The Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group (MMSG) is a chapter of the National
Space Society founded to inform government, industry, academia, the space
activist community, and the public about what molecular nanotechnology is
and how it can be used to facilitate the development of space. In addition
to basic information about the MMSG and a list of links to Web
sites related tospace and nanotechnology, this site collects
a number of documents that discuss the role of nanotechnology in space development.
Included are five issues (of the eleven issues that have been published)
of the MMSG newsletter The Assembler. The May1994 issue contains Tom McKendree's thoughts on a "Timeline
for Molecular Manufacturing Development." Highlights of the First
Quarter 1996 issue include a detailed report on "The Fourth Foresight
Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology" by Tom McKendree, an article
by Jerome D. Rosen on "Using Mechanosynthetic Assemblers to Build an
Orbital Tower," and an article by Robert J. Coppinger on "The
Drexlerian Terraformation of Mars: A New Ark for Humanity." The major
feature of the Third Quarter
1996 issue is an article entitled "LEGO(TM)s
to the Stars: Active MesoStructures, Kinetic Cellular Automata, and Parallel
Nanomachines for Space Applications" written by Tihamer Toth-Fejel
and presented at the 1996 International Space Development Conference, New
York City, May 1996.
Other major documents provided include the "NSS
Position Paper on Space and Molecular Nanotechnology." A more technical
consideration of the relation of molecular nanotechnology to space development
is presented by the PhD thesis proposal of Tom McKendree, "System
Architectures for Space Systems Using Molecular Nanotechnology."
An article "Robot
Bushes" by Dr. Hans Moravec proposes a progressively branching
robot arm design in which the fingers at the end of each arm in turn have
even smaller fingers. The several largest fingers are cm in length scale
and 1 hertz in movement time scale. After 50 levels of branching, the smallest
fingers, numbering about 1015, would be nm in length scale and
gigahertz in movement time scale, and able to manipulate matter at the atomic
Molecular dynamics is a very powerful tool for understanding molecular devices,
and has been used for that purpose not only by the group at NASA Ames, but
also by Bill Goddard's group at Cal Tech to simulate
the molecular planetary gear designed by Drexler and Merkle, and by
Drs. Don Noid, Bobby Sumpter, and Robert Tuzun at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
to model nanometer-scale
pistons and laser-driven motors made from graphite nanotubes and buckyballs.
Yet another Web page featuring molecular dynamics simulations of fullerene-based
nanoscale gears showcases the research
of D.H. Robertson at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
These latter three Web sites have available several MPEG movies that demonstrate
the movements of these nanodevices, if you have either a fast Internet connection
or the patience to download files of several to 20 megabytes each.
The following Web pages do not deal explicitly with nanotechnology, but
rather with molecular modeling, a necessity for the design and simulation
of molecular devices, as exemplified by the molecular dynamics studies described
in the above Web pages. A page at the University of Florida Quantum Theory
Project site provides a list
of pointers to Web resources. The
Center for Molecular Modeling for computational chemical and physics
software of the National Institutes of Health has a page that lists Guides
and Tutorials available on the Web. One excellent tutorial
is the NIH Guide to Molecular Modeling, which offers substantial discussions
engines, and graphics
engines. A particularly useful feature of the NIH molecular modeling
site is the "Universal
Molecular Modeling Software List," which lists more than a hundred
molecular modeling software packages, classified according to the functions
they provide and whether they are available for personal computers.
Ralph Merkle's nanotechnology Web site offers, as part of a vast array of
information about nanotechnology, another starting point for material on
molecular modeling. The paper "Computational
Nanotechnology" discusses molecular modeling specifically from
the viewpoint of its role in the design and modeling of molecular devices.
There is also a page with useful links to computational
chemistry and molecular modeling resources on the Web.
Another useful brief overview
of molecular modeling has been written by Oliver Smart. It has an especially
good introduction to the basic forces between atoms that must be considered
by molecular modeling software, and is part of a larger online course on
the principles of protein
structure. An elementary but still very informative introduction to
molecular modeling is available at the MathMol
Web site. In addition to basic information clearly presented, this site
offers animated graphics, interactive tutorials, and molecular dynamics
simulations done with Java. A much more advanced
tutorial on theory and general methodology, including extensive discussion
of molecular dynamics, is also available on the web.
A large amount of molecular structural data is available on the Internet,
including Eric Drexler's molecular
machine parts designs. Such data are in the form of atomic coordinate
files, which can be formatted in a number of different file types (chemical
MIME types). Information about chemical
MIME types (and also)
can be found on the web. To view the structures that are encoded by these
atomic coordinate files, and to be able to manipulate the images to view
the molecules from various perspectives, requires molecular graphics visualization
tools. One free molecular graphics visualization tool available over the
Internet is RasMol, developed by Roger Sayle. RasMol is available for UNIX,
VMS, Macintosh and Microsoft Windows (OS/2 and Windows NT). Excellent introductions
to RasMol, along with instructions for obtaining and setting up the program,
are available (at the University
of Massachusetts and as part
of the principles of protein structure course). An alternative
free visualization tool is the Netscape (TM) 3.01 Plugin called Chime,
supplied by MDL Information Systems, Inc. Additional
information about Chime is available on the web. Athird
free visualization tool is WebLab(TM) Viewer, provided by Molecular
That's troubling: it reduces science to lawyering, people advocating or
debunking MNT with no grasp of its scientific basis. So for seventy-two
hours in April I went searching for hard criticism of MNTwhich I defined
as criticism of the science in the technical text Nanosystems.
First task was to cut away the pundits. Pundits included pop science journalist
Gary Stix of Scientific American, whose "Waiting for breakthroughs"
article did little more than draw word cartoons of Eric Drexler. After comprehensive
rebuttals from Ralph Merkle and Will Ware, SciAm somewhat
on the Web with an unbiased account of nanotech's possibilities. Lesson
learned: you don't find real nanocriticism in magazines written for Joe
Next came what I call "slant" criticscriticism by scientists
with narrow credentials. Chemist and Nature columnist David
Jones picked a soft target for his punditry: he turned his review of Ed
Regis's Nano (a book about people, not science) into a soapbox
to deliver his own anti-MNT views from. (It seemed Jones hadn't read Nanosystems
Ralph Merkle disputed
him and confirms Jones hasn't replied, either privately or in the pages
of Nature. Other slant critics include microtechnologists,
who often call their science nanotechnology but aren't working towards mechanosynthesis.
Lesson two: check a critic's credentials, and look out for personal opinions
masked as criticism.
Our third pundit, software engineer Brad Cox, attacks MNT from a different
viewpoint: he argues that molecular nanotechnology is a technology unknowable
by man, drawing analogies with that old MNT chestnut Heisenberg's Uncertainty
Principle. (Presumably he files Nanosystems on his fiction
shelf.) Lesson three: philosophy isn't criticism. It's like a shark fighting
a tiger; neither can enter the other's arena.
That leaves MNT-savvy scientists. Fortunately, these researchers are their
own sternest critics.
In Nanosystems Drexler states how difficult molecular nano
ball-and-sockets would be and draws several devices in atomic detailhardly
the kind of vague-and-fuzzy work that's difficult to criticize. The Institute
for Molecular Manufacturing makes several
.pdb files of nanomachines available for computational chemists to analyse,
while Merkle and others test a principle for abstracting hydrogen atoms
with three qualitatively different computational models before pronouncing
On the sci.nanotech newsgroup, Eugene Leitl tears into nanodreamers with
hard science and sporadic personal abuse, footnoted by moderator and MNT
researcher John Storrs-Hall. Also on the Web, Nobel prizewinner Richard
E. Smalley suggests with evidence that an atom-by-atom assembler couldn't
build in resolutions sharper than a cubic nanometre.
And here's where I found my criticism of Nanosystems: Because
1-nanometer resolution isn't sharp enough for mechanosynthesis, it takes
about 60 carbon atoms to fill a cubic nanometre.
Smalley, free from dogma, calls for further research. Perhaps this is the
next step for MNT researchers: build a nanoscale tool (probably an AFM tip)
that can provably abstract and insert a carbon atom or dimer into a surface
at room temperature without disturbing nearby atoms. (John Mark Michelson
details a method, but it's yet to be tested in real life.)
It's odd that the team to prove Smalley wrong may be led by Smalley himself.
In the meantime, check the credentials of every nanocritic you seeand
if they're good, listen hard to what he says.
Chris Worth (email@example.com) is a technology writer and Foresight
Senior Associate based in Singapore.
"Thanks of the decade" go to Foresight/IMM/CCIT office manager
Judy Hill, as she moves on to a new career as a book author. So much of
our organizations' success to date is attributable to her long hours of
cheerful work over the years. We will miss her, and the joy she brings to
all around her, very much.
Ongoing profound thanks go to Jeffrey Soreff, author of our Recent Progress
technical column. The quality and breadth of his analysis makes this column
the best anywhere on technical advances in molecular nanotechnology.
For recruiting Foresight's summer intern Franklin Van Ardoy, thanks go to
Russell Whitaker. For recruiting new staff member Tanya Jones, we thank
Gayle Pergamit. For the donation of three beautiful "dogs," an
advanced form of mobile office furniture, we thank MG Taylor (the company
of Senior Associates Matt and Gail Taylor), and Sheryl Corchnoy for arranging
the donation. For ongoing pro bono legal advice, vigorous thanks
go to Elizabeth Enayati of Venture Law Group.
Special thanks to Ka-Ping Yee for assistance at the Gathering and doing
systems administration on our two Linux machines. For coding assistance
on Web Enhancement, thanks go to Miron Cuperman. For taking photos at the
Gathering, we thank Wayne Beckley. For donating Prentice-Hall molecular
modeling sets, thanks to Forrest Bishop.
For sending information, we thank Frank Bourgeois, Per Bro, Nimit Chomnawang,
Allan Drexler, Dave Forrest, Dan Fylstra, Martin Haeberli, Mark and Judy
Haviland, Neil Jacobstein, Andrew Levine, Wayne McConnell, Tom McKendree,
Gerald Portis, Greg Rehmke, Richard Smith, Alvin Steinberg, Richard Terra,
Dean Tribble, Steve Vetter, Brian Wang, Will Ware.