Sunday, November 30, 2003

Spending power

energyWith all the talk about the nanotech bill, this plan from the Department of Energy, "Facilities for the Future of Science," (PDF, 1.2 MB) did not receive as much attention as it deserved. Much of it involves simply building the infrastructure (28 new science facilities) to enable some of the energy ideas that have been floating around for years, and of course to come up with some new ones. Fusion and supercomputing top the list of priorities, but nanotechnology gets a few perks thrown in there, too.

"Today, our investments in nanoscience – the science of very small things – are making the Department of Energy a leader in a global scientific effort that will give us the ability to build new and better materials from the molecular level," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a speech to the National Press Club in early November.

One of the priorities is an upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. "The APS upgrade will greatly enhance the brilliance and power of the facility to enable scientists to study very small sample crystals—important for nanoscience research," the report says.

More on energy here and here.


Friday, November 28, 2003

Drawing a nano-sized line in the sand

Whether Iraq had a nuclear weapons program just before the U.S. invasion will be debated for decades to come, but there is one indisputable fact that should be dealt with in the short term: Iraq's science community is now one of the country's richest untapped natural resources.

Iraq is not the only nation to find itself with so much brain power and so little in the way of infrastructure, funding and sense of national direction. Contained within the independent nations of the former Soviet bloc, including Russia itself, are underfunded scientists and institutions looking for a way to apply their knowledge. Without a plan to tap into this resource, there's a danger that Iraqi scientists could make themselves available to the highest bidder, as did some of their counterparts in Russia who sold nuclear secrets to Iran.

That's why the Royal Society in London should be commended for helping to found the Iraqi Academy of Science to keep the best and brightest working to rebuild their country's technological base. According to this report from the Royal Society, Iraqi scientist Hussain Al-Shahristani said:

    The Iraqi Academy of Science will be an autonomous, self-governing organisation of distinguished scientists dedicated to employing their talents for the advancement of science in Iraq. The Academy will also revive Iraqi talents for the good of humanity after decades of abuse of Iraqi scientists under Saddam Hussein's regime.

There appears to be a Middle Eastern scientific renaissance occurring, despite the tremendous amount of resources wasted during decades of plotting ways to annihilate the infidel next door. Science Watch reports that Middle Eastern nations, especially Iraq's former nemesis Iran, have increased their "presence in world science." Just think what could be accomplished if a "peace dividend" were to ever fall into the laps of the Arab and Persian scientific worlds. Remember, it was they who kept enlightened thought alive while the Europeans wasted a millennia or two slaughtering one another and actively discouraging scientific progress.

Not included in the Science Watch statistics, though, is Israel, whose science output is so large that it would preclude any meaningful comparison with its neighbors.

Small Times' Israel correspondent has a report on the state's nanotech program, and particularly former Prime Minister Shimon Peres' newfound sense of mission that ties nanotech to enhancement of water resources and, yes, even peace. I'll have more to say on how nanotech is all wet (in a good way) in dry areas, but for now here's some more background on nanotech in water desalination, here's more on Israel's technological rebound and here's some info on Israeli and French (yes, you read that correctly: French) cooperation in bio- and nanotechnology. See what can happen when nations put politics aside and share their knowledge? Somebody should tell that to Professor Mona Baker of the University of Manchester, whose blackballing of Israeli scientists reminds us of how even from great minds there can emerge the worst small-mindedness.

I can tell from my Web stats that I do have some readers in Iran, which has nanotechnological goals of its own. To them, I'd like to extend an invitation to contact me and see how we can get a battle plan together for an all-out war on inequitable distribution of resources such as fresh water and arable land, brandishing nanotech-enhanced weapons. Having spent much of my journalism career writing about the Mideast conflict, I'm certainly not blundering into this subject under the influence of any kind of naive daydream that historical, cultural, religious and political barriers will simply melt into the desert. But it couldn't hurt to set up a tent.


Nano not hep to this cat

Gordon Wozniak, who the Contra Costa Times describes as the Berkeley City Council's "resident scientist," has a colorful way of telling his fellow council members not to worry about unfounded fears that stray nanoparticles will escape the molecular foundry being built at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    "Nanoscience is not something new or radical. This is existing science that's been hyped as 'nanoscience' to get money from the federal government. You can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting something called 'nano.'"

I'm wondering which charlatan scientists he's spoken to. The ones I've spoken to and read about are planning to do some real nanoscience at the new lab, including Steven Louie, a winner of the 2003 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. Is it possible that Louie's fooled a bunch of really smart people into believing that his cutting-edge work with nanotubes is just the same old existing science hyped as nanoscience? I'll need to go through my interview with him very carefully to find evidence of hucksterism, since the Berkeley City Council's "resident science" (who should know better) apparently has the inside dirt.

But back to that unfortunate feline. It obviously was not the lab that killed the cat, since it was already dead before it was swung into "nano." I suppose that leaves "curiosity" as the only other possible suspect.

More posts on molecular foundry protests can be found here, here, and toward the bottom here.


Wednesday, November 26, 2003


Glenn Reynolds, in his latest Tech Central Station column, joins the ranks of those of us who support the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (PDF, 56.1 KB), but are a bit baffled by the provision for a study on "molecular self-assembly." Reynolds writes:

    Another important issue in the bill is the provision, in Section 5(b), for what is called a "study on molecular self-assembly." I'm not sure where this language comes from: the bill calls for "a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale." I think that this means a study on self-replicating molecular-scale systems, but self-assembly isn't really self-replication. Given that self-assembling nanodevices have already been demonstrated, taking a narrow view of this language seems unlikely to accomplish much: It's like performing a study to determine the feasibility of integrated circuit chips. Been there, done that. Presumably, the broader interpretation of the language will obtain. If it doesn't, that may be an early sign that federal officials aren't really serious about developing what most people would consider to be true molecular manufacturing. Let's hope it doesn't.

Thank you, Instapundit! I no longer feel I'm a voice in the wilderness.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003

NanoBusiness As Usual

There's an interesting passage in a positively giddy-sounding NanoBusiness Alliance newsletter: "(The nanotech bill), contrary to earlier drafts, does not develop an elaborate feasibility study of Drexler style molecular manufacturing."

Congratulations. You must be very proud.

"NanoBusiness News, The Leading Voice of the Nanotech Revolution," goes on to thank all those who, I presume, helped to strip the bill of some of its vision: "If there is any justice a hundred years from now you will be in history books for the leadership and effort you all showed."

Indeed. The first rough drafts are being scribbled right now.

One more interesting choice of words in a quote from F. Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance: "Both sides of the aisle in Senate should be commended for their FORESIGHT and hard work in getting this bill through."

OK. The bold caps are mine.


Intel's 'Nano Inside'

Intel says it's now a master of the 65-nanometer domain. But are these nanochips truly "nanotechnology?" I was surprised when "Engines of Creation" and "Nanosystems" author Eric Drexler -- whom I had assumed to be a molecular manufacturing purist -- told me he thought they qualified.

"People sometimes perceive me as saying, 'Oh, you shouldn't use the term this new way,'" Drexler told me in October. "What I've actually been saying is we need to understand that it's being used in a new way ... that has a certain relationship to the field."

Drexler's not only glad to have Intel aboard, he's been buddying around with Paolo Gargini, director of technology strategy for Intel.

But here's the real reason he's welcoming the chip industry to his nano lair (and these are my words, not his): It's a great gateway drug for the general public. If consumers think of Intel's tiny chips as "nanotechnology," then that can replace the negative images of far-away or far-fetched doomsday scenarios being planted elsewhere. If just a simple leap beyond the nano barrier can enable faster, cheaper computing devices with cooler graphics, just think what molecular or quantum computing will bring.

"I think it should be made very clear to everyone that today's Intel chips are, according to the official definition, 'nanotechnology.' There's nanotechnology in your laptop. Are you afraid of your laptop, other than because of the operating system?" he grinned.

This line of argument does beat the ongoing nanotech "debate," which sounded a bit like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" when I heard Drexler describe it:

    "People who are uncomfortable with the long-term (consequences) would say, 'No, that's not real, that's impossible.' Those who understand that it's real, it is possible would say, 'This is real, this is possible.' The press would hear this as, 'It's imminent,' and you'd go around again because people would say, 'It's hype, it's not imminent.' Well, no one said it was imminent. We said it was possible ... "

Drexler optimistically placed this vaudevillian level of debate in the past tense, but I'm not sure we've quite moved on yet.

Back to the Intel story. If you're curious about "strained silicon," which is the "nano inside" Intel's new chips, Small Times' Jack Mason was well ahead of the pack with this report from September 2002. At the time, Cientifica's Tim Harper called it "physics rather than nanotechnology."

Physics? He's our shortstop, and we're not even talking about him.


J.R.R. Nano

'Matrix,' other geek icons become philosophy-class fodder:

    Some people think we should stop all research into genetics, robotics and nanotechnology because they have the potential to destroy the human race, said Schick. "We should throw these technologies back into the fire," just like the Council of Elrond voted to destroy the One Ring of Sauron, the Dark Lord, he said.

Oh, brother. Please stop. Please, please stop.


Nano Boy Band

Thank you, FutureFeedForward:

    "The band, known as "5-N-Love," consists of five autonomous, nanoscopic animatrons, each equipped with full-range, posable bucky-ball-and-socket joints, a quantum-computational "nervous system," and a signature hairstyle. "Beau is the cute one," explains Professor Stone, "while Jack's a little more mysterious, a little 'dangerous."


Monday, November 24, 2003

Nano's got a brand-new bag: Politics

Tim Harper and Paul Holister at Cientifica ask in their latest edition of TNT Weekly whether anybody here in the colonies actually read the nanotech bill (PDF, 56.1 KB) or understand what nanotechnology is.

They take swipes at the bill's provision for a "one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly …" and correctly point out the absurdity of the U.S. government requiring a study to prove that what has already been accomplished, can in fact be accomplished.

Harper and Holister go on to say:

    We assume that the report actually intended here to refer to the creation of materials and devices using the hypothetical, and controversial, molecular assemblers that are a part of the Drexlerian vision of 'molecular nanotechnology' (or zettatechnology, to use the latest label), and the resulting notion of molecular manufacturing. The fact that the bill made it this far containing such a basic, and fundamentally important, error is somewhat worrying, as it indicates that at least this part of the document has not been checked by anyone with a basic understanding of nanotechnology.

Tim and Paul know that I'm a fan of their work (and I've told them so), but I'm going to have to disagree with them on this one. The bill's language is no "error." The document was checked very carefully by those who understand nanotechnology. It's just that nano's got a brand-new branch: "political nanotechnology" (How about "polinanotech," since we're coining new terms these days?)

The original House version (PDF 99.4 KB) of the bill -- now worth only its weight in Thanksgiving Parade confetti --contained a provision to study "molecular manufacturing."

I'm not ordinarily a conspiracy theorist, but this one is obvious. So, I hereby retract what I wrote last week about molecular manufacturing proponents having cause to celebrate, and I once again wonder out loud why Congress – despite last week's inspirational rhetoric in the House and Senate – appears to be afraid of simply asking a question.

There are ongoing efforts to find out.


We're Number 6!

This site won the weekly Top Ten Blog awardNanoBot is in the weekly Top Ten BlogSpot sites for the week, according to a note I received this morning from Yes, this and four bucks will get me an eggnog latte at Starbucks, but it's still good to know that a few people read this blog last week. The Bloggerforum site puts Howard Lovy's NanoBot at No. 6 for the week. No. 1 is Where is Raed?, the famous Baghdad Blogger that put us all on the map -- not bad company for a niche technology/science blog.

Here's what Bloggerforum tells me about the selection process.

    We simply let Google make the selections. We limit the Google search to Blog*Spot hosted sites and we limit the search time to the prior one-week period. This allows newer sites a chance to compete. This is mostly for fun and the method used is far from scientific. Still, it does indicate that Google considers your site important in comparison to other blogs in that one-week period.


Sunday, November 23, 2003

Stairway to Heaven

space elevator

The Space Elevator: You've seen it legitimized, lampooned and blogged, but here you can see it beautifully illustrated. Even if you think the idea preposterous that nanotubes will buy us a stairway to heaven, it's still nice to imagine. This illustration was done by Chris Wren, who makes a living using his imagination at Mondolithic Studios with his partner, Kenn Brown. I'll let Chris explain why and how he came up with this Space Elevator illustration:

    I did this piece for a commission we got from Focus magazine in Italy. Seems like the old idea of the space elevator is starting to be taken seriously again. The article's focus (no pun intended) was how new materials such as carbon nanotubes are finally showing promise in overcoming some of the technical and engineering challenges presented by such a massive project.

    I've always been fascinated by the idea of a space elevator, ever since I read Arthur C. Clarke's "Fountains of Paradise." But when I started to look for reference images on Google, I was surprised at how little there was. I found a few images, but they didn't really seem to suggest the sense of extreme height and perspective that I thought would be cool.

    I used 3DS Max to model and texture the elevator itself. Then I took it into Photoshop, and added a lot of the small accent lights. The Earth itself is a composite of NASA images, and satellite cloud imagery. I did up the city lights with MAYA's paint effects, and some hand brush work in Photoshop. The final image size was 6000X3000 pixels, at 72pp1.

    There was a symposium last year to discuss practical plans for the design and construction of a space elevator. Arthur C. Clarke himself even made a live speech via satellite from his home in Sri Lanka - a likely location for a space elevator by the way. Sadly, the participants agreed that the biggest hurdle to overcome was not technical - but the threat of terrorism. That's why the elevator is now being planned to be anchored to a midocean platform at some point on the equator.


Lost and Foundry -- The Sequel

From the Berkeley Daily Planet, a follow-up to this post.


Friday, November 21, 2003

'Societal Concerns' vs. Scientific Accuracy

My latest column is posted over at Small Times. It's about how the media can give the false impression that there are competing, but equally valid, bodies of research in areas of scientific disagreement. We're seeing this in general media reports on nanotechnology, which often give the impression that there is equal division between those who promote and oppose a moratorium on its development. I've delved into the issue before over here, too.

A few thoughts from my column that were left on the cutting-room floor:

If societal concerns are going to be taken into account, we need to look at how the society is being informed. The new American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center authorized by the nanotech bill should ask that question, as well. Any study on "societal impact" of a technology is also, by definition, a measure of the prejudices and preconceptions the public holds -- based in part on how the technology is explained to them. To take a reading of "societal concerns" is to measure popularly held beliefs, rather than scientific fact. Those who have assigned themselves the mission of informing society should, in theory, try as best they can to reconcile the two.

Christine Peterson at the Foresight Institute says that it's ultimately up to the scientists, themselves, if they want their story communicated properly. "It is a responsibility of scientists and technologists to educate the public. If they can't stand to deal with the media, they can go directly to the public via the Web and by writing books." But to do that is to also alienate themselves among their colleagues. Carl Sagan, she pointed out, paid a price in reputation among his peers for stooping so low as to try to communicate effectively to the uneducated.

Aside from the Royal Society's groundbreaking efforts, there are other projects that aim to bridge this gap of understanding. A European organization called the GreenFacts Foundation is working with scientists to help ensure that nonspecialists understand important scientific information.


Thursday, November 20, 2003

Nano bill passes the House

nanobill It's done. With some speechifying but no argument, the House passed the nanotech bill. Next stop is the president.

  • Here's the latest Small Times report.
  • The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology says it likes the bill, particularly, of course, the provisions to study environmental impact.

      "An open and honest evaluation of all the potential impacts of nanotechnology is vital to the long-term success of nanotechnology ," said Kristen Kulinowski, executive director for education and public policy, in a prepared statement. "By promoting research on both the beneficial applications and potential implications of nanotechnology, this provision ensures that nanotechnology's benefits are maximized."

  • Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, places the vote before an epic backdrop:

      “When one looks at the next 100 years of human development and the growth of the global economy, no vote taken by Congress in the past decade will have a greater effect then today’s overwhelming passage of the nanotechnology bill."


It's the nano economy, stupid

On Nov. 24, economists and urban planners will discuss how nanotechnology could become an engine of economic creation for Portland, Ore. The Hillsboro Argus reports the event will be Webcast and viewers will be able to e-mail questions.

The event, itself, is a question: "Will Nanotech Re-seed the Silicon Forest?" It's an important one to answer for a region that is struggling against a stubborn jobless rate, according to this report in the Portland Business Tribune.

It's no accident that one of the key drivers of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (PDF, 56.1 KB) is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The bill charges the National Science and Technology Council with encouraging "... the employment of underutilized manufacturing facilities in areas of high unemployment as production engineering and research testbeds ..."

Job creation and economic boostrapping is the undertone to world political and business leaders' abrupt discovery of nanotechnology (albeit a "nanotechnology" that is a more-direct cousin to the chemicals and materials industries, since true bottom-up molecular manufacturing isn't likely to create very many new jobs in the short term). This just-below-the-surface, almost desperate wish that nanotechnology will succeed as a last best hope for the economy is infused into discussions not just in Oregon, but everywhere from Upstate New York to Down Under.

But you don't find a great deal of reporting on this in larger publications, which focus mainly on the technological and controversial angles to the story. For the most part, you need to look at your local newspaper or chamber of commerce calendar of events to find out the extent to which your community leaders hope that nano is the answer.

As we've seen from Philly to Atlanta, Rushford to Russia, the fresh money being poured into nano development worldwide is not a story that should remain relegated to the geek ghettos of the science and technology sections, but it's also front-page news about the future of manufacturing and employment.

That's one reason Congress has taken a sudden interest in nanotechnology.


Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Senate passes compromise nano bill

Rather than create 100 new posts a minute, I'll use this link as Nano Bill Central. Check back here and at Small Times for updates.

  • Proponents of molecular manufacturing (see my previous post) will be happy to see this:
    • STUDY ON MOLECULAR SELF-ASSEMBLY- As part of the first triennial review conducted in accordance with subsection (a), the National Research Council shall conduct a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale.

  • To the above, The Speculist speculates, tongue firmly in cheek: "Damn. Too bad molecular manufacturing is impossible, or this would be really exciting."
  • Here's the final version (PDF, 56.1 KB) of the nanotech bill that passed in the Senate. Thank you to Tim Kyger at the Foresight Institute and Glenn Reynolds at InstaPundit.
  • Here's what the NanoBusiness Alliance has to say about the compromise bill.
  • Presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of the bill's co-sponsors, has posted his Congressional Record statement.
  • And scroll down about midway through this link from to read what Sen. George Allen, the bill's sponsor, had to say on the Senate floor.
  • The latest from Small Times' Washington Correspondent:

      Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the bill's sponsor in the House and chairman of the Science Committee, said today that the House could take up the Senate bill "in the next 24 hours," although a committee aide said it could slip to the end of the week. Boehlert said the bill has the support of Republicans and Democrats and should easily pass.


      Tim Kyger, the Washington representative for the Foresight Institute, a nanotech think tank, said he was pleased to see the bill includes two provisions that were particularly important to his organization. They included a feasibility study on molecular manufacturing and a more expanded definition of nanotechnology that "covers the idea of molecular machinery and manufacturing."

  • Interesting comments from nano researcher Daniel Moore.

  • Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a bill co-sponsor, is looking at it from a purely parochial point of view, telling the Albany Business Review:

      "Nanotechnology research and development is important to the economic future of New York and the nation. This legislation is an example of our continuing commitment to promoting New York's extremely skilled workforce, high-tech capabilities, and world class research facilities."

  • The silicon industry is working toward or at the nanometer scale, therefore electronics are reborn as nanoelectronics. More importantly for them:

      The industry expects that NSF will award $4 to 8 million in the next year on Silicon Nanoelectronics and Beyond related research as part of the NSF's Priority Area of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and, with today's passage of the Nanotechnology Act, anticipates that this can grow significantly over time."


Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Nanobionic man

JakeI haven't seen "Jake 2.0" yet. I'm probably too old for that demographic, but as a '70s child who grew up running in slow motion while humming the theme music to "The Six Million Dollar Man," I'm sure I'd be watching this one if I had a bit more time -- or a TiVo -- on my hands. But bionics are so '70s, and nanobots are now the rage. Some critics apparently like the formula, according to

    "Where "The Flash" gained super speed from the combination of being doused in chemicals and struck by lightning, Jake gainscleg his abilities from having nanobots [molecule sized computers, programmed to keep a living organism in perfect health] invade his body when their container breaks and cuts his arm. In short, he becomes a version of "The Six Million Dollar Man" only his technology is actually a living part of him - where Steve Austin's abilities, though a part of him, remained inorganic attachments."
Laugh if you'd like, but reality does occasionally catch up with fiction. Just ask Curtis Grimsley, a World Trade Center worker whose life was saved by a C-Leg on Sept. 11, 2001. It's not exactly the $6 million ('70s money) "better, stronger, faster" bionics that CBS envisioned, but it did the job for Grimsley.



I'm a bit slow this morning. Took me a while to realize this is satire.


Monday, November 17, 2003

*:nanotechnology - OneLook Dictionary Search

A quick "nanotechnology" search on OneLook's new Reverse Dictionary returns the following eclectic results:

    1. engines of creation 2. medical nanotechnology 3. cognotechnology 4. nanowire 5. ralph merkle 6. carbon nanotube 7. hedonistic imperative 8. diamondoid 9. grey goo 10. k. eric drexler 11. chris phoenix 12. foresight institute 13. mems 14. clanking replicator 15. nanomedicine 16. sub-molecular engineering 17. fungimol 18. nanoengineering 19. the diamond age 20. fluidic triode 21. futurism (philosophy) 22. posthumanism 23. david pearce 24. transhumanist socialism

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Lost and Foundry

As this Berkeley Daily Planet story illustrates, using the term foundry for a molecular research lab might not have been the best choice of names in a neighborhood where they protest first, ask questions later. Monday's meeting should be interesting.


Nanodays on Ice

The cryonics optimists are on ice unil nano saves the world, while this group is launching the lifeboats; nano iceberg ahead.


Parallel Nanoverse

The word "nanotechnology" appears to straddle a fissure in the multiverse. When theorists, chemists, physicists, ethicists and journalists talk with one another about nanotechnology, their conversations appear to exist on oddly divergent levels of understanding. They utter the same word at one another, yet premises, images, definitions are scrambled as the word slips between realities.

Great Britain's Guardian newspaper recently asked the nanotech question of the millennium: Should we be scared?

After reading the article, my conclusion is, "yes," we should be scared. We should be very scared. Not scared of nanotechnology in itself, but of this line of understanding that is so thin (thinner than a human hair?), we do not even realize that are failing to communicate. We are tricked into believing that we all have the same elementary understanding of what the argument is about.

This Guardian story fascinated me because it was a very informative report on nanotechnology as it exists in the lab today. Yet, a "voice" from the writer's keyboard, which may as well have come from the other side of a black hole, chimes in at random, making me wonder whether the narrator has read his own report.

    "And the term has been stretched by scientists keen to be involved in the nanotech revolution. For them, anything remotely small becomes nanotechnology."
Which scientists are guilty of this crime? He doesn't say. This "voice" then fades away again, and we're back to reading a fairly accurate description of nano as it exists today.

Then, the "voice" comes echoing again from somewhere in the space-time continuum.

    "Even if scientists knew how to build things from individual atoms and molecules, though, it's questionable whether they would know quite what to build."

Really? Well, in the universe I live in, the scientists who are working on bottom-up assembly are doing so because they know exactly what they want to build - from better computers to better clothing, and all levels of importance and frivolity in between.

It's clear that there are two concepts, two universes, of nanotechnology dancing a bolero – at times standing head to head, other times abruptly stamping and turning.

For now, the chemicals and materials industry have taken the name and the mantle of nanotech "reality." Yet it is molecular nanotechnology, as yet in the realm of the theoretical, that commands the real passion. This thing, this creature or creator, from a parallel universe, continues to weave its way into our debates over policy, ethics and possible futures.

Last month, Eric Drexler floated a new word past me - Zettatech - asked for my reaction, and then swore me to secrecy. The word is out now, and I'll have more to say on it later.


Thursday, November 13, 2003

Why won't we take that one small step?

Note: See the update at the bottom of this post

Looks like I struck a nerve with the question I posed a couple of weeks ago. I asked if it's time to reconcile the mixed messages being sent by the "nanotech industry" and the government, both of which promise wonders and profits beyond the imagination while also claiming that the technology that would enable much of their vision is physically impossible.

So, shouldn't we find out which way it is? If molecular manufacturing is possible, then how about an Apollo-style project to build the thing before somebody else does it first -- a nation or group that does not trouble itself over issues like societal and ethical implications. If it's found to be impossible, then let's permanently incarcerate the idea for the crimes of breaking the laws of physics and crying "goo" in a crowded policy theater. Then we can finally give the nano name completely over to the chemicals, manufacturing, biotech and defense industries -- with no underlying, pioneering sense of purpose other than to make lots of neat stuff and loads of money. No JFK-esque "Earth-to-moon" challenge required.

The question has prompted considerable debate on my message board and on Nanodot. To get the discussion going even further, take a look at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's designs for a "primitive nanofactory."

Incidentally, the House version (PDF 99.4 KB) of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act would have required a study on the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. But not a trace of it remains in the Senate version that could pass at any time now -- as soon as the esteemed body is finished playing its filibuster games. I wonder who had it axed, and what they're afraid of?

Update: The communications director at the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office tells me that the latest version of the Senate bill, dated Oct. 30, "includes studies of both molecular self-assembly, and self-replicating nanoscale machines or devices." That'd be great news if it survives. I've heard that there was some behind-the-scenes lobbying against that provision, though. What came out of a legislative conference between the House and the Senate? Not sure, but the filibuster is over, so I hope we find out soon.


Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Nano Goes 'Commando'


I'm going to have to ask my 12-year-old about this one. The new Sony PlayStation2 game, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando has a "character-growth system" (I'm such an old-school geek that I still associate the term with pre-PC-era Dungeons and Dragons) that allows players to earn "nanotech" points. Maybe there's some vague notion of a self-assembly process going on here, since these nanotech units can be earned if your character defeats its enemies.

This, of course, is more evidence that "nano" is the word du jour that connects with kids (and you know Sony doesn't release any new game without running every feature by a series of testers and focus groups).

I've written previously about the nano-generation here, here and here.

But back to the new PlayStation2 game, I always thought "going commando" referred to … um … keeping your nanopants closer to your skin.


Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Dave Barry sends up the space elevator

You know nanotech has evolved into cultural icon status when Dave Barry decides to hold it up to public ridicule. In his latest column, he gives the carbon nanotube space elevator idea the full mock treatment.

Now, I don't mean to imply that Barry, the master of printed wit (I am not worthy even to carry his thesaurus), would ever sully his eyes by taking even a glance at my blog, but I'll flatter myself, anyway, to think that he might have read my post on explaining the nanoworld to a lay audience. Barry really breaks it down here:

    Their plan is to build it using "carbon nanotubes," which, in layperson's terms, are nanotubes made out of carbon.
Great stuff, whether you're an elevator believer or not. If you hate to see nanotech mocked like this, get over yourself.

More on the space elevator in this post from September.


Israel and Iran going nano

Hebrew University in Jerusalem has opened a new Nanoscopic Characterization unit. For more background on Israel and nanotech, take a look at these posts here. And pick up the latest issue of Small Times magazine for correspondent Juan del la Roca's interview with Nobel laureate and nano believer Shimon Peres.

Meanwhile, Iran's president says it's time to devote more resources to nanotechnology.


Nano bums

A "smart nanotattoo for diabetics" sounds like a great application, but would it really be applied here?


Monday, November 10, 2003

The envelope please ...

Winners of the increasingly prestigious Small Times Magazine Best of Small Tech Awards have been announced. These awards recognize small tech achievement in the "here and now," rather than "someday." We're talking about innovations like anthrax detectors, solar cells and ... yes ... The Pants.


Friday, November 07, 2003

Required Congressional Reading

The new Daniel and Mark Ratner book, "Nanotechnology and Homeland Security: New Weapons for New Wars," is hyped as "a blow against ignorance and hype," and Small Times' hard-to-please book critic not only agrees, but also suggests you send a copy to your congressperson.


Merkle and the case of the misleading metaphor

This recent article in The Scientist describes the daily dilemma facing scientists and science journalists: How do you describe what can't be seen? Well, thank goodness for the marvelous metaphor. If you took all the metaphors I've used over the years and stacked them up end to end, they would reach from Earth to the far side of Uranus and back. But all the good metaphors I've used could dance on the head of pin, their substance a thousand times thinner than the width of a human hair.

Which takes me back to nanotechnology. It's suffering from a chronic case of misleading metaphor. It's actually no joke, since much of the gooey fear surrounding the concept of self-replicating nanosystems stems from the use of a bad biotech analogy.

A few weeks ago, nanotechnology and cryptography poo-bah Ralph Merkle sat down with me to talk about a number of issues, including the need to alter the analogy.

"I think one of the fundamental things which is not understood at this point is that artificial replicating systems, manufacturing systems, are going to bear about as much resemblance to the biological variety as, say, a 747 bears to a duck," Merkle said.

He gave a simple example: When a biological cell replicates, the copy contains the DNA that describes its own blueprints. But these onboard blueprints would be unnecessary in an artificial system, where a human controller could broadcast instructions to the device and tell it to make a copy of itself. It's called a broadcast architecture, something that's well known among those who study self-replicating systems and it's "very nonbiological," Merkle said.

"It's inherently safe. You cut off the broadcasts, it stops working. You can flush these things down the toilet and they just twitch randomly once they're out in the sewage and the sludge. They just won't function."

Maybe we need a new word, he said. "Simply to use the word ("self-replication") is in and of itself misleading because what people think about are biological systems. They don't think about the broadcast architecture because they've never heard of it."

I was a little amazed that this brilliant theorist placed so much importance on the only skill that I allegedly have -- word choices. So, I asked him why metaphors matter at all.

"Look. This is a democracy, right? So, the basic ground rules are laid by what people understand," Merkle said. "As we get closer and closer to this technology it's important people understand what's going on, it's important we clarify these issues, so it's important we have an understanding of what it is we're talking about.

"If you're thinking about biological systems and trying to apply biological analogies while regulating and controlling a field which is totally nonbiological, you get a bad mismatch."

Change the analogy to reflect reality, and thus change public perception? Now, that's an idea I can put into my pipe and smoke.


Thursday, November 06, 2003

'Trendy' molecules drain resources

Now, here's an angle to the "downsides of molecular science" story I hadn't thought of -- one that seems a bit more pressing than the far-reaching consequences that has everybody in a huff. In Britain, they're worried that as more money is being spent on "trendy" research, clinical science is being neglected.

    John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and a member of the working group, said investigations into the molecular and genetic basis of disease had shifted research “away from the bedside and into the laboratory.”
The solution being discussed is to allocate funding through research networks that focus on individual diseases and make sure that lab and hospital each get a fair share.


Nanotech bill update

The U.S. Senate has an ethical problem. Yeah, I know. Stop the presses.


Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Rocky's on a Roll

Another note from Rocky Rawstern, editor of Nanotechnology Now, who sent me a link to this Infoworld article: ETC's Pat Mooney is quoted, comparing nanotech to genetically modified (GM) foods:

    "We have one to two years to avoid ending up in the GM situation," Mooney said. "People are very hesitant after GM, and we need to signal that this will be different. So far we've gone down almost exactly the same road, with name calling, scaremongering and paranoia," he said. (my bold)
Rocky writes: "If indeed Mooney said it, then he's the pot calling the kettle black. ETC has been the primary source of the "scaremongering and paranoia." Not even Greenpeace has gone to the lengths that ETC has in terms of purposefully frightening the willing-to-believe-everything-they-read public."

Yo, Rocky. I'm in your corner. I've heard from other sources, too, that Mooney doesn't really believe his own balderdash, but I hadn't expected to hear it so blatently from his own mouth. It doesn't matter, though. He's done his job. Every nanotechnology story in the mainstream media has its required passage about "skeptics warn ..." with the citation of ETC's "research," which, as I've shown on this site, is nonexistent.


'Smack on the head'

Hey Howard,

Most excellent piece today! You hit it right smack on the head with "a perfect example of how the misrepresentations, distortions and half-truths that I've outlined previously on this blog are all coalescing into anti-nano dogma."

Do these folks honestly not realize how badly they damage their reputation and credibility with their outlandish and distorted statements? I mean c'mon already!!

They miss the point time and time again, which is that folks like Drs. Drexler and Merkle have actively (and with foresight) been talking about and discussing the means by which we can minimize the potential downsides of MNT.

I can only hope that the sheep-ple get past the hysteria and hyperbole and take the time to dig for the truth. Maybe its time to start a real "Nanoconspiracy Central" just to refute the many (and growing) half-truths, distortions, and outright balderdash.

Yours in continued amazement,

Rocky Rawstern
Editor Nanotechnology Now
Senior Associate Foresight Institute


Monday, November 03, 2003

Shocking photo of secret human nanofactory!


Is molecular nanotechnology possible? Well, I have exclusive footage of my own experiments in bottom-up manufacturing being performed in a secret laboratory in suburban Detroit, with my wife used as a human guinea pig. Here we see a mass of molecules that have been spreading out of control for the past 9 weeks, producing a strong heartbeat, along with two eyes, two armbuds and two legbuds. Our goal is to produce a human machine that combines the best genetic characteristics of us both, we hope. Tune in on June 13, 2004, the day we expect to open the vault and reveal the new, self-assembled little Lovy.


Nano Babel

More later, but for now what's interesting to me about the Slashdot discussion of today's New York Times piece is the seamless mixture opinions on the chemicals industry, which produces very real nanosized particles, and "self-replicating nanobots," which have yet to be invented. It shows that nanotech still needs to be properly defined before any kind of meaningful argument can happen. Otherwise, you have two "sides" engaged in parallel monologues.


Apocalypse Nano

From the anti-Jewish blood libels of the Old World to the modern mythology of tainted Halloween candy in the New, public hysteria usually begins with the idea that unseen forces are conspiring to poison us or kill our children.

This article in Resurgence magazine, The Heart of Darkness: Small is not always beautiful, is such a perfect example of how the misrepresentations, distortions and half-truths that I've outlined previously on this blog are all coalescing into anti-nano dogma. Just when I start thinking that perhaps I place too much importance on public perception, I read something like this to affirm that I'm on the right track here. Even forgetting for a moment my sense of outrage as a journalist as I watch repeated distortions and assumptions morph their way into established truths, as an amateur student of historical trends it's fascinating to watch the process happen.

I don't mean to pick on these authors, Lee-Anne Broadhead and Sean Howard. I'm sure they're very committed and knowledgeable people and I could have found a number of these types of articles at random, but this one struck me as fairly all-encompassing, so I decided to pick it apart a bit.

    The key to this minuscule music of the spheres is self-replication: atoms capable of reproducing themselves, building themselves up 'block by block' into whatever form we, the Masters, choose - supermaterials, superorgans or supercells, supercomputers, etc.
As I've written before, if self-replication is indeed the "key," government and industry are certainly not engaging in any grand consipiracy to grind it out. In fact, both sectors are falling all over themselves to assure the public that self-replication on the scale outlined above is nothing but a load of Crichton.
    The end of the natural world is, incredibly, the explicit, celebrated goal of much pro-nanotechnology literature and propaganda.
That's a new one to me. I must have missed that memo from Nanoconspiracy Central. If these authors are talking about attempts to end such natural phenomena as famine, drought and disease, then, yes, I'm one of those propagandists.
    A debate over the promise and perils of the atomic-engineering revolution has been going on for some time now, but until Prince Charles's timely and astute intervention in April 2003 the discussion was conducted away from the glare of the mainstream media and thus popular consciousness.
That's a new take on the old tale. In this version, Chuck saves the Earth. I'm surprised that the authors did not give the ETC Group credit for its role in bringing the nanothreat to his royal attention. What they gave him was a report that purported to tell of the dangers of nanomaterials in the environment but, as I've written before, was in fact a series of incomplete surveys of inconclusive toxicology reports, commissioned by ETC Group, itself.
    THE LACK OF public scrutiny of this fundamental new scientific direction is upsetting for a number of reasons ...
I hope the authors are joking here. If not, then they must be purposely clapping their hands over their ears and making humming noises. Nanotechnology, as readers of this site have seen over the past few months, is likely to become one of the most publicly scrutinized sciences since the invention of the brassiere.
    Eager to point to the potential benefits of this latest attempt to manipulate matter in the aid of human 'progress', the scientists involved in this research see no reason for public participation in any debate about their chosen projects. What, after all, could there be to discuss? For the celebrants of this new conjunction of biology, physics, chemistry, information technology and artificial intelligence, this is all a self-evidently positive step forward. Their message is quite clear: leave it to the experts and wait for the benefits to flow.
I'm not certain which scientists these authors interviewed to reach this conclusion, but the ones I've spoken to are eager for public participation in debate about their chosen projects, yet the problem is many of them lack the ability to translate the science into commonly understood terms.
    Some sceptical scientists, for example, are warning about the possibility that in creating tiny nanoprobes to deliver drugs more precisely, we could be creating the 'next asbestos' ...
Like an urban legend, I've heard variations of this "next asbestos" comment, and as near as I can tell it was said by only one scientist in the context of nanotubes being used in tires. The scientist, Mark Wiesner of Rice University, made the "asbestos" comment as a kind of challenge to his fellow scientists and to applaud the EPA's willingness to deal openly with nanotech's unknowns. You can read the full context of Wiesner's comments in this Small Times report from March 8, 2002. Then, the "sliced bread/asbestos" comment was picked up again by Newsweek in an article that I consulted on (see this blog entry), and thus remained a permanent part of the Google firmament, picked up and pasted into any one of a number of nanotech articles.
    Indeed, listening to the charge of Drexler and Sainsbury towards the Brave New Nanoworld, one sometimes wonders which century the world just, barely, lived through - surely not the century of chemical, biological and nuclear warfare, global warming, acid rain and Frankenfoods?
I haven't spoken to Lord Sainsbury, so I can't answer for him, but had these writers spoken to Drexler or even delved a tiny bit into his writings they would see that he has spent much of the past couple of decades, sometimes to the detriment of this own reputation, warning the world to think about what it's doing as it launches its full charge into the nano future.

There is more, but I'll stop here for now. You get the idea. It's obvious that in this initial phase of public discussion, the thoughtful ones are not controlling the agenda. But those who follow trends in scientific progress and social change tell me that this deliberate spreading of misinformation is "textbook." Over time, the truth will prevail. It could be years, it could be centuries.


Sunday, November 02, 2003

Nano's Thong Song

From: Joe Pivarunas Sent: Thu 10/30/2003 1:19 AM To: Howard Lovy Subject: A bit of nano humor Howard, I am an avid reader of your blog, and find the information contained within to be useful and enjoyable to read. Thank you providing such a valuable and insightful source of information. It is quite difficult to find humor in the nanotechnology community given the dryness of the topic, and most humor is accidental. I recently came across an unusual item while browsing the Nanobusiness Alliance that was tasteless, vulgar, and quite hilarious. I did not want to post it in our forums because the content is a bit offensive. I thought you might appreciate it. NanoBusiness Alliance: Classic Thong: " ... This product is designed to fit juniors. It fits snug, sizes run small. Please see our size chart for more information ..." Be sure to check out the front and back. I ordered two ... Regards, Joe Pivarunas From: Howard Lovy To: Joe Pivarunas Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2003 1:15 PM Subject: RE: A bit of nano humor Thanks for your kinds words about the blog! Yeah, I saw that NanoBusiness Alliance thong before. Very disturbing images go through my head! Tasteless, offensive vulgarity has rarely deterred me before, so please direct your readers here, and they can nanalyze it for themselves. Howard Discuss

Pondering Pachyderms

Elephant sandwich has generated some interesting debate over at Transterrestrial Musings.