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Foresight Update 15 (page 6)

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 15

New Book: First Nanotechnology Text Wins Award

discussed by Ralph C. Merkle

Editor's note: As we go to press, word has reached us that Nanosystems has won the Association of American Publishers annual award for best computer science book.

Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation by K. Eric Drexler (576 pp., 200+ illustrations. Wiley Interscience, 1992, hardcover $42.95, paperback $24.95)

Today, we manufacture things in bulk: we don't know and can't control where each atom goes. In the future, with nanotechnology, we will build things with the ultimate in precision, controlling the location of each atom.

Already achieved in the laboratory for a few limited types of molecular structures, in the future we can expect to see this technology applied on a commercial scale that will change both the world in which we live and the assumptions that we live by. And yet even today only the smallest fraction of the world's population is aware of the coming juggernaut, or even slightly prepared to cope with the kinds of changes that it will bring in its wake.

As an abstract goal or a philosophical principle the idea of manufacturing products in which each atom is in its place has attracted interest for some time. It is the logical culmination of the age-old quest for the finest possible control on the largest possible scale. But as a coming reality that will change our lives and the lives of our children, it just hasn't sunk in. The possibilities of rocketry didn't sink in to the good citizens of England until they found themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of V2's. The idea that washing your hands might be advantageous didn't sink in to the medical profession until almost the turn of the century, despite the fact that Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated its value quite clearly in 1848.

In the case of nanotechnology, it might be advantageous if the idea were to sink in before, rather than after, the technology becomes widely available. After the first general purpose molecular manufacturing systems are built events are likely to move at a brisk pace.

Today, a new technology must be reviewed and examined by the scientific and technical community before it is accepted. This community speaks in a very definite language and imposes very definite standards. Nanotechnology, like any new technology, must survive this "rite of passage" before it is accepted. This is the unique value of Nanosystems, for it brings together in one place, for the first time, all the fundamental concepts needed to understand molecular manufacturing: what it can make, how it can work, how it can be achieved. Bringing together physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and computer science, it provides an indispensable introduction to the emerging field of molecular nanotechnology. For the technically knowledgeable, it provides an invaluable reference work which crosses the boundaries of several fields to bring together, in one convenient spot, the quantitative information required to analyze the performance of the molecular machines that will change our lives.

The reception by the scientific community has been favorable. William A. Goddard III, Professor of Chemistry and Applied Physics and Director of the Materials and Molecular Simulation Center at Caltech, said: "With this book, Drexler has established the field of molecular nanotechnology. The detailed analyses show quantum chemists and synthetic chemists how to build upon their knowledge of bonds and molecules to develop the manufacturing systems of nanotechnology, and show physicists and engineers how to scale down their concepts of macroscopic systems to the level of molecules."

Prof. Marvin Minsky of MIT stated: "Devices enormously smaller than before will remodel engineering, chemistry, medicine, and computer technology. How can we understand machines that are so small? Nanosystems covers it all: power and strength, friction and wear, thermal noise and quantum uncertainty. This is the book for starting the next century of engineering."

As one former nano-skeptic put it, "There's been more analysis on this than I thought."

In short, Nanosystems provides the hard core of technical analysis around which a new field and a new technology will form. It provides a coherent picture of what molecular manufacturing can look like, and a coherent lower bound to the capabilities it will be able to achieve. Every key equation is illustrated with a graph to aid intuition and understanding. Several dozen molecular mechanisms are shown in full atomic detail, and the accompanying text describes their performance and function. The glossary provides a clear description of the terminology, while the consistent use of MKS units makes for easy comparisons between chemical, mechanical, and electric quantities (unlike the Babel that usually inhibits comparison of, say, kilocalories per mole with joules with electron volts). The scaling laws conveniently summarized on a single page illustrate how over 31 different physical properties scale with decreasing size; including area, volume, acceleration, stiffness, resistance, wear life, power, thermal conductance and more. The summary of molecular mechanics provides a clear picture of how atoms interact, and what interactions are important for molecular machinery.

While Nanosystems provides only lower bounds on the performance of future systems, this lower bound is a quantum leap beyond today's technology and moves the discussion of what is possible into a new realm. It changes the discussion from vague assertions that, some day, in the great future, we might be able to make something where every atom is in the right place, to more specific statements that (for example) mechanosynthetic assembly of one kilogram products in about an hour with fewer than one atom in 10,000,000,000 out of place at a cost of much less than a dollar will be feasible. Drexler gives specific estimates and lower bounds for critical performance parameters for a host of fundamental materials and devices, ranging from the strength of materials to the computational power of future computers to the speed with which the arm of an assembler can move: all based on careful and detailed technical analyses.

It will take some time for the conclusions in Nanosystems to sink in, but sink in they will. Several discussion groups have already formed, and the debates on computer networks about nanotechnology have taken a refreshing turn for the better. Arguments about the feasibility of some aspect of nanotechnology less often deteriorate into vague and amorphous imponderables. Critics and proponents alike are expected to cite page numbers and section headings, and the resulting discussions are short and focused.

For the less technically oriented, the summaries in Nanosystems will give you the fundamental conclusions, while the more detailed technical discussions will convince your more technically-oriented friends that those conclusions and their consequences for humanity should be taken seriously.

Anyone who cares about the future should buy Nanosystems, for this is the basic premise of nanotechnology: the future matters and is ours to create. Whether we create well or badly, we and our heirs must then live in our creation. To create what is desirable we must understand what is achievable. Nanosystems gives us a clear and in-depth preview of a rich new vein of the achievable.

Dr. Ralph C. Merkle is a researcher in computational nanotechnology at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and an Advisor to the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.

Nanosystems is available at many technical bookstores (in hardcover or paperback) or through the Foresight Institute (paperback only). To receive an order form, contact Foresight by phone (415-324-2490), fax (415-324-2497), or email (

[Editor's note: Foresight's current email address is]

[Editor's note: See Foresight Book Order Form.]

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 15

Calling All Academics

We receive many requests from students and researchers at all levels--post-docs, graduate students, undergrads, and even some precocious high-school students--all asking the same question: "At which universities can I pursue nanotechnology studies and research?"

Currently we have only very incomplete information to provide; instead we describe an information-gathering procedure which will turn up some answers. But this is inefficient: young researchers need a central location to turn to when selecting an institution for nanotechnology work. We're asking Foresight members to help us gather this information about their institutions, to be entered into our database. If you can provide any of the following data about your university, please communicate it to us: Documentation of any of the above, such as written course descriptions, would be most appreciated. With your help, Foresight can become a much better resource for researchers and students, helping to direct them to where they can be most effective in conducting nanotechnology work.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 15


In our last issue we reported that the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing had received a donation from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This donation was actually received from EFF founder Mitch Kapor, rather than from the organization.

Table of Contents - Foresight Update 15

Foresight Perspective & Policy

Foresight Institute's mission and fundamental goal is betterment of the human condition, especially as it is related to molecular nanotechnology. Foresight aims to chart a safe path through the potential upheavals and reap the benefits of nanotechnology. We envision the beneficial application of nanotechnology to the human quality of life: improved health, environmental sustainability, a stable peace, opening resources beyond Earth, better information systems, improved education, reduced poverty, enhanced individual rights, and a broadening of personal freedom.

Nanotechnology will let us control the structure of matter within physical laws and limits, but additional limits are necessary. The chief danger isn't a great accident, but a great abuse of power. Global competitive forces and the unrelenting progress in the molecular sciences will inevitably lead to nanotechnology--but in whose hands will control rest?

If we are to guide its use, it must be developed by groups within our range of influence. Only by emphasizing the benefits of nanotechnology in medicine, environmental recovery, materials science, and the economic bounty these advances portend can open, cooperative development be encouraged. Nanotechnology must be developed openly to serve the general welfare and the continued realization of the human potential.

We'll have formidable new tools to use in pursuing these goals. But if we fail--if we blunder into this final industrial revolution without looking ahead--all earlier progress toward these goals could vanish. It is our policy to prepare the future for nanotechnology and to pursue this mission by: [Editor's note: See current statement of Foresight Institute Purpose and Policy]

Table of Contents
- Foresight Update 15

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 15 to html for this web page.

From Foresight Update 15, originally published 15 February 1993.

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