Monday, December 01, 2003

Clash of the Nanotech Titans


Chemical & Engineering News, in its cover story on the Eric Drexler/Rick Smalley debates on molecular manufacturing, is allowing the world to witness the latest in a long line of dialogues on the fundamental nature of the universe that dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks and the dawn of scientific and philosophical thought.

Now, as then, the argument is not only about the direction of scientific progress -- in this case the current split in nanotech thought -- but it's also about personal pride, reputation and a place in the pantheon.

Drexler and his followers say Smalley is a dinosaur who is not up on current research and is out of his depth here. Smalley sounds very much like a professor scolding a student who has led himself down the wrong intellectual path.

But this is not just a case of two academics disagreeing. Behind each is the weight of followers who have largely different versions of what nanotechnology is or could be. What gives Drexler a sense of urgency, though, is not merely defense of his reputation, but also the way the government and business community has thoroughly embraced Smalley's vision -- not because there was a careful study of which has the most scientific merit, but because the Smalley dismissal of Drexler is the one that is more convenient for them to believe. Molecular assemblers are impossible, therefore pay no attention to the nuts on the periphery, and let's get down to business and get the economy moving (the prime motivator among national politicians). To take Drexler seriously would be to slow down commerce.

I've written before about the environmentalists' attacks on nanotechnology and how they are on the wrong track when it comes to regulation of nanosize chemicals. Existing regulations can and will cover it. But they are on the right track in that the government is not thinking of what is best for society. To the government's credit, it created a center to think about ethical issues (although the new name, American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, has a strangely military ring to it.). But while this provision of the nanotech bill is a philosophy and communications department head's wet-dream-come-true, the government has already determined that some of the science that they are to debate -- molecular manufacturing -- is impossible and unworthy of study.

Smalley has won in the public arena, and my own print publication has done nothing short of elevate him to the rank of the gods in its bimonthly worship of his work. Yet Drexler has always been ahead in the popular arena, and Smalley himself admits in this current exchange that he was among the many who was inspired by "Engines of Creation."

The problem is everybody read and was inspired by "Engines of Creation," but not too many people talk about "Nanosystems," in which Drexler hones those ideas. What Smalley and others do, then, is guess -- and guess wrongly -- how Drexler would achieve the broad vision. Then, they present the arguments as to why their own convenient "straw Drexlers" are wrong and call it a refutation of molecular assemblers.

What's next? It's up to the people to decide. Is there a burning curiosity about true bottom-up molecular nanotechnology, coupled with concern over who else might develop such a capability first? Or are we only in it for the money?

I am not qualified to determine whether Drexler or Smalley have the force of real science behind them (At least, science as we understand it today. We all know well that what is considered impossible in one era is a commonly used technology in another). I'll let the experts debate that, and I'll watch with fascination on the sidelines. But I've covered local and national government enough to confidently question the motives of those who side with the Smalley camp. And as a naturally curious person, I am baffled by the decision of a government body to launch a significant national effort to develop nanotechnology and study its ethical implications while leaving such an obvious, gaping hole in this expensive undertaking.

You want to use Apollo analogies? In 1962, JFK did not lay out his dream for space exploration by touting the benefits of Tang and Teflon, while dismissing the thought of going to the moon.

How about the Manhattan Project? I'll quote from Drexler here, in a written report to the Royal Society in London:

    "The very breadth of this range of applications has stimulated a reflexive rejection of the possibility of the enabling technology. This is, however, like rejecting data on the neutron-induced fission cross-section of the U-235 nucleus in 1940 because one disbelieves the possibility of a million-fold increase in the energy density of explosive devices. The magnitude of the expected consequences gives reason for careful evaluation of feasibility, not for emotional dismissals. Thus far, the dismissals have effectively inhibited the feasibility studies."

Translation: What if the scientists who believed atomic power was physically impossible had the ear of the U.S. government during World War II? If you think that's a ridiculous thought, go look up Leo Szilard. He had some crazy idea about creating a nuclear chain reaction so powerful that it could change the balance of power in the world in an instant. He said such harnessing of atomic energy was so dangerous that society should figure out a way to control it. The leading physicists of his day, including Enrico Fermi, said such a thing was not possible. It took a letter from former atom-splitting skeptic Albert Einstein, who by 1939 had come around to the possibilities of uranium, to finally convince President Roosevelt to toss some money Szilard's way for a feasibility study on atomic chain reactions.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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