Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Wanted: Independent nano watchdog

The Edmonton Journal asks: Will nanoscience repeat ag-biotech fiasco? The story is a rehash of all the issues NanoBot readers have been familiar with for more than a year now. But it gives me a good excuse to go into part of the "tough love" advice I gave to the Foresight Institute during my presentation last weekend.

If the group wants to remain relevant, it needs to address concerns associated with nanotechnology today, and not only this vague "someday" when true molecular manufacturing is in use.

Here's the background, for those who haven't been following what's going on: The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative made a decision a few years ago to shut "Engines of Creation" author Eric Drexler and his brand of nanotechnology (true, bottom-up self-replicating nanosystems and molecular manufacturing) out of the the realm of mainstream thought and government funding, and marginalize him and other scientists who believe this stuff is physically possible.

Much of the media have gone along for the ride, since it appeals to journalists' cynical nature to call true nanotech a bunch of crap. Most tech and business journalists are only now recovering from the crap they wrote during the Internet revolution. So, coverage centers on short-term products, business models, how to partner with existing industries and how to attract government and venture capital funding. And that's fine. That's great. Meanwhile, who is writing about nanotechnology? More importantly, who is serving as its watchdog?

Most scientists do believe bottom-up molecular manufacturing is physically possible. It's not even a question, no matter what Nobel laureate Rick Smalley says. Smalley has reasons for his marginalization of another branch of his own science that may never be truly known. Conspiracy theories abound, but you won't read them here.

The Foresight Institute, through its new director, Scott Mize (who comes from the nanobusiness community), is attempting to fight back against this negative image by engaging more in the political process, being more relevant to current economic, business and environmental concerns and countering this image as a bunch of sci-fi kooks.

What I told Foresight members last weekend was that they're going to have to climb out of their academic bubble for a little while (or even their mother's basements?) and engage in today's world. If its members looked around, they'd see a true opportunity.

This is the new public face of nanotechnology. Dr. Drexler, (and as a result, the entire Foresight Institute), is old news. The anti-nano movement: That’s the sexy story. That’s the new sensational story, and one that reporters can understand and are covering.

Nanotechnology, even the nanotechnology as defined by the U.S. government and the business community, is too far away for anybody to grasp it as reality. So, it’s a concept that can reflect our own views of the world. Nano is synonymous with genetically modified organisms? Of course not, but it doesn’t matter. It is, because they say it is, and there’s an audience ready to believe it because it conforms to their world view.

Here is where Foresight can leverage its distance from U.S. government and business interests by being an independent resource for all sides of the discussion. Distance from government and business pressures is a good thing in the eyes of the general public. Independence equals credibility – at least, I hope it does. Make it understandable and fire up the imagination of the people, which is the real source of Foresight's strength.

Then, while Foresight is at it, inform the people about true, bottom-up molecular nanotechnology and all of the promise and perils it could bring.

Not that I'm an expert in winning friends and influencing people, but that seems to me to be a way Foresight could gain a collective voice that's much louder than the aggregate of its current believers.


attobuoy said...

Howard, give us all a break. True nanotechnology is what Taniguchi defined in 1974, and it's what people actually practice.


N. Taniguchi, "On the Basic Concept of 'Nano-Technology'," Proc. Intl. Conf. Prod. Eng. Tokyo, Part II, Japan Society of Precision Engineering, 1974.

On the Basic Concept of ‘Nano-Technology’
Tokyo Science University
Noda-shi, Chiba-ken, 278 Japan


‘Nano-technology’ is the production technology to get the extra high accuracy and ultra fine dimensions, i.e., the preciseness and fineness of the order of 1 nm (nanometer), 10-9 m in length. The name of ‘Nano-technology’ originates from this nanometer. In the processing of materials, the smallest bit size of stock removal, accretion, or flow of materials is probably of one atom or one molecule, namely 0.1~0.2 nm in length. Therefore, the expected limit size of fineness would be of the order of 1 nm. Accordingly, ‘Nano-technology’ mainly consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule. Needless to say, the measurement and controll (sic) techniques to assure the preciseness and fineness of 1 nm play very important role in this technology.

In the present paper, the basic concept of ‘Nanotechnology’ in materials processing is discussed on the basis of microscopic behaviour of materials and as a result the ion sputter-machining is introduced as the most promissing (sic) process for the technology.

Howard Lovy said...

Attaboy, Attobouy! I think you've achieved the very first NanoBot filibuster. May I inject a comment into the record, if my esteemed colleague from the grand state of confusion will yield the floor?

You can call Taniguchi's criteria "Nanotechnology," "George" or "Late for Dinner," for all I care. "Nanotechnology," as it's come to be known in the lexicon of our culture, and as generally agreed upon by everyone from ivory tower academics to video game aficionados is the kind that caught the public's imagination first with Feynman in 1959, then with Drexler in 1986.

Companies from Intel to Eddie Bauer to L'Oreal can call what they do, "nanotechnology," as well -- or underwater basket-weaving if they prefer. But, like 3M told me for a report I helped out with at Forbes/Wolfe, it really doesn't matter, as long as it achieves what the company wants for its product. And, like I say, that's fine. That's wonderful. I make a living out of writing about companies that call what they do "nanotechnology," or more often these days seem baffled that I would even categorize what they do as nanotech just because they happen to be moving nanoscale stuff around.

However, the nanotechnology that gets the public excited or frightened, that truly represents a vast change in the way we will live and interact with our environment is atom-by-atom construction of material. So, you can argue that this is a fantasy, or is physically impossible, or is too dangerous or costly to attempt -- and these are all issues that should be debated -- but despite the best attempts of a few influential businesspeople and scientists, you just can't change the way people think.

The word "nanotechnology" is simply not associated with the Taniguchi definition. Sorry. History had other plans for the word. The "nano" prefix has also become a brand name for some really cool pants that I happen to own a few pairs of, or is synonymous with the next "get-rich-quick" scheme. And that's fine, too. Wonderful. Welcome aboard, all clothiers and snake oil salesmen. Call what you do "nanotechnology."

Still, the true definition stands -- whether it is achieved in a year, a few hundred years or never.

I now yield the remainder of my time back to my esteemed colleague from the great state of Lilliput.


attobuoy said...

Howard, you don't seem to realize that Feynman thought the nano-manipulation approach would be useless compared to the power of synthetic chemistry. In the great man's own words:

Ultimately, we can do chemical synthesis. A chemist comes to us and says, ``Look, I want a molecule that has the atoms arranged thus and so; make me that molecule.'' The chemist does a mysterious thing when he wants to make a molecule. He sees that it has got that ring, so he mixes this and that, and he shakes it, and he fiddles around. And, at the end of a difficult process, he usually does succeed in synthesizing what he wants. By the time I get my devices working, so that we can do it by physics, he will have figured out how to synthesize absolutely anything, so that this will really be useless.

Howard Lovy said...

Well, that paragraph is taken -- in the words so often used by those who regret talking to the press -- "out of context."

The paragraph that precedes the one you quoted:

"The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."

And the one that follows:

"But it is interesting that it would be, in principle, possible (I think) for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down. Give the orders and the physicist synthesizes it. How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance. The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed---a development which I think cannot be avoided."

In other words, the tool did not yet exist in 1959 to do what Feynman thought possible, so the best that could be hoped for would be pure chemistry. The "this will really be useless" comment sounds to me like a self-deprecating comment. If he thought it simply a useless thought experiment, why would he have bothered with the speech in the first place or issued his challenge?

Speaking of Feynman, by the way, what is it about the drums that so intrigues genius physicists? My new friend Damian Allis is a jazz drummer, and we all know that Feynman enjoyed his bongos. OK. I'm basing this "trend" on two examples. Any theories, though, about physics and rhythm?


attobuoy said...

Howard, we have an existing recipe for creating self-replicating nanosystems:

-Take water.
-Add carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and spices.
-Stew for a billion years until self-replication occurs.
-Perturb randomly to allow evolution via a selection-and-culling process for another 3.5 billion years.

Drexler proposes to remove water, to remove most of the oxygen, nitrogen and spices, to remove the vast time periods, and to remove random perturbations and evolution. His vision is indeed an unrealizable fantasy. Worse, it's a brain-dead engineering approach.

Meanwhile the rest of us will do real nanotech a la Taniguchi.

Anonymous said...

Howdy folks!

First, let me begin by saying that drummers get more dates than physicists (two words: Tommy Lee).

Second, let me say I hold the opinion that good art died when critics stopped physically assaulting each other over the views they held.

I'm going under the assumption that attobuoy is either (a) Taniguchi or (b) serious about his arguments. As a civil member of this engaging public debate, I respect the fact that attobuoy has views concerning the state of the field and the future visions of the field based on WHAT WE NOW SEEM TO KNOW/CAN DEMONSTRATE IN THE LAB ABOUT THE FIELD. As a practicing scientist (now post-defense and therefore authorized by the American Chemical Society to host talk shows and sell vitamins capable of ding-a-ling danging your dang-a-long ling long), I am amazed at how over-generalized an argument one can make based on the foresighted views of ONE author in ONE publication. This Taniguchi paper discussing efforts "down there" was printed before the CD, XT, IP, and ME who, having graduated from public schools in America, "don't know much about history."

I remind attobuoy that, had Western civilization been given ONE SHOT to get it right in the literature, we'd still be at the center of a Ptolemaic universe now formally cooking due to the greenhouse effect from having so many glass spheres around us. I have found that there are two types of people that simmer on scientific literature. There are those that read something, believe everything they read, then sit on this Rock of Gibraltar idea as if the change in their back pockets were spot welded to it. This is the same kind of mentality that cost Galileo many swingin' Saturday evenings in Sienna due to house arrest, kept the oh-so-actually-now-that-we-think-about-it-he-was-OK-after-all Copernicus name off of his initial publications into planetary motion, and put damn-near the entire physics community of the late 19th century into a real smug mode that saw academic advisors telling their students that the next generation of physicists would be responsible with assigning the next decimal place. There are then those that read something and understand that the peer review process employed by practicing scientists to disseminate results useful to the progress of science has decided that this contribution is worthy of readership and that this work only adds a piece to the puzzle.

My beef with molecular nanotechnology as envisioned by ANYONE has far less to do with the fact that some things seem implausible than the fact that people are poopooing an entire proposed sub-discipline of the physical sciences that no one has a handle on yet because only a handful of people are working on it as we now know it. The majority in this sub-discipline, like myself, are playing the roles of architects that will, eventually, come calling to contractors with realizable efforts as we, too, discover where the path takes us. A good scientist will take all that they know about a topic and come to an edgimucated (sic) conclusion knowing that there are still many unknown unknowns because there are a limited number of scientists in the world efforting to figure this stuff out as fast as they can with the funding they have available. Anyone who things synthetic chemistry (of which I am a total booster) can get us anywhere we want to go right now need only ask a natural products chemist why it takes 1 kilogram of feedstock to make 1 nanogram of product or why people still have to report fractional reaction yields when the ultimate synthetic approach to a reaction should turn 100% of reactant A into 100% of reactant B (that, for those of you that never took a general organic chemistry lab class, does not happen too often). And, furthermore, Feynman's argument about the power of synthetic chemistry is a useful generalization that MAY, someday, be true (I hope as such). I prove it thusly: Physicists can make carbon nanotubes by laser ablation of graphite or growth off a catalyst. Tell a synthetic organic chemist that you want them to synthesize a carbon nanotube and they will just laugh and laugh and laugh because they just don't know how atom-by-atom by what they learn from their organic mechanism classes. Clearly the organic chemist is limited by current inabilities to synthesize carbon nanotubes. That said, Aldrich will gladly sell you a 5 gram container full at an increasingly reasonable cost. Just because we can't synthesize it yet DOES NOT MEAN IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SYNTHESIZE. We have a model and a proof of principle in the frickin' MSDS sheet.

You know when you watch all the futuristic movies from the 1940's and the super-jet cars look just like the models driving around in real life save the fins and rocket out the back? Even the movie guys charged with hiring the futurist guys to design those futurist things for those futurist movies can't seem so see beyond the tips of their noses. The problem is no different than the one people run into when they take the scientific progress we've established for ourselves and assume that "it don't get any better than this."

"Drexler proposes to remove water, to remove most of the oxygen, nitrogen and spices, to remove the vast time periods, and to remove random perturbations and evolution. His vision is indeed an unrealizable fantasy. Worse, it's a brain-dead engineering approach."

It was Thomas Edison who said "I can't pick up anything without wanting to improve it." If, by some miracle, attobuoy or anyone else CAN ENVISION a world where the machines are in control and we're all plugged in OR, at the very least, we would be up the proverbial creek due to our dependence on self-replicating macroscale mechanical and electrical devices (find me a stock broker that can work a plow), then this whole biology-only argument against another method of self-replicating machines in general is pseudo-intellectual crap because we've already removed oxygen, nitrogen, spices, vast time periods, random perturbations, and evolution in the time since the industrial revolution to develop machines that can kill us, shock us, fly us, make us well, make us sick, see further than us, see smaller than us, perform logic operations faster than us, spell and grammar-check better than most of us and have replaced peoples needs for meaningful relationships and physical contact. The only thing left to address is scale and real world experimentalist still have a long ways to go before WE have all of that figured out. I remind all that the first transistor looked like a 10" block of ugly. To hold the view that biochemistry is the only way to achieve self-replicating nanosystems is to hold a view that has one's ass spot welded to a very heavy rock. Just because we've not demonstrated another approach yet doesn't mean that one DOES NOT EXIST. To take from out current administration, the molecular nanotechnology nay-sayers have to be right 100% of the time over the entirety of scientific progress. Everyone else has to ONLY BE RIGHT ONCE. Given the amount of research yet to be performed in chemistry, biology, and physics alone, I know which side my money's on.

$0.02, Damian Allis

Howard Lovy said...

Damian, I am not worthy of appearing on the same URL as you. I can hear a drummer's cadence in your writing. NanoBot readers, you've just read the difference between a myopic man of pure science (attobuoy) and the rare scientist who can see beyond what's directly in front of him to achieve true vision (Damian).

It's no accident that some of history's greatest minds were the ones who realized at a young age that their teachers were wrong.


attobuoy said...

Damien, you use so many words. You have so much faith. But you have so little insight.

Have you ever picked up Molecular Biology of the Cell by Alberts, et al? So many nanomachines, so much evolutionary feedback, none of it workable in Drexlerland.

Are you aware of the marvelous things that researchers at Cargill are doing with the naked molecular machinery of cell lines that have had their cell membranes removed? Reaction yields approach 100% of theoretical maxima.

You still have a lot of learning to do.

Anonymous said...

You're kidding me, right? So little insight because I choose NOT to limit the possibilities to the approach Mother Nature chose? All that drivel outta me and you sit on the only example you can site from (biology) and worse still, spell my name wrong? That's what I get for actually having the minerals to use it in my posting, I guess (or are you Atto Buoy?). I'd be happy to have it out in this public forum for as long as you want, provided I be allowed a little lag time to get my work done. Long short, you're not going to ever be able to claim victory because there will ALWAYS be something else to do and you will never be able to put the clamp down on research in the field. I won't win until someone does the "impossible" in the lab. That should give us both time to dig ourselves into some very deep ditches. I know I may be wrong in the long run, which I'm cool with. Good science begins with an idea, not an agenda. You seem to know you are right and I'm wrong. I'm cool with that, too, but it's not going to stop me from submitting papers. Meantime, let's have a little fun.

"Have you ever picked up Molecular Biology of the Cell by Alberts, et al? So many nanomachines, so much evolutionary feedback, none of it workable in Drexlerland."

Picked up? Yeah, it was part of thing I call a syllabus. And Stryer's Biochemistry. I seem to remember I cracked the bindings and passed those graduate classes my junior year so I could focus on other things. I can regurgitate the findings of the books just as well as you can. I've not seen Alberts and Stryer comment on molecular nanotech before. That may be helpful to our debate, as both, I suspect, know more about the monopoly biochemistry has on molecular machines than you and I do. Tell me, have you ever FINISHED Nanosystems? Can you point out some obvious flaws in the work that don't begin with the qualification "In biological systems..."? You seem to have a very expensive hammer in your bookshelf (and noggin). Must everything be a nail to you?

"Are you aware of the marvelous things that researchers at Cargill are doing with the naked molecular machinery of cell lines that have had their cell membranes removed? Reaction yields approach 100% of theoretical maxima."

Wonderful stuff. Now, YOU PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS and tell me how to design a protein that will synthesize, say, toluene. Benzene? Adamantane? Nanotubes? The local Coolwhip(R) facility does a great job of pumping out Coolwhip(R). That's fine until you want Legos(R). 100% of the theoretical yield of the enzymatic activity the protein was designed to do is not news (as I remember reading about the Cargill work. Maybe you can provide a link for the rest of us to tell me if they've begun altering protein secondary structure to do catalysis on new molecules?). There is nothing new or shocking about removing a protein from a cell membrane and having it still work. I would have expected someone that finished Alberts to know that. It's not in front of me, but Stryer is, so I direct to chapter 12 of the 4th edition where a wonderful discussion of ion gradients and active transport is to be had. An exhaust fan for your bathroom works just as well at blowing air from one side to the other even though it's not embedded in a bathroom wall provided the energy, be it a plug or an ion gradient, is there.

Anyway, I know I have a lot of learning to do. That's kind of the idea of doing science, to know that you may be wrong but won't be able to step outside of your shell without putting the hours in. I invite you to do the same.

nanodude_90210 (Damian Allis)

attobuoy said...

Damian, here's the thing: I years of poring over nanosystems and following the proposal of Merkle, Freitas, etc, I've never run across a proposed substitute for the feedback loop provided in biology by perturbation followed by survival vs. culling. That loop results in a macroscopic measure of the success or failure of miniscule nanoscale design variations applied to complex systems.

Do you get what I'm driving at?

Anonymous said...

The nanotheistic glorification of the only means we know of now to molecular nanotech does not obviate the consideration of other means, no more than the strict focus of automotive companies on fossil fuels should make hydrogen cell researchers pack their balloons in high-pitched futility or the development of the self-adhesive stamp should have crushed the development of email. You beat on a methodology that has had 3.5 billion years or so of trial and error to get us to today. That’s like glorifying a sports team you see on television when they, their managers, and their batboys have no idea YOU EVEN EXIST. We’ve only been doing really good science (as we consider it today) for about, TOPS, 200 years (James Burke’s ability to demonstrate otherwise as gloriously as he does notwithstanding). You don’t explain why other methods are not possible because you do not demonstrate that you have considered other methods or, at the most, have considered other methods within the confine of one single paradigm. I choose to help hold down the grass to start a new path because I see a large field ahead of me and one narrow road behind me. Even if/when I’m wrong, we’ll have done an awful lot of great research to take us to a higher level, and that’s hip. If/when you’re wrong, you will look that part of an unvisionary old-schooler bound to the fashion of the day. There’s too much precedent in the history of science (and society) of people needing a window installed in their bellybuttons to see what’s coming ahead.

Damian Allis

Howard Lovy said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying this debate, so I'll stay silent, read and learn. Just wanted to add that a continuation of the "nano watchdog" portion of my challenge is being discussed over Nanodot.


attobuoy said...

Damian, let's leave it for now that the "Attobuoy objection" to the Drexler/Merkle/Freitas vision is the lack of any substitute, in that vision, for the macroscopic evolutionary feedback loops which occur in biology. I think it's a stronger objection than the "Smalley fingers" objection.

I note with relief that you don't challenge me to prove a negative, and that you leave open the possibility that I might be right.

Good luck to you in your work.

Chris Phoenix, CRN said...

Evolution? Who needs evolution when you can engineer? Our cars and computers and farm implements were not created through built-in feedback loops. There's no reason our nanomachines would need this.

attobuoy said...

Chris, we're not talking about a need for evolution here. We're talking about the need for a feedback loop. Think of it as a quality assurance loop to see whether, for example, an intended small-perturbation design change in a complex nanosystem has actually been accomplished. Understand?

Chris Phoenix, CRN said...

Do you mean a change in the design (blueprint) or in the construction (fabrication activity?) Your question is ambiguous as stated.

attobuoy said...

Chris, talk to Damian and get him to explain it to you.

Anonymous said...


More debating is needed in nanotechnology. It’s good for the practitioners, it’s good for the focus it brings. For that I thank you (and your kind encouragement) and look forward to the denouement of this whole story. Personally, I don’t know where the road will go, but it is a journey worth taking. It is wonderful that the scientific community includes many varied, strongly held opinions despite its (unfortunately) small size, and that the same variety of thought can come from the science alone, which remains always the absolute (it knows even if we do not).

I’m out of this next line of discussion, though (I have to SEE Chris on occasion and want to stay on his good side. He’s bigger than I am!)

Damian Allis

Howard Lovy said...

Excellent, spirited debate, gentlemen -- all done without the need for moderator censorship. I love it.

Attobouy, I've been curious for a while now about who you are and why you've been so prolific in your writings against MNT. Could you contact me privately? I promise not to reveal who you are if you'd prefer it that way, and I do keep my word.


Howard Lovy said...

Woops. Bad link. My e-mail is

attobuoy said...

Sorry, Howard. Instead, let me list the advantages of persistent pseudonymity:

The pseudonymous author

- cannot present weak/false arguments based on an appeal to her own authority.
- is not subject to ad-hominem arguments
- cannot subject her organization to controversy
- cannot lose a tenure-track position due to her postings
- does not get bogged down in offline discussions of personalities

Inigo Montoya: Your are magnificent! Who are you?! I must know your name!
The Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.

Howard Lovy said...

Fair enough, and as the father of two daughters I'll admit that I'm ashamed of my assumption that you are a man. You may well be, but I should not have assumed. Maybe it's the "buoy" instead of "gull" in your pseudonym. Anyway, I keep my word if a source asks for anonymity. But I understand your hesitation.