Was Feynman the founder of nanotechnology?

Amidst all the controversy about what nanotechnology is and isn’t, one thing that everyone seems to agree on is the visionary role of Richard Feynman as the founding father of the field, through his famous lecture, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. In a series of posts I made here a year or so ago (Re-reading Feynman Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), I looked again, with the benefit of hindsight, at what Feynman actually said in this lecture, in the light of the way nanoscience and technology has developed. But does the claim that this lecture launched nanotechnology stand up to critical scrutiny?

This question was considered in a fascinating article by Chris Toumey called Apostolic Succession (PDF file). The article, published last year in Caltech’s house science magazine (just as Feynman’s original lecture was), takes a cool look at the evidence that might underpin the claim that “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” really was the foundational text for nanotechnology. The first place to look is in citations – occasions when the article was cited by other writers. Perhaps surprisingly, Plenty of Room was cited just 7 times in the two decades of the 60’s and 70’s, and the annual citation rate didn’t get into double figures until 1992. Next, Toumey directly questioned leading figures from nanoscience on the degree to which they were influenced by the Feynman lecture. The answers – from scientists of the standing of Binnig, Rohrer, and Eigler, Mirkin and Whitesides – were overwhelmingly negative. The major influence of the Feynman lecture, Toumey concludes, has been through the mediation of Drexler, who has been a vocal champion of the paper since coming across it around 1980.

Toumey draws three conclusions from all this. As he puts it, “The theory of apostolic succession posited that first there was “Plenty of Room”; then there was much interest in it; and finally that caused the birth of nanotechnology. My analysis suggests something different: first there was “Plenty of Room”; then there was very little interest in it; meanwhile, there was the birth of nanotechnology, independent of it; and finally there was a retroactive interest in it. I believe we can credit much of the rediscovery to Drexler, who has passionately championed Feynman’s paper.” As for why such a retroactive interest appeared, Toumey makes the obvious point that attaching one’s vision to someone with the genius, vision and charisma of Feynman is an obvious temptation. Finally, though, Toumey asks “how selective is the process of enhancing one’s work by retroactively claiming the Feynman cachet? “ The point here, and it is an important one, is that, as I discussed in my re-readings of Feynman, this lecture talked about many things and it requires a very selective reading to claim that Feynman’s musings supported any single vision of nanotechnology.

Toumey (who is from the centre for nanoScience & Technology Studies at the University of South Carolina) is an anthropologist by training, so it’s perhaps appropriate that his final conclusion is expressed in rather anthropological terms: “We can speculate about why “Plenty of Room” was rediscovered. Perhaps it shows us that a new science needed an authoritative founding myth, and needed it quickly. If so, then pulling Feynman’s talk off the shelf was a smart move because it gave nanotech an early date of birth, it made nanotech coherent, and it connected nanotech to the Feynman cachet.”

My thanks to Peter Rodgers for bringing this article to my attention.

In Australia

I’ve been to Australia for a brief trip, attending a closed public policy conference run by the Australian think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies. The terms of engagement of the conference prevent me from reporting on it in detail; it’s meant to be unreported and off-the-record. The attendance list was certainly a cut above the usual scientific conferences I go to; it included present and former cabinet ministers from the Australian and New Zealand governments, central bankers and senior judges, industry CEOs and prominent journalists.

A session of the conference was devoted to nanotechnology; I spoke, together with a couple of prominent Australian nanoscientists and the science correspondent of one of Australia’s major dailies. I was nervous about how I would be received, and I think many of the audience, more used to hearing about terrorism in Indonesia or commodity price fluctuations, were similarly nervous about whether they would find anything to interest them in such a specialised and futuristic sounding topic. In the event, I think, everyone was very pleasantly surprised at the success of the session and the lively debate it sparked.

I don’t want to divert this blog too much into discussing politics, but I can’t help observing that the tone of the meeting was a little bit more right wing than I am used to. The CIS clearly occupies rather a different part of think-tank space to my centrist friends in Demos, for example, and I regretted having left my Ayn Rand t-shirts at home. Nonetheless, I think it’s hugely important that science and technology do start to play a larger role in policy discussions.