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Foresight Debate with Scientific American

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Foresight Institute vs Scientific American
Debate on nanotechnology: Round 3 (partial)

Email from SciAm, with no Foresight comments

To read this text with links and Foresight's responses embedded, see Round 3.
To read Drexler's summary of the debate, see Round 4.
May 10, 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:

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. 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.

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. 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). 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.

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. 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. 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.

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_!"

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.

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.)

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.

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? 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.

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.

6) The article misuses the name of Richard Feynman. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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?

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. 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?

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.


John Rennie
Editor in Chief
Scientific American

Gary Stix
Staff writer

On to Foresight's Round 3 response
On to Round 4

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