The Feynman Prize, including a $10,000 cash award, is given biennially by
Foresight Institute in recognition of scientific work that most advances
the development of molecular nanotechnology. The prize was presented by
K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., founder and chairman of Foresight Institute. In
presenting the award, Drexler said, "Ned Seeman's work is particularly
significant because it provides the first systematic way of designing and
building large three- dimensional molecular objects."
Drexler presented the award during the fourth
Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, at which 300 participants
from 16 nations heard 30 presentations on scientific progress toward nanotechnology
and policy implications of nanotechnology. The conference was held November
9-11 in Palo Alto.
Seeman received the award for developing ways to construct three-dimensional
structures, including cubes and more complex polyhedra, from synthesized
DNA molecules. Since natural DNA is a linear strand, scientists hadn't previously
known how to create complex DNA structures. Seeman found how to attach strands
of DNA projecting from points along another DNA strand. In addition to this
DNA branching technique, he also has created knots and catenanes (linked
molecular loops) with synthesized DNA chains. These techniques create the
means to construct complex devices on a nanometer scale.
Nadrian Seeman gives the 1995 Feynman Prize
In a lucid and witty acceptance speech at which he described his work, Seeman
referred to art works by E.C. Escher from which he had drawn inspiration,
a photo of light fixtures created from human bones in an Italian monastery,
and a deity-invoking flow chart to describe the frustrating process of crystal
creation in a laboratory.
Seeman explained that he came at his award-winning solution from his background
in crystallography. He and his colleagues were frustrated at their inability
to crystallize molecules in which they were interested. While studying Holliday
junctions in DNA (points at which four strands of DNA form four double helical
arms about a central branch), he realized that it would be possible to create
a synthetic DNA with more than four branching points. In a flash of inspiration
"while sitting in the campus pub one afternoon," Seeman recognized
that six-arm junctions could be used to create cubic lattices, he said.
He was inspired by an M.C. Escher woodcut, Depth, picturing
a school of fishlike creatures swimming in parallel in three dimensions,
"just like the molecules in a crystal."
Since that inspiration, Seeman and his colleagues have built complex geometric
figures from DNA, he said. Their progress was aided by automated synthesis
of DNA, which was developed about that time. His constructions include DNA
cubic structures and more complex polyhedra.
One problem Seeman faces is non-rigidity ("floppiness") of his
three-dimensional DNA constructs. He illustrated the nature of the problem
with a picture of a marshmallow impaled by uncooked rottini pasta as a metaphor
for floppy joints holding together relatively rigid strands.
Although he has synthesized more complicated structures, including a truncated
octahedron (a 14 catenane), he's going back to simpler molecules now, seeking
to get around the floppiness problem. To do so, he is working with an alternating
tetrahedron form, a concept for which Buckminster Fuller got a patent.
Seeman said he is hoping to use architectural properties of DNA to direct
the assembly of other molecules.
Progress Toward Molecular Manufacturing
Detailed by Foresight Conference Speakers
by Lewis M. Phelps
Much remains to be accomplished before molecular manufacturing becomes reality,
but computer simulation and laboratory experiments are moving steadily in
that direction. Challenges abound, but no insurmountable barriers have materialized
as research continues.
That summarizes the view observers drew from technical presentations and
policy discussions about molecular nanotechnology at the Fourth
Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. The three-day gathering
of the world's foremost scientists who are working on nanotechnology-related
projects was held November 9-11 in Palo Alto, CA. More than 300 people drawn
from 16 countries participated in the conference. Corporate and institutional
sponsors (see separate box) significantly contributed
to the conference success.
Conference chair Ralph Merkle told
Update at the end of the conference that the tone of this year's event differed
substantially from previous years. "There are a lot more grey heads
in the audience," he said. "That means very bright and highly
regarded senior people have joined the discussion. The feasibility of nanotechnology
is no longer in doubt among most scientists; they are now turning their
attention and resources to the challenges of bringing molecular manufacturing
from theory into practice."
Some two dozen technical topics, plus other policy, business, legal and
economic aspects of nanotechnology were addressed during the conference.
Additional researchers presented their findings using poster exhibits describing
results of research they had undertaken.
As Foresight Institute moves more and more toward basing its communications
upon the World Wide Web, more nanotechnology-related information will become
available on the Web. In particular, Merkle says that most presentations
given at the conference will be available on the Web and linked from the
conference page at http://nano.xerox.com/nanotech/nano4.html.
With that information available in detail, and with tapes also available,
Update does not plan to report exhaustively on the conference proceedings.
A complete listing of the speakers, and their
topics, accompanies this article.
Among the conference highlights:
David Jeremiah, former Vice Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, discussed global
security implications of nanotechnology. After painting a bleak picture
of a politically unstable future world, Jeremiah summarized a future world
in which "idealogy will be a major factor [in which] good or bad leaders
will inspire the passion of five, 500, 5000, or 5 million people with consequences
that will require some form of military force." He also forecast that
"economics will play an increasing role in national security."
He sees a world of continuing regional conflicts, in which "there will
be a high demand to protect our own information and exploit open source
and our opponent's intelligence." Battlefields of the future will feature
"small, lethal, sensing, emitting, flying, crawling, exploding and
thinking objects that may make the battlefield (or sea) highly lethal to
humans in steel (or ceramic, or carbon-fiber) boxes. While there will be
an enormous increase in the mass of sensors and other minute devices on
the battlefield, there will be fewer weapons."
A panel of four speakers (George
Paul Gaber and Richard
Colton) focused the attention of researchers on the need (as Gaber
put it) to "do the science that will lead to something useful."
Panelists singled out areas where a need for nano-scale devices is most
apparent, including (as Whitesides proposed) biological sciences ("probes
that are small on a mammalian cell scale"), space launch related items,
near-field optics, computer memory, x-ray fabrication, the human genome
project, and national security-related projects (especially a highly efficient
battery). In the future, said Gaber, "The technical hurdles will be
very, very steep. Getting funding will be difficult; you have to be prepared
to see what will spin off your research in the near term to keep the project
Neil Jacobstein, President of Teknowledge
Inc. and chairman of the Institute for
Molecular Manufacturing, discussed the challenges of converting technological
breakthroughs into commercial success, noting among other things that "being
first is not enough," the need to "limit the number of breakthroughs
needed to succeed," and the need to "distinguish technologies
from markets." In the rapidly changing business climate we face today,
"there is no finish line," he said. "Technical mastery at
one level is no more than a ticket to get into the next round."
Ralph Merkle described
an architecture for an assembler which is simpler than previous proposals.
He also discussed convergent assembly - a manufacturing architecture very
different from an assembler - intended to build large complex structures
with molecular precision by successively assembling larger parts from smaller
Colton of the U.S Naval Research Laboratory outlined Tip-Surface
Interactions research conducted at NRL. He discussed one technology that
his group has developed which allows identification of chemical compounds,
even individual molecules, eight orders of magnitude more sensitive than
other available technologies. This technology should provide the military
with a means to detect and alert for presence of viruses and toxins without
having to wait hours or even days to collect enough sample, he said. The
same technique has broad implications for civilian applications in medicine
and other areas, he said.
Brenner of North Carolina State University presented his findings
on "Simulated Engineering of Nanostructures." He outlined a molecular
dynamics simulation of a basic mechanosynthetic operation - the abstraction
of a specified hydrogen atom from a diamond surface using a hydrogen abstraction
tool. He also referred to his next area of focus, metal/hydrocarbon interactions.
Video and audio recordings of the entire proceedings are available. They
can be ordered directly from the production company, Sound
Photosynthesis, P.O. Box 2111, Mill Valley, CA 94942-2111. Call: (415)
383-6712. Audio tapes are $10 per lecture + tax and mailing costs of $2
per three tapes. Tax is 7.25% for CA residents.
Videotapes are $35 plus tax and shipping per two-hour tape. The lectures
are arranged sequentially on tape according to the conference program. Tax
is as above and shipping is $3 per videotape.
A single "conference highlights" compilation videotape is available
for the the same price as the other videotapes. Please email any questions
to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.