Scientific Americanstaff writer Gary Stix attended last fall's
in Palo Alto. He used that event as a springboard to launch a wholly unscientific
attack on nanotechnology and Foresight Institute. Built around ad hominem
attack and undefendable quotations lifted from World Wide Web sources, the
news story concludes that nanotechnology involving a general purpose assembler
is akin to "Cargo Cult Science," a pathology described by the
late Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman.
His son, Carl Feynman, has written a letter to Scientific Americanobjecting to their misuse of his father's essay (see http://www.foresight.org/SciAmDebate/SciAmLetters.html).
As Carl points out, Richard Feynman saw great promise in nanotechnology,
and considered it wholly achievable. We're waiting to see if they will publish
his and other pro-nanotechnology letters they have received from the science
Meanwhile, for those interested in a vigorous rebuttal to the Scientific
Americannews story, visithttp://www.foresight.org/SciAmDebate/SciAmResponse.html
on the World Wide Web. There, Ralph Merkle has done a splendid job of explaining
the technological aspects of the field clearly and precisely, while dismantling
the story. An email version can be requested from firstname.lastname@example.org
Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler commented, "Over the last twenty years,
the intellectual quality of Scientific American has visibly
declined, a circumstance that must demoralize the better members of its
staff. This decline appears in the level of writing, in the displacement
of informative diagrams by decorative illustrations, and in the dilution
of science and technology coverage with business and politics.
"With the rise of the Web, however, the decay of general science publications
matters less and less. The Web opens a fresh channel for publication on
science and technology, one dominated not by organizations entrenched in
their printing and distribution systems, pursuing sales down into the swamps,
but rather by a free exchange of ideas and responses. On the Web, colorful
pictures and biased reporting can't push aside more serious explorations
of the complex dangers and opportunities presented by the real world."
Regarding some of the less technical matters raised in the Scientific
American article, Eric confirms his view that "milk really does
have merit as an additive to iced tea, but not with lemon," and notes
that, whatever the accuracy of the comparisons made by Mr. Stix, it is true
that as a child he was fond of Mr. Peabody, and "still admires him
for his thoughtfulness, responsibility, doggish loyalty, and time-spanning
Economic and political constraints have diminished the scope and reach of
America's space exploration and development program. Many people seeking
to increase long-term investment in space infrastructure, and make space
travel more cost-effective, are looking toward nanotechnology as a means
to achieve those goals.
Recent developments in this area include:
A major report to the board of the Space
Studies Institute, summarized in SSI's Update newsletter (Fourth
Quarter 1995) by Dr. George Friedman, executive director of SSI.
A paper presented at SSI's May 1995 Space Manufacturing Conference,
on the topic Minimizing the Initial Space Manufacturing Base,
by Steve Vetter, Senior Advisor, Space Studies Institute, and an active
participant in Foresight Institute affairs.
A session at the Space Manufacturing Conference on the topic of Advanced
Technologies, also chaired by Vetter.
Publication by Thomas L. McKendree, President of the Molecular Manufacturing
Shortcut Group, of a paper entitled Planning Scenarios for Space Development,
in which he applies scenario planning methods to key issues of space development.
The Space Studies Institute report provides recommendations for continuing
research to the SSI Board. Removing weight (and also size) from things that
must be sent off-planet is an obvious means to advance the prospects of
space development, since the cost of lifting a pound to orbit hasn't declined
significantly in decades, the report says. "The ultimate leverage is
achieved with a molecular nanotechnology-based self-replicating system,"
the report says. It recognizes that getting there won't be easy; it "will
require at least two types of breakthrough to accomplish the actual synthesis
of molecular nanotechnology devices useful for space and the achievement
of real-world machine self-replication.
Based on the report, SSI's board approved four research initiatives, including
"Molecular Nanotechnology for Space" (MNTS), for which the principal
investigator will be Tom McKendree. The initiative is a Ph.D. research project
planned for completion in the spring of 1997. McKendree's work will be supported
by his employer, Hughes Electronics. He is addressing two major inter-related
issues regarding the High Frontier- space manufacturing and space transportation.
He will begin with established "location theory" models which
support decisions regarding the geographic placement of terrestrial factories
as a function of the manufacturing investments and the locations and costs
of all resource inputs as well as market outputs. This model will then be
expanded to space with its analogous but complex costs and timing constraints
for astrodynamic maneuvers. Finally, the impacts of molecular nanotechnology
will be assessed.
The molecular nanotechnology impacts on space transportation to be examined
include lower-cost conventional rockets, feasible skyhooks and momentum
transfer tethers, and ultrathin solar sails. The MNT impacts on manufacturing
to be examined include low cost, multiproduct manufacturing, minimal tooling,
high-strength structures, synthesis of "vitamin parts," and self-replication.
The other SSI research initiatives include Sub-Kilogram Intelligent Robots,
Accelerated Near Earth Object Discovery, and Quest for Self-Replicating
Minimizing the Initial Space Manufacturing Base by Steve Vetter
notes that the cost of opening the High Frontier is very dependent on the
cost of transporting the initial mining and manufacturing facilities from
the Earth. This cost is closely related to the mass of these facilities.
His paper examines what limits are encountered as one tries to shrink the
mass of the initial base. Solutions are proposed to break through or work
around each limit as it is encountered. "Finally, we come to the conclusion
that the only real limit is at the molecular level," Vetter writes.
"This leads to the realization that building things from the bottom
up, with atomic precision, is not only possible, but highly advantageous
to the goal of opening the high frontier. This work is based partly on research
in minimizing the mass of a solar power satellite, lunar-material-insensitive
SPS designs, robots, self-replicating systems, and other related areas of
technology." The heavily referenced paper assumes no new science, but
is based on projections of scientifically-understood technological progress.
Advanced Technologies discussions at the SSI 1995 annual meeting included
presentation of four papers, including Vetter's topic discussed above. Another
with nanotechnology implications was Bruce Mackenzie's discussion of "Bootstrapping
Space Communities with Micro Rovers and High-Tensile Boot Laces." (The
latter term refers to tethers and cable-like links between a planetary surface
and an orbiting platform.) "The tethers make use of expected advances
in material science," Vetter commented. "The better material you
have, the more efficient tether you can have."
Mackenzie's proposal looked at mass requirements, and determined that to
keep the system running efficiently, you would have to send substantial
weight into space to keep the angular momentum balanced with (mined and
manufactured) products going to the surface, about as much mass would have
to be lifted into orbit. "Basically, we can probably bootstrap up a
space manufacturing facility, with just a few hundred kilograms of equipment,
plus a few tons of tether and ballast and some ability to do some processing
at some other point, like at a low Earth orbit space station." The
system requires not only efficient tethers (manufactured, no doubt, from
atomically precise materials), but also self-replicating devices that could
copy themselves a number of times, then convert to mining and manufacturing
duties. The need for nanoscale computing devices is also clear.
Planning Scenarios for Space Development,Tom McKendree's
paper, published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics,
uses the scenario planning approach advanced by Foresight Institute Advisory
Board member Peter Schwartz (President of Global Business Network). Scenarios
are fictional representations of alternative futures, focused on particular
issues. McKendree proposes a "Slow and Planned" scenario and a
In "Slow and Planned," space development evolves gradually, with
major institutional players (governments and aerospace corporations) gradually
paying more attention to molecular nanotechnology's development and capabilities.
Private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate becomes a significant
issue, and a market develops to allocate rights to carbonaceous solar system
bodies that have been distributed to all adult citizens of the world. Large
corporations accumulate development rights in space, paving the way for
actual (gradual) exploration of the High Frontier. The scenario's key features
are relatively slow development of molecular nanotechnology capability,
and a high level of planning. Its central feature is a well-conceived set
of "rules of the road" for space development.
"Sooners" envisions an extraterrestrial land rush based on Internet
distribution of information that allows small players to build rocket probes
and self-replicating manufacturing capability very inexpensively. Before
large institutions understand what's happened, every developable asteroid
in the solar system is claimed, developed, and colonized. It's a disorganized,
almost anarchic path to space development, but it occurs faster and more
completely than the highly-planned path. The scenario's key features are
relatively fast development of molecular nanotechnology capability, and
a low level of planning. It shows what might happen if the ability to go
into space precedes creation of appropriate "rules of the road."
Readers interested in using nanotechnology for space development should
point their Web browser at: http://www.islandone.org/MMSG/,
the home page of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, a chapter of
the National Space Society.
Japanese "Atomcraft Project" Outlines
Major Goals, Publishes Interim Report
In its third interim activity report, the Aono Atomcraft Project of Japan
outlined its goals and technical results. The Atomcraft Project is sponsored
by the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO)
program of the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC).
The project was begun in 1989.
The coined word used in the project name, "Atomcraft," expresses
"a new world of atomic-scale science and technology, including the
creation of artificial micromaterials, quasi-molecules and other customized
atomic arrangements which exhibit novel electronic, material and optical
properties. Although only a dream a decade ago, this is now an actively
pursued area of research, thanks to the invention of the scanning tunneling
microscope (STM) by Binning and Rohrer," says Atomcraft Project Director
Masakazu Aono in the report's introduction.
"Even though the STM was originally invented to observe individual
atoms, it is also useful for manipulating individual atoms by carefully
controlling the local interactions between the probe tip and the sample
appropriately. In fact, several preliminary demonstrations suggest the power
of this approach. Challenges remain, however, in clearly understanding the
physical mechanisms involved and in many issues related to technological
feasibility. Our project has been organized to perform systematic studies
to overcome such scientific and technological hurdles and apply these results
to the fields mentioned above," Aono says.
The project consists of three groups:
Basic Analysis Group:
Atomcraft attaches importance to the close cooperation between experimentalists
and theorists, so this group consists mainly of theorists, to balance the
project's large number of experimentalists. "The theorists are making
various calculations to interpret experimental results and design promising
experiments for atomcraft. In an experimental subgroup an apparatus for
single-atom elemental analysis is also under construction," the report
Structure Control Group:
Researchers in this group are studying various possible techniques for atomcraft,
i.e., the manipulation of single atoms and the creation of nanometer-scale
structure patterns. Specifically, these include the preparation of atomically
sharp tips made of desirable materials, the compensation of thermal drift
between tip and sample, the development of hardware and software that can
control the movement and electric parameters of the tip in a sophisticated
manner, and the preparation of sample surfaces with desirable composition
and atomic arrangement. In addition, prototype experiments to control single
electrons in nanometer-scale structures at room temperature are also in
Surface Measurement Group:
This group is observing and analyzing various new phenomena related to atomcraft.
"One of the most important research subjects is to clarify physical
mechanisms involved in atom manipulation. New chemistry observed under the
extreme conditions between tip and sample is also being studied. The key
to these studies is to prepare tips with desirable shape and composition
routinely with the use of an appropriate monitoring method in situ.
Another important research subject is to directly measure the electronic
properties of created novel micromaterials and nanometer-scale structure
patterns in a wide temperature range," the report says.
For more information, including copies of the group's report (which contains
technical papers in both English and Japanese), contact:
Aono Atomcraft Project
The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN)
Hirosawa 2-1, Wako-shi, Saitama, 351-01 Japan; Phone 81-484-62-1111; Fax