and Events]||[Debate Overview]|
Scientific American characterizes the discussion as "feverish", slipping a bit of name-calling into the first paragraph. (Metaphorically, feverish "can refer to haste and confusion"; S. I. Hayakawa, Modern Guide to Synonyms). Scientific American is, however, now quite new to the Web, having opened their site in April 1996. They may find the speed and volume of exchange a bit unnerving.From Scientific American, 10 May 1996
Dear Foresight Institute:
Ralph Merkle and you were kind enough to invite us to respond to your comments concerning Gary Stix's nanotechnology article, "Waiting for Breakthroughs," in the April 1996 issue of Scientific American. We have followed with interest the considerable feverish discussion about it and would like to answer as follows:
 Nanotechnology attracts not only "ardent support" from "bright, creative people" in general, but reasoned approval from bright, creative scientists and technologists in related fields. Scientific American has obscured this.Dr. Merkle and other commentators make a number of points, but none of them persuasive. Scientific American stands by the article and by its major conclusion: that although nanotechnology attracts ardent support among bright, creative people , most researchers  working in allied areas --including ones embraced by the nanoists  themselves--think that the actual science in nanotechnology has gaping holes , and that there are few chances those holes will ever be filled . Drexler and like-minded individuals engage in what many materials scientists feel is wild speculation about the future of technology.
 Yes, there is now a substantial literature on a wide range of topics.The field's proponents do much more than calculate thermal effects on little gears . The most prominent scientists at the Foresight conference--Whitesides, Smalley, Fraser Stoddart--have little faith that a self-replicating assembler will ever be made . Yes, they attended the conference, but ask them directly about what they think about Drexler's vision  and you'll hear another story . Smalley talked explicitly about his doubts during a presentation at the conference .
 Which is why continued progress does not require that laboratory researchers examine and judge long-term engineering goals. They do excellent scientific work in the lab.One of the article's central points is that these laboratory researchers have reported a number of advances in their field, many of which suggest real applications . None of them , however, sees their work as moving toward making assemblers .
 Mild name-calling.Drexler's vision  of manipulating matter at the molecular scale had a wonderful futuristic allure  when Engines of Creation first appeared in the mid-1980s . But it hasn't moved very far beyond this original statement  (theory and computer models are insufficient proof  of the ultimate feasibility of these concepts).
 Experimental work on nanotechnologies has advanced. Design and modeling work on longer-term proposals has advanced. Scientific American acknowledges both. Is "this stagnation" intended to describe something about the field?Because of this stagnation , there is a chance that the Engines of Creation version of nanotechnology will become increasingly irrelevant--even though some other implementation of nanotechnology may indeed take off .
 Yes, but this is no excuse for misleading the public by implying that technical objections exist in the journals or anywhere else.Perhaps the best way to rebut the accusations of incompetent journalism is to go through general categories of them one by one.
* 1) The article lacked technical depth: As should be unnecessary to explain, an overview article in a printed magazine for the general reading public is not the same as a literature review in a journal . To fault it for lack of technical depth is like faulting a swimming pool for lack of trout .
 Nonexistent technical summaries can't be factually wrong. Speaking of technical summaries when they don't exist is another matter.A more telling criticism would be that the technical summaries in the article are factually wrong , which brings us to....
* 2) The article is riddled with errors.
The Foresight Institute and Merkle certainly have the right to disagree with the article's conclusions. But they have set forth few specifics of how facts went awry.
Oh my. This looks bad.The rebuttal does claim  that Edward Reifman, the dentist who appears in the article's lead paragraph, was quoted out of context, that he made the remark in jest . But  when Reifman was contacted during a routine fact-checking call prior to publication, he did not deny the quote , nor did he say that it was made in jest . In fact, he acknowledged what he had said before  and even went on to remark that Drexler now has amassed a significant group of followers .
 He noted that the quotes contained no technical criticisms, a statement which Scientific American, wisely, has not disputed. We regard this as an adequate rebuttal.In the conclusion of his commentary, Merkle writes, "A few people were quoted in a way which suggested they had a technical criticism of the feasibility of nanotechnology. The quotes were rebutted." Actually, Merkle has only disagreed with them . Given that the people in question are the likes of George Whitesides, Julius Rebek, Jane Alexander and others, they can muster technical arguments in support of their position , much as Merkle has. To imply otherwise , in Merkle's words again, "is not only insulting, it's... very... very... dumb! " 
 Definitional arguments can continue indefinitely. Those interested can pursue it elsewhere. By the way, having fact-checking done by the author, as Scientific American did with Gary Stix's article omits a safeguard for objectivity that is widespread in the press (even OMNI had fact-checking done by someone not immersed in the project).* 3) The article sets forth an erroneous definition of nanotechnology. Many definitions of nanotechnology were put forth at the Foresight conference in November. The article makes the point that people define it in different ways. Neither Drexler nor Merkle had much of a problem with the definition of nanotechnology in the article when the text was fact-checked with them before publication .
 This is disingenuous. Numerous literary techniques are used for precisely this purpose in the story, and they are indeed suggestions, not statements. For an analysis, see Will Ware's essay.* 4) The article is a personal attack on Drexler. Where do we suggest that the man's personal traits invalidate his technical arguments?  Scientists are real people with both strengths and weaknesses ; good science journalism depicts them as such. In recent years, Scientific American has profiled dozens of major scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, while describing their opinions, prejudices, personal foibles and mannerisms . Drexler received no different treatment . (For better or worse, even if the foundation of nanotechnology seemed impeccable, Drexler would still sound like Mr. Peabody to Gary Stix .)
 But if there are many, then it follows logically that there must be at least one. Where is it? Is it worth repeating, or has it been withdrawn or disappeared, as has their claim that David Jones made a substantive criticism in Nature? Merely chanting "many technical criticisms" won't draw down bales of thoughtful analysis from the sky. Expecting that these empty, decoy criticisms will draw down real ones amounts to "cargo cult journalism."Also, though Merkle asserts that the article "is not about nanotechnology so much as it is about Drexler," that is wishful thinking on his part. Any fair-minded reading of the article shows that the many technical criticisms  leveled against nanotechnology by various scientists are not merely ad hominem .
 Yes, relative to anything that could pass for responsible and informative.* 5) The article is tabloid journalism, dwelling on gossip rather than science . Were we wrong to point out the hype rampant in nanotechnology?  What continues to attract most people to the field is not the technical challenge, but rather the promise of rectifying the most basic social ills, such as death and poverty . At the Foresight conference in November, Drexler talked about how a nation's capital stock might be doubled in an hour using nanotechnology . An hour? 
 Presumably, we are expected to dismiss this as silly. To actually address the issue behind this comment, we would need to explore the prospects for significant advances in life extension techniques, first within the next forty years, then afterward. This might be interesting and valuable; a better understanding could save lives. We invite Scientific American to notify us when they are ready to undertake a serious exploration of this topic, weighing the evidence for various views of the future of medicine. They could prepare by reading Dr. Merkle's publications.In an interview with Scientific American, Ralph Merkle said he didn't want to be a member of the last generation to die , a reference to how he believes nanotechnology might one day allow his head to be thawed so he could live on forever .
 There would be little point in discussing projected technical advances that lacked potential practical applications. The point of such discussions is precisely to go beyond an assessment of basic technical feasibility. Scientific American seems to be arguing, in effect, that the case for technical feasibility should be doubted because the magnitude of the alleged human consequences is so large. But feasibility depends, ultimately, on physics; the perceived magnitude of human consequences depends, ultimately, on human judgment. Reasoning from a (visceral?) rejection of consequences back to a rejection of causes gets causality backward. (Unless, of course, molecular manufacturing actually entailed a known impossibility -- but "impossible" doesn't mean "susceptible to ridicule.")These remarks go beyond a mere assessment of technical feasibility . Rather they seem indicative of the chief reason that people are attracted to the vision of nanotechnology put forward by Drexler and Merkle . Everyone wants to be rich and live forever . Given these factors, covering nanotechnology as a techno-sociological phenomenon is wholly appropriate .
 This has been publicly established by a letter from his son, Carl Feynman, which has been available to Scientific American since about March 25.* 6) The article misuses the name of Richard Feynman .
 We do not "use Feynman's name as evidence" for anything. We occasionally cite his actual statements and his scientific work, properly, as evidence of the insights of a remarkably knowledgeable and foresighted scientist. As Scientific American's response to Carl Feynman's letter makes clear, tactics based on the misuse of Feynman's name can force quick dodging.Molecular nanotechnologists tend to use Feynman's name as evidence  for their claims only when it suits them. In his book Unbounding the Future, Drexler quotes Feynman as saying that the ability to move atoms one by one would ultimately be "useless" because chemists would come up with traditional methods of making new substances . Would Richard Feynman have bought into a technological vision that purports to solve the problems of death and poverty, with little experimental evidence to support these assertions?  Would he have called it cargo cult science?  Interesting questions--but also irrelevant : Feynman's ideas have lasting value , but his opinions would not change the technical shortcomings of the field an iota .
 Biased? If Mr. Rennie is sincere in thinking it wasn't, then many readers can assure him that his editorial judgment of tone and content is seriously out of adjustment.* 7) The article was biased .
Scientific American is, if anything, biased in favor of new technologies and scientific concepts. Nanotechnology is an exciting idea. We entirely understand why so many people are drawn to it -- when Engines of Creation came out, some of us were very enthusiastic about the promise of nanotechnology . And who would not like to live in a world where technology makes it possible for virtually any dream to come true?  But one of the jobs of good journalism is to determine whether some dreams are simply that .
 Most proponents are ignored; the passages are brief; no decent explanation of the field is presented.The article contains extensive passages in which Drexler and other proponents make their case for nanotechnology . The fact remains, however: many of the leading researchers in materials science and chemistry do not place much store in it . None of the chemists who gave presentations at the Foresight conference wrote to protest the portrayal of their views in the article . In fact, responses to the article from chemists and other professionals have been positive, congratulating us on pointing out shortcomings that more congratulatory articles about nanotechnology generally overlook .
 Actually, we'd say: "The article gives no real hint that an effective argument against the feasibility of nanotechnology has been or can be made."* 8) The article fails to show that nanotechnology is impossible .
The article is not trying to show that nanotechnology is impossible . Showing that any speculative technology is impossible is itself impossible--we can't prove a negative proposition .
 Since Scientific American appears to reject as evidence not only theoretical analyses and computational experiments, but laboratory demonstrations of molecular machines and atomic manipulation, what can they want? Their notion of showing possibility seems to require completing the research and development program and delivering working molecular manufacturing systems -- but then it will be too late to make effective preparations. Do they oppose all attempts to prepare for future technologies, or is this one special?On the other hand, it is entirely incumbent on nanotech's proponents to show that what they hope to achieve is possible.  Stix's article reports that they have not yet done this , and that many technical experts doubt they ever will .
 A moot question; appropriate steps are being pursued with vigor, regardless of the number or percentage of researchers who think seriously about the long-term results of their work.Does the fact that Drexler's goal may not be impossible mean that it should be pursued?  A recent book, The Physics of Star Trek, claims that the laws of physics do not preclude something resembling a warp drive, which the Enterprise uses to travel faster than the speed of light. Is that a technological problem to which we should therefore devote significant financial and intellectual resources? 
 Yes, this is called an existence proof.As proof of the validity of nanotechnology, some advocates (including Merkle) like to point out that our world is thoroughly populated with self-replicating, molecule-manipulating entities . True, but none of them is based on Drexler's notion of an assembler, a molecular construction mimicking the mechanics of factory equipment . The molecular technology of cells is sui generis : a ribosome is nothing like a robot. 
 We could draw some useful distinctions here, but matters of definition aren't the issue. Much of the theoretical work on pathway technologies looks to molecular biology for inspirations on how to build and use self-assembling molecular systems; long-range goals are another matter. (We would count the majority of contributing experimentalists as working on self-assembly.)Some definitions of nanotechnology may embrace such solutions, but if so, how do they differentiate nanotechnology from more advanced biotechnology?  Why does there not seem to be more interest among nanoists  in modifying cell organelles rather than reinventing the wheel at the submicron scale? 
 Well, yes. Scientific American sent email to Foresight stating that our use of quotations from Scientific American requires prior permission.And finally...
* 9) Scientific American is trying to repress debate on the article .
This is not a criticism of the article, but it is a charge leveled at the magazine by some participants in this discussion, and it deserves to be addressed. In a letter to the Foresight Institute, the magazine pointed out that Dr. Merkle's quotation of our entire article--even with his own commentary interspersed throughout it--is frankly a violation of our copyright , and asked that the article's text be removed from the Web site . In its reply, the institute has argued that this republication of the article is allowed under the "Fair Use" provisions of the copyright law.
 The analogy is obvious, but inappropriate, and we neither suggest nor endorse it. These complaints would likely vanish, however, if Scientific American were to move more briskly toward open, Web-based publication on matters of science and public policy. We urge them to do this, rather than hiding (relatively speaking) in the current cellulose-based medium, telling critics that the "proper way" to respond is to send a letter in the faint hope that the offending editors themselves will choose to revise some portion of it for distribution months later in linkless bundles of paper.Some people who have learned of Scientific American's request apparently equate it with the Church of Scientology's efforts to curb the Web publication of its secret writings. 
 Ineffectively.How are we squelching debate?  We're not trying to stop anyone from criticizing the article--frankly , we appreciate the extra attention . We only asked that no one infringe on our copyrighted text in the process by posting the entire thing online . Scholars don't need to reprint War and Peace to comment on it, after all . But in making that request, we're not drawing a veil of secrecy around anything. We've published the article, for heaven's sake .
 With no distracting shrieks or belly-laughs from the intended victims.Anyone who wants to read it in its entirety  can buy the magazine, look at it in a library, or read it on America Online. As to whether we are entitled to make that request : Fair use, as defined in section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, does allow critics and scholars to quote from published works. Yet nothing in the law automatically entitles anyone to quote a text in its entirety . In fact the law says that the amount of quoted material and the degree to which the republication of the work may interfere with the author's ability to derive income from it both bear on the question of infringement . Merkle quoted the entire article and put it on the Web at the same time the magazine was selling on the stands, thus creating a disincentive for people interested in his criticisms to check them against Stix's original .
 Gee, do we look that big? We've spent substantially over $100 on legal expenses so far, but we look to our membership to make good the loss.Our lawyers and the institute's lawyers  could fight out the merits of our respective arguments, but they are not going to. Why? Because we in Editorial have asked our business colleagues not to press the case, though they would surely win it . We've decided that the ongoing discussion of Stix's article is more to the magazine's benefit than to its detriment .
Their article evaded the question. Their response runs from it at a gallop, leaving an extraordinary smokescreen of unstated statements by nameless authorities. Perhaps the Web is not suited to a style of argumentation employed by editors grown soft through years of answering only those criticisms they approve in advance.So where does this leave us? In his conclusion, Merkle writes, "Scientific American should stop evading the fundamental technical question: given the currently accepted understanding of natural law, is nanotechnology feasible or is it not?" It's hard for us to believe anyone who has read the article would think we have sidestepped that question, but we don't mind answering it again: sorry, but far too many serious scientists say it is not.
We suspect that most readers with the strong stomach and taste for grim humor required to wade through to this point will agree that, unless and until Scientific American can muster a response of genuine substance -- a criticism that, for example, refers both to actual proposals and to physical laws -- they can reasonably be scored as having lost the debate. Next round?Sincerely,
Editor in Chief
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