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A Nanoscale Perspective on The Man in the White Suit

Each week between now and November 15th (publication day!) I’ll be posting excerpts from  Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies This week, it’s chapter ten, and the movie The Man in the White Suit.

The Man in the White Suit is a 1951 Ealing Comedy that’s as dry as it comes. So it’s perhaps surprising that it frequently makes it into lists of the top science fiction films of all time.It’s also firmly set in 1950’s Britain, and so is not strictly a “film from the future”, but the technologies it touches on and the issues it raises most definitely are. It’s also one of the most insightful films I know of when it comes to portraying the complex interplay between science, technology innovation, and society. 

The full book chapter dives into nanotechnology and advanced materials, together with the dangers of naively myopic science. But for this excerpt, I though it would be interesting to use the opening framing and synopsis of the movie, as it’s one that many readers won’t be familiar with. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!


In 2005, protesters from the group THONG (Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics) paraded outside the Eddie Bauer store in Chicago. They were protesting a relatively new line of merchandise being offered by the store: “nano pants.” It was never quite clear why the protesters were topless, although it did make the event memorable. But it did allow a crude but clever appropriation of the title of a 1959 lecture given by the physicist Richard Feynman. At least one of the protesters had an arrow drawn on their back pointing to their nether regions, along with the title of Feynman’s talk, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.”

Eddie Bauer’s nano pants used Nanotex®, a nanoscale fabric coating that make the pants water-repellent and stain-resistant. By enveloping each fiber with a nanoscopically thin layer of water-repellent molecules, the nano pants took on the seemingly miraculous ability to shed water, coffee, wine, ketchup, and many other things that people tend to inadvertently spill on themselves without leaving a stain. It was a great technology for the congenitally messy. But because it was marketed as being a product of nanotechnology, there were concerns in some quarters— including the THONG protesters—that putting such a cutting-edge technology in consumer products might lead to new, unexpected, and potentially catastrophic risks.

Sadly for THONG, the 2005 protest failed spectacularly. Rather than consumers being warned off Eddie Bauer’s nano pants, there was an uptick in sales, probably because, for most people, the benefits of avoiding brown coffee stains were rather more attractive than speculative worries about a dystopian nano-future. And to be honest, the chance of this technology (which in reality wasn’t that radical) leading to substantial harm was pretty negligible.

The nano pants incident was, in some ways, a preemptive parody of Transcendence, with the existential threat of nanobots being replaced with stain-resistant clothing, and the neo-Luddites trying to save the world being played by a bunch of topless protesters. Yet both the protest and the technology touched on the often- mundane reality of modern nanotechnology, and the complex ways in which seemingly beneficial inventions can sometimes threaten the status quo.

As if to support the theory that there’s nothing new under the sun, the 1951 movie The Man in the White Suit in turn foreshadowed both the technology and the concerns that played out in that 2005 Chicago protest.

***

The Man in the White Suit was made in 1951, and is, remarkably, a movie about stain-resistant pants. But more than this, it’s a movie about the pitfalls of blinkered science and socially unaware innovation. And while it is not a movie about nanotechnology per se, it is remarkably prescient in how it foreshadows the complex social and economic dynamics around nanotechnology, and advanced materials more generally.

The movie is set in the textile mills of the early- to mid-1900s North of England. This was a time when the burgeoning science of chemical synthesis was leading to a revolution in artificial textiles. Nylon, Draylon, and other manmade materials were becoming increasingly important commodities, and ones that were emerging from what was then cutting-edge science. Spurred on by these advances, mill owners continued to search for new materials that would give them an edge in a highly competitive market. These textile mills were rooted in an Industrial Revolution that had started nearly two hundred years earlier. Yet they marked a tipping point from using try-it-and-see engineering in manufacturing to relying on predictive science in the development of new products.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, there was what now seems like a remarkable separation between the academic world of science and the more practically oriented world of engineering. Innovators in the Industrial Revolution largely learned by trial and error and relied heavily on the art and craft of engineering. Human ingenuity and inventiveness enabled new discoveries to be translated into powerful and practical new technologies, yet rigorous scientific research was not typically a large part of this.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though, it became apparent that, by using a more scientific methodology based on predictive laws, models, and associations, companies could make breakthroughs that far exceeded the limitations of invention by mere trial and error. At the same time, the social legacy of the Luddite movement was still alive and kicking in the North of England, and there was a strong labor movement that doggedly strove to protect the rights of workers and ensure that new technologies didn’t sweep jobs and people aside quite as indiscriminately as it had done a century or so earlier.

Against this backdrop, The Man in the White Suit introduces us to Sidney Stratton (played by Alec Guinness), a self-absorbed chemist who is convinced he has the key to an amazing new fabric, and simply needs the space and equipment to test and develop his theories. Stratton could have had a glittering career at a top university, but he was shunned by his academic colleagues for his radical and obsessive ideas. So instead, he insinuates himself into an industrial lab, where he can carry out his research with relatively little interference. Everything goes swimmingly until the owner of the factory he’s working at starts to ask awkward questions.

Stratton is something of a lone genius. He despises the lack of imagination he sees in his more conventionally-minded and institutionalized colleagues and prefers to work on his own. His strategy of carving out some personal space in an industrial lab seems to be working, until it’s realized that no one can explain exactly what it is he’s doing, and why his research is costing the company so much.

As his proclivity for spending company resources on unfathomable research is discovered, Stratton is dismissed. But, intent on pursuing his science, he gets a job at a competing firm; not as a scientist, but as a porter. From here, he finds a way to secretly conduct his research in the company’s lab. At this point we’re introduced to Bertha (Vida Hope), a union rep who assumes Stratton is a laborer like herself, and who is fiercely committed to protecting his labor rights as a result.

As Stratton works at his double life, the lab takes delivery of a smart new electron microscope. While the rest of the scientists are struggling to make sense of this complex piece of equipment, Stratton can’t resist showing off and explaining how to use it. As a result, he’s mistaken for an expert from the electron microscope supplier, and is taken on by the textile company to run the instrument. And in the process, he gets full and unfettered access to the lab.

Stratton’s double life as a laborer and an illicit lab scientist works out rather well for him, despite Bertha’s suspicions that the management are taking advantage of him. That is, until he’s recognized as the formerly-disgraced scientist by the company director’s daughter, Daphne (played by Joan Greenwood).

Worried that Sidney’s up to his old tricks of spending the company profits on indecipherable experiments, she rushes to inform her father. But before she gets to him, Sidney manages to persuade her that he’s onto something. Intrigued, Daphne reads up on her chemistry, and realizes that he could be right.

Daphne allows Sidney to continue his work, and with her support, he successfully synthesizes the material he’s been striving for: a super-strong synthetic thread that never wears out and never gets dirty.

In Stratton’s scientist-brain, this breakthrough is going to transform the world. He assumes that people are sick of washing, mending, and replacing their clothes, and that his invention will liberate them. He dreams of a future where you only need to buy one set of clothes—ever. In Stratton’s head, what’s good for him is also good for everyone, and a world without the messiness of buying, washing, and looking after clothes is definitely one that he’s excited about.

But there’s a problem—several, as it turns out. And one of the biggest is that Sidney never thought to ask anyone else what they wanted or needed.

Stratton is so excited by his discovery that he rushes to the company director Alan Birnley’s home to give him the good news. What he doesn’t know is that Birnley (played by Cecil Parker) has just learned that Stratton has been blowing through the company’s R&D budget. Birnley refuses to listen to Stratton, and instead sacks him. However, Daphne points out that her father has just waved goodbye to one of the biggest discoveries ever made in the textile world, and Stratton is persuaded to come back and work for him. In the meantime, word of the discovery has leaked out, and everything begins to fall apart.

While Birnley is fixated on the short-term profits he’s going to make off of Stratton’s invention, others in the textile industry realize that this is not going to end well. They need their products to wear out and need replacing if they’re to stay in business, and the very last thing they need is clothes that last forever. So they hatch a plan to persuade Stratton to sign over the rights to his invention, so they can bury it.

To make matters worse, it quickly becomes apparent that the mill owners and their investors aren’t the only ones who stand to lose from Sidney’s invention. If the industry collapsed because of his new textile, the workforce would be out on the streets. And so, in a Luddite-like wave of self-interest, they also set about challenging Sidney, not because they are anti-science, but because they are pro- having jobs that pay the bills.

The more people hear about Stratton’s invention, the more they realize that this seemingly-great discovery is going to make life harder for them. Even Sidney’s landlady plaintively asks, “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?” In his naïvety, it becomes clear that Stratton didn’t give a second thought to the people he claimed he was doing his research for, and, as a result, he hits roadblocks he never imagined existed.

As everything comes to a head, Sidney finds himself in his white suit, made of the new indestructible, unstainable cloth, being chased by manufacturers, laborers, colleagues, and pretty much everyone else who has realized that what they really cannot abide, is a smart- ass scientist who didn’t think to talk to them before doing research he claimed was for their own good.

Just as he’s cornered by the mob, Sidney discovers the full extent of his hubris. Far from being indestructible, his new fabric has a fatal flaw. His wonder material is unstable, and after a few days, it begins to disintegrate. And so, in front of the crowd, his clothes begin to quite literally fall apart. Scientific hubris turns to humility and ridicule, and everyone but Stratton leaves secure in the knowledge that, clever as they might be, scientists like Sidney are, at the end of the day, not particularly smart.

And Stratton? His pride is dented, but not his ambition—nor his scientific myopia, it would seem. In an admirable display of disdain for learning the lessons of his social failures, he begins work on fixing the science he got wrong in his quest to create the perfect fabric.

***

The Man in the White Suit admittedly feels a little dated these days, and, even by 1950s British comedy standards, it’s dry. Yet the movie successfully manages to address some of the biggest challenges we face in developing socially responsible and responsive technologies, including institutional narrow-mindedness, scientific myopia and hubris, ignorance over the broader social implications, human greed and self-interest, and the inevitability of unintended outcomes. And of course, it’s remarkably prescient of Eddie Bauer’s nano pants and the protests they inspired. And while the movie uses polymer chemistry as its driving technology, much of it applies directly to the emerging science of nanoscale design and engineering that led to the nano pants, and a myriad other nanotechnology-based products…


Read more in Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, available for pre-order at Amazon.com.

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