Chapter 6. “Invisibly Small and Magical”

Page 109

Stewart Brand believes: ‘The science is good, the engineering feasible, the paths of approach are many, the consequences are revolutionary times-revolutionary, and the schedule is: in our lifetimes.’

Stewart Brand, foreword, in K. Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit, Unbounding the Future: Nanotechnology Revolution(New York: William Morrow, 1991), p.5

As sometime nanotech historian Ashley Shew writes, nanotechnology ‘is not one subject of study. Rather, it is a scale that has brought together researchers, innovators, and engineers from sometimes radically different fields. Disciplines collide on the tiny’

Ashley Shew, “Nanotech’s History: An Interesting, Interdisciplinary, Ideological Split,” presented to the International Congress of Nanotechnology, 2006.

Page 110

‘Coal and diamonds, sand and computer chips, cancer and healthy tissue: throughout history, variations in the arrangement of atoms have distinguished the cheap from the cherished, the diseased from the healthy.’

K. Eric Drexler, “Chapter 1: Engine of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology,” online version.

Page 111

Another staggering property of carbon nanotubes is their strength—fifty times greater than steel—strong enough that a single strand the thickness of a hair could lift the weight of a family car.

Pulickel M. Ajayan and Otto Z. Zhou, “Applications of Carbon Nanotubes,” Topics of Applied Physics 80(2001):391–425.

“The resulting abilities will be so powerful that, in a competitive world, failure to develop [them] would be equivalent to unilateral disarmament,” Drexler suggests.

K. Eric Drexler and Richard E. Smalley, “Nanotechnology,” Chemical and Engineering News 81(48):37–42.

“he’s an engineer who studied chemistry and thought about its possibilities, but perhaps did not take enough chemistry.”

Ashley Shew, “Nanotech’s History.” Bulletin of Science Technology Society October 2008 vol. 28 no. 5 390-399.

Page 112

In 2004, Wired ran an article by Ed Regis (a largely pro-Drexler voice) with the strapline “K. Eric Drexler was the godfather of nanotechnology. But the MIT prodigy who dreamed up molecular machines was shoved aside by big science—and now he’s an industry outcast.”

Ed Regis, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” Wired, Oct. 2004.

Accepted history is that the field was born in a 1959 lecture entitled ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ by the late great physicist Richard Feynman

Richard P. Feynman, “Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” Engineering and Science (February 1960), p. 22.

Page 113

‘This capacity has allowed us to fabricate rudimentary structures of our own design, atom by atom,’ wrote Eigler and colleague Erhard Schweizer. ‘The possibilities for perhaps the ultimate in device miniaturization are evident.’

9. D. M. Eigler and E. K. Schweizer, “Positioning Single Atoms with a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope,” Nature 344 (5 April 1990):524–26.

Page 115

At a dollar per kilogram (a typical price for industrial feedstocks today) the solar-electric material would cost about one cent per square meter, and the computers would cost about a dime.

K. Eric Drexler, “Letter from the Author: Engine of Creation 2.0,” WOWIO Books, p. 15.

Page 117

José López from the University of Ottawa makes the point that sci-fi and nanotechnology are deeply entwined, due to the field’s ‘radical future orientation’ which he argues ‘opens up a gap between what is … possible today and its inflated promises for the future.’

José López, “Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction in Nanotechnology,” HYLE — International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, vol. 10, no. 2 (2004), pp. 129–152.

Page 118

Following an injection of the antibodies ‘you could send a person home, have them shine a laser on the specific part of the body with cancer for a couple of weeks, and they could be cured,’ says professor Jin Zhang.

Eric Bland, “Gold Nanospheres Sear Cancer Cells to Death,” Discovery News, 1 April 2009.

Eric Hoek and colleagues at the California NanoSystems Institute are working on new nanomembranes that could reduce the cost of desalinating water, solving the problem of predicted fresh water shortages.

Eric Hoek, “Thin Film Nanocomposites: A New Concept for Reverse Osmosis,” California NanoSystems Institute website.

…researchers at Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute in South Africa have put carbon and nanofibres into common tea bags to create a bottle-based, impossibly cheap water filtration system that removes pathogens from dirty water sources

Munyaradzi Makani, “Nano ‘tea bag’ purifies water,”, 12 Aug. 2010.

Nanomaterials are also about to see widespread use in the construction industry to ‘enable novel applications ranging from structural strength enhancement and energy conservation to antimicrobial properties and self-cleaning surfaces’ according to a report from Rice University and the University of California.

Jaesang Lee, Shaily Mahendra and Pedro J. J. Alvarez, “Nanomaterials in the Construction Industry: A Review of Their Applications and Environmental Health and Safety Considerations,” ACS Nano, 2010, 4 (7), pp. 3580–3590, 12 July 2010.

Page 119

In Greece, the Intelligent, Safe and Smart Built (ISSB) project is developing a house for earthquake zones that uses nanomaterials to self-heal cracks: nano-polymer particles that become liquid when squeezed under pressure, flow into the cracks and then harden into a solid material.

“Self-Healing House in Greece Will Dare to Defy Nature.” University of Leeds Press release.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts) keeps a watching brief on nanotechnology-based consumer products.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies—Inventories.

One of his first demonstrations of this technique was to create a map of the Americas one 200-trillionth of their actual size.

Duncan Graham-Rowe, “ ‘DNA Origami’ Creates Map of the Americas,” New Scientist, 15 March 2006.

One example is building tiny nanoboxes with lids and ‘molecular locks’ that might be used to contain drugs until they can be delivered to just the right cell – and then unleashed with devastating accuracy.

Ebbe Andersen et al., “Self-assembly of a Nanoscale DNA Box with a Controllable Lid,” Nature 459 (7 May 2009):73–76.

Page 120

Rothemund and colleagues used DNA ‘staples’ to carry some of those wondrous carbon nanotubes into position to form a tiny circuit switch even smaller than those found in modern microprocessors.

Hareem Maune et al., “Self-assembly of Carbon Nanotubes into Two-dimensional Geometries Using DNA Origami Templates,” Nature Nanotechnology 5(2010):61–66; published online, 8 Nov. 2009.

‘In the near future nano-structured catalysts will be available which will increase the efficiency of pesticides and herbicides, allowing lower doses to be used,’ concluded the 2006 Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food report by the EC-funded Nanoforum.

Tiju Joseph and Mark Morrison, “Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food,” Institute of Nanotechnology, May 2006

…even a cautious commentator like Professor Richard Jones, a one-time senior nanotechnology adviser to the UK government, and author of Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life, acknowledges: “The main impact of ‘nanotech’ … will be the reduction in costof most manufactured products.”

Richard Jones, “Even if Drexler Is Wrong, Nanotechnology Will Have Far-reaching Impacts,”, 9 Nov. 2004.

Page 121

In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined.”

K. Eric Drexler, “Chapter 4: Engine of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology,” online version.

Page 122

“You and people around you have scared our children. I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams”

“Drexler and Smalley make the case for and against ‘molecular assemblers,’ ” Chemical and Engineering News, vol. 81, no. 48, 1 Dec. 2003.

Page 123

Richard Smalley (who accused Drexler of scaring children in 2003) admitted that reading Engines of Creation ‘was the trigger event that started my own journey in nanotechnology … [but] after a while I thought I saw what might be some problems. The more I thought about it, the more troublesome they appeared. Finally I ended up thinking, it’s just hopeless.’

Ed Regis, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” Wired, Oct. 2004

Page 124

Of Eric’s original MIT doctoral work he remarked, ‘it showed utter contempt for chemistry. And the mechanosynthesis stuff I saw in that thesis might as well have been written by somebody on controlled substances.’

Ed Regis, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” Wired, Oct. 2004

A more measured voice is Professor Richard Jones, mentioned earlier, who says Nanosystems is ‘a carefully written book’, that ‘Drexler’s proposals for radical nanotechnology do not obviously break physical laws’ but that ‘many proposals in Nanosystems are not fully worked out, and many vital components and mechanisms remain at the level of “black boxes’.”

Richard Jones, “Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I stand,” Dec. 28th 2004.

Page 125

In 2006 a joint report from the National Academy of Sciences, The National Academy of Engineering and The National Research Council concluded that ‘manufacturing processes with some capability to pattern structures with atomic precision’ might one day be possible and research into programmable manufacture at the molecular level should be cautiously encouraged. That report’s final paragraphs are carefully worded, pointing out that the future performance of many theoretical component of molecular manufacturing cannot be ‘reliably predicted at this time.’

“A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (2006) National Materials Advisory Board, Conclusions,” Page 108.

‘This work is currently outside the mainstream of both conventional science (designed to seek new knowledge) and conventional engineering (usually concerned with the design of things that can be built more or less immediately). Rather, it may be in the tradition of visionary engineering analysis exemplified by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s 1903 publication, The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices.

“A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (2006) National Materials Advisory Board, Conclusions,” Page 107.

‘This result provides fundamental information about atomic scale fabrication and could pave the way for new data storage and memory devices,’ said IBM researcher Andreas Heinrich. ‘Our mission is to create the foundation for what could someday be called theIBM nanoconstruction company.

“IBM Scientists First To Measure Force Required To Move Individual Atoms,” IBM Press Release, 21 Feb, 2008.

Page 126

‘If you can make any product you want on your desk in your home, what happens to all the people whose jobs rely on finding raw materials, manufacturing those products, delivering them – transportation, storage, wholesale, retail – all of those people might someday be left jobless … Such social disruption can leave a vacuum that allows a powerful charismatic personality to take hold. We’ve seen that happen before … and it could lead to a situation of global tyranny.’

Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix, “Small Machines, Big Choices: The Looming Impacts of Molecular Manufacturing,” Global Catastrophic Risks Conference, 17-20 July 2008.

Page 127

‘[It can lead to] smaller groups or even individuals [wielding] greater destructive power. If any technology was ever primed to do that, this is one.’

Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix, “Small Machines, Big Choices: The Looming Impacts of Molecular Manufacturing,” Global Catastrophic Risks Conference, 17-20 July 2008.

Page 128

Peace can break out, though, when carrying capacity is pushed up suddenly, as with the invention of agriculture, or newly effective bureaucracy, or remote trade or technological breakthroughs.

Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline(New York: Viking, 2009), “Ch.1: Scale, Scope, Stakes, Speed,” p. 2.

Page 130

Richard Jones asserts: “Followers of Drexler are in danger of finding themselves in denial about the potential impact of ordinary, evolutionary nanotechnology, because of their devotion to their brand of nanotechnology’s one true path . . . It would be ironic if, in thirty years, the Drexlerites find themselves still waiting for a revolution that’s already happened.”

Richard A. L. Jones, “Even if Drexler Is Wrong, Nanotechnology Will Have Far-reaching Impacts,” SoftMachines, 9 Nov. 2004.

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