includes updates on research from both sides of the wet/dry divide.

Historically, conflicts between wets and dries have produced clear victories for one side or the other. The US wets succeeded in repealing Prohibition, while the UK has been more or less dry (in the Thatcherite sense) for almost 40 years. Scientifically speaking, however, it is unlikely that either the wet or the dry side will ever truly dominate. Although many of today’s most important commercial applications of nanotechnology have a “dry” feel, there is plenty of exciting research taking place in “wet” areas, and the future of the field may well lie in bioelectronics or some other area that combines aspects of both. While it may not be true that – to adapt yet another phrase from Britain’s political past – things can only get wetter, they surely aren’t getting any drier, either.