Sunday, June 05, 2005

NanoBot's discard pile

Blogger's Note: This is one of many false starts that ended up suffering the digital equivalent of being ripped out of the typewriter, crumbled up and tossed in the garbage where it belonged. This blog is, among many things, also my notebook for later reference, so I'll burden you every once in a while with some of my outtakes. Be kind. Remember, I rejected it, too. -- Howard

"This is March 31, right?"


"March 31. This is March 31, right?"

A few minutes earlier, I had climbed into my interrogator's taxi at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. Unshaven and appearing as though he had been parked there all night, the cabbie jerked his head toward the rear-view mirror to see who was in his car. He looked disoriented, as if he had just materialized into this body and into this time, like Scott Bakula's character in the science fiction series "Quantum Leap."

Or maybe it was me who was disoriented. I had just arrived from Detroit to get what many saw as my comeuppance with some pretty powerful science policy leaders.

Under "Quantum Leap" rules, the first thing you do when you materialize is to figure out "who" and "when" you are without giving yourself away as a body-switching time traveler. I caught on to this immediately. I am not a time traveler, myself, but my teenage daughter, who has a form of autism, most certainly is. The first thing she said when her baby sister was born was, "This is what Sarah looked like when she was a baby."

"March 31, 2004," I replied to the cabbie, making sure to emphasize the year, since I was sure that was the vital information he was seeking. I wasn't going to guess what was happening in my cab driver's internal world. I, too, am a man who lives mostly inside his own head, so I'm more accepting than most people of those who blurt out only the syllables that rise to the surface.

The cab pulled onto a highway on-ramp, then my driver slammed on his brakes. He looked up at me through the mirror and wordlessly gestured toward the traffic jam ahead, as if this is the only explanation that I needed. Then he told me that it'd be best if I got out of the cab and took a subway. I just deadpanned. Nothing really surprises me anymore. I'm getting too old to be shocked even at a cabbie who hates to drive in traffic jams. My silence was his answer, so he drove on – he in his traffic jam, and me in my own internal one.

You see, I was stuck inside my own private Zeno's Paradox – trapped in the infinite steps between 0 and 1.

Zeno was the crafty ancient Greek who proved that motion is impossible if you assume that space and time can be subdivided infinitely many times. Zeno also proved that you can never leave a room because there are an infinite number of fractional distances to cross along the way.

I was thinking a great deal about Zeno's Paradox then because I was reading "The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity," by Amir D. Aczel. It was about how mathematician Georg Cantor was consumed with paralyzing depression every time his work became trapped in that same continuum of infinite interdependent realms.

The book connected with me like none other had in years. Before devoting myself to "nanotech journalism," my previous obsession was with Judaism. It infuses just about every cell of my body – the stories of the Holocaust from my survivor relatives, the meanings of Judaism in modern life, my own fall from ritual. When you're a writer, you get to turn your obsessions into careers. I was managing editor for a Jewish wire service in New York before I turned my attention from the great to the small. But it wasn't until I read "Aleph" that I was able to tie quantum physics together with Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.

Later, my discovery of Kabbalah/quantum/nano connection would open up new insights for me, and open some of my work up to ridicule.

Whether my obsession with nanotech, and in my particular way of writing about it, is sickness or a necessary character trait of a good journalist, I have no idea. Later that year, when I won a journalism award from the Foresight Institute, a nanotechnology think tank, I told the group, "I'm obsessed with nanotechnology in the same way that become obsessed with every single facet of any story I cover. It's the only way I know how to write something with true understanding."

So, riding under the influence of Zeno, I thought of my career as this paradox. I thought of my new "spirit mythical monster," the nanobot, as entwined mysteriously with my life so far on auto pilot, my career seeming to move but never arriving, of the Kabbalah and its images of steps leading to Ein Sof, the unobtainable infinite, of Zeno. Under NanoBot/Zeno logic, nothing should really exist because it could never be finished, and nobody could ever go anywhere, since you can never really get from one end to another. Yet, somehow, a great miracle happens here as it arrives to become itself.

Slam. Screech. My cabbie waved his hands forward, gesturing at the traffic. I shrugged at him. "You trouble," he said.

Yeah, I thought. I trouble. Tell me about it.

I had spent the previous three years helping to launch a magazine that covered "nanotechnology." I thought I knew what that was way back in '01. But in my quest for its meaning, I ended up caught in a continuum of my own -- between competing definitions of "nanotechnology" that never quite met, making quantum leaps from one end of nanotechnology theory and practice to another.

My naivette and relative lack of education was, I discovered, an advantage as a journalist, since I came with no baggage, no preconceived ideas of what nanotech "is" and "is not." I was under the impression that with nanotech, all things are possible. But as I explored the "nano world" and its internal divisions, I discovered that it was not only a contest of competing methodologies. It was a contest of competing "mythologies." "My method is correct, yours is a myth and defies the laws of physics." That's how scientists argue. There are no two methods. My world is my world, and if you propose a method from another, you are not only wrong, but you are also dangerous – dangerous because you spread "myths," dangerous because what you say is "possible" will be misused by those who would like to put a stop to all of our work, and dangerous because it is not mine.

But the argument about what science "is" and "is not" goes further back than this dawn of the nano age. Like most worthwhile ideas that have ever been pondered, the ancient Greeks thought about it first. Once upon a time, there lived a philosopher named Democritus. And Democritus got this crazy idea that all matter is composed of individual particles he called "atoms." He was dismissed as a kook and humankind had to wait another two-and-a-half millennia before realizing Democritus got it right, after all – at least, some of the basic concepts.

Around the same time there was Plato. In Plato's “Republic,” Socrates describes the limits of human understanding through the allegory of a cave in which we are all bound prisoners, gazing at shadows of objects cast by distant fire. We mistake the shadows for the objects, themselves, since that is all our limited senses can detect. The goal of enlightenment, Plato argued, is to look beyond the shadows to find the object’s true form.

Democritus, the materialist, breaks it all down to its component parts -- atom literally means “indivisible” -- vs. Plato the spiritualist, who saw mankind’s perception of reality as merely shadows cast by the world’s true forms that he had reasoned into being. To cast it in modern terms, Democritus is the engineer, the biologist, the chemist, who deals with the solid and tangible. Plato is the physicist, who reasons forces into being based on extrapolation from snippets of observable phenomena.

You could say that Eric Drexler, whose 1986 "Engines of Creation” launched nanotech as a modern science, is a modern Plato, while Rick Smalley, America’s preeminent materials scientist, co-discoverer of the buckyball, is a modern-day Democritus. Today, Democritus rules. However, if you look at the anti-nanotech movement, and the logic it employs, you can see the seeds of Plato taking root. What is "unseen" is presented as a reason to fear. Nanotech's true form, they say, is evil if left unchecked.

But on this day, on March 31, 2004, I was no closer to finding nanotech's true form. Because of the random acts of journalism I had been committing the previous year, I was in big trouble. Leading government officials – the ones who set science policy for the United States – awaited me at the conference center in D.C., and I knew they were going to have a few things to say to me. Not very nice things.

You see, as a journalist, I just can't help it. I seek out the minority opinion, those who march on the wrong foot – as I did when I was in the high school marching band – those who say that nanotech is going in the wrong direction, or has been hijacked by other interests. You go where the story takes you. And it has taken me on some wild rides into the nano realm.

Yes, I thought from the back of my cab. I'm a journalist. But maybe not a very good one. I knew that at some time in the future, I would need to write about this day. And I've already begun it with a journalism clich̩ Рa writer talking about his cab ride. That's what lazy reporters do on deadline, grabbing the first "real" person they see for comment Рoften the cab drivers who take them from the airport to the hotel.

We arrive, and he says, "I'm gonna push you out of this car."

And those were the last words I heard before I passed once more through the looking glass and into the bizarre quantum realm of political nanotechnology.


Anonymous said...

More 'outtakes' like this please!

Dave said...

You trouble. My kinda trouble.

Anonymous said...

First time I've checked here in awhile,

only to find my birthday

repeated over and over...

Thanks for the refreshing splash of a cool mist;
probability's distilate.

Anonymous said...

This isn't writing, this is mind reading. Interesting and welcomed story.