Hollow centre: Nanotechnology is a discipline in the throes of an existential crisis

This review of “The Dance of Molecules : How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives”, by Ted Sargent, is published in today’s edition of Nature. The published version differs slightly from this unedited text, which is reproduced here by permission of Nature, and should not be further reproduced.

Every field needs its founding genius; the appropriately mythic figure for many in nanotechnology is Richard Feynman, on the strength of his 1960 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”. Yet this particular canonization is entirely retrospective; there’s little evidence that this lecture made much impact at the time, and Feynman rarely returned to the topic to develop his thoughts further. Perhaps a better candidate to be considered nanotechnology’s father figure is President Clinton, whose support of the USA’s National Nanotechnology Initiative converted overnight many industrious physicists, chemists and materials scientists into nanotechnologists. In this cynical (though popular) view, the idea of nanotechnology did not emerge naturally from its parent disciplines, but was imposed on the scientific community from outside. As a consequence, nanotechnology is a subject with an existential crisis – is there actually any firm core to this subject at all, any consensus as to what, at heart, defines nanotechnology?

This is the problematic territory that Sargent has tried to map out for the popular reader in “The Dance of Molecules”. How then, does Sargent deal with this tricky question of definition? “Nanotechnologists”, he says, “have as their goal to design and build matter to order, specified by a functional requirement”. This is fine, but it may leave followers of an earlier new discipline – Materials Science – puzzled, as this was their slogan too. He begins by maintaining the centrality of quantum mechanics, but really this is just an assertion of the centrality of chemistry. The title “The Dance of Molecules” might suggest the idea of Brownian motion, but this idea isn’t pursued. In the end he is forced to conclude that nanotechnology’s central theme isn’t scientific, but sociological – a new culture of interdisciplinarity that searches for convergence between increasingly atomized scientific fields.

There is one version of nanotechnology that does have clarity – K. Eric Drexler’s vision of scaled-down mechanical engineering. It is this revolutionary vision that underlies much of the popular image of nanotechnology, promoted through science fiction, films and computer games. Yet very few scientists take this version of nanotechnology seriously. This leaves a problem for popularizers who wish to reflect the scientific consensus. One can rebut these claims in detail, or one can simply dismiss them with appeals to the authority of distinguished scientists like the late Richard Smalley. Sargent takes a third course; he simply does not mention them. This seems to me to be the most unsatisfactory approach of all; if one thinks the Drexler vision is wrong, one should say so, otherwise the reading public, who are extensively exposed to these ideas, will be left very confused.

Lacking a strong science core, the book is written thematically, as a tour of application areas in health, environment and information. Quantum dots make frequent appearances, there’s quite a good description of molecular electronics, which is duly circumspect about the balance of potential and practical difficulty. The descriptions of bionanotechnology carry less conviction – the description of molecular motors seems particularly misleading. Many people will find the rather overwrought style irritating – perhaps the oddest of the many strange and strained metaphors and similes is his description of photolithography as being “like crop circles formed when the sun blazes through round partings in the English permacloud”.

Nanotechnology, above all an applied science, has been the subject of a possibly unprecedented push for early consideration of social, environmental and ethical impacts. Here the rhetoric is overwhelmingly positive, and the need for public engagement seen solely in terms of defusing possible opposition. We’re promised an end to cancer, the restoration of sight to the blind, and, via unconventional solar cells and the hydrogen economy, an end to our dependence on fossil fuels for energy. The possible downsides are largely limited to the potential toxicity of some nanoparticles. Even in military applications, the emphasis is on defensive applications and on the possibility that nanotechnology will make it much easier for the west to wage a “clean war”, in which combatants are easily distinguished from non-combatants. I don’t think you need to be a radical anti-technology activist to greet this claim with some scepticism.

The current difficulties of nanotechnology include its incompletely formed disciplinary identity and lack of clear definition, the overselling of its immediate potential economic and societal impacts, and its association with extreme utopian and dystopian futuristic visions. A good popular book could contribute to overcoming these difficulties by setting out a clear set of core scientific principles that underpin nanotechnology, making realistic claims for what applications and impacts will be possible on what timescale, and presenting a more sophisticated understanding of the relationships between science, the economy and society. This book does not fulfill this need.

11 thoughts on “Hollow centre: Nanotechnology is a discipline in the throes of an existential crisis”

  1. It almost seems like there was a fraud that went on. People got excited over Drexler’s extravagant promises, the government started to throw money around for “nanotech”, and then scientists pulled a bait and switch. They called their work nanotech but it didn’t have anything to do with what had been promised and promoted that had led to the interest in the first place.

    If the field is founded on fraud, this must weigh on the conscience of every working nanotechnologist. They know the public is funding this work expecting tiny robots, but the scientists make quantum dots and sunscreen and don’t believe the robots will ever happen.

  2. Hal, your view is of course popular with MNT supporters (of the traditional sort), and it contains a grain of truth, but is not the whole story. My own point of view on this (which I’ve spent a lot of effort propagating) is that we should be grateful to Drexler for pointing out some of the possibilities and potential of making functional devices at the nanoscale, but that we shouldn’t expect them to look like the ones in Nanosystems. I don’t think you’ll think it’s been a fraud if scientists make viable quantum computers from quantum dots; I think that scientists will make things that could be described as nanobots, and that these will be important, but I don’t think they’ll look anything like the MNT designs, and they won’t happen very quickly (at least, ones that have any degree of sophistication won’t – crude models could actually be around rather soon, but they won’t do very much).

  3. Note that I’m not saying here that Drexler’s ideas will work, rather that scientists have exploited the excitement about his devices to work on entirely different things.

  4. What about books worth reading? Those are much more interesting to talk about, and harder to come across (especially nano related). Suggestions? (Not for dummies)
    I have not had a chance to read your book yet.

  5. Hal, I agree that this has sometimes happened (and I hope my review makes it clear that whatever I think about the correctness of Drexler’s ideas, I think it is pretty shabby to write him out of the history of the subject). But there’s another interesting phenomenon, which is that the same pro-MNT writers, who at one moment are propagating the “bait and switch” theory that scientists are exploiting the Drexlerian excitement but doing something totally different, the next moment are enthusiastically greeting developments from academic nanoscientists like Tour, Stoddart, Seeman and many others, as indicating inexorable progress to the Drexlerian goal.

    Eric, “The Nanotech Pioneers” by Steve Edwards is well worth reading. (I’ve just reviewed it for Physics World, and I’ll post my review here when the magazine is published, copyright permitting). You could always read “Soft Machines” and tell us what you think of it yourself.

  6. I think its quite exiting to watch this technology emerge like some sort of darwinian creature. No one really knows what its going to be. No one really no what it should be. Its all a bit messya but it’s survival of the fitest. As much as I am sceptical of applying evolotionary principles ad hoc i think that with emerging technologies it fits quite nicely.

  7. For me there are basically 2 points. One is that Scientific research should be SCIENCE NOT TECH. This seems to me where tht existential crisis occurs.

    On the tech side, I agree with Richard that Amazing technologies are emerging which will validate the broad Nanotech hype (i.e the public are not as naive as on may think). For me, only question on the tech side is the creation of entire new economies (aka Space Elevators) or just gradual improvements of what already exists (non invasive cancer treatment). My bet is in entire new industries!

    An amateur mathematician

  8. I would define nanotechnology as applying mechanical engineering principles on the scale of an angstrom to 10 nanameters. This seems to be about the scale that London forces and other influences not found operating within standard ME, become apparent.

    If Drexler’s ideas only work at very low temperatures in UHV conditions, that doesn’t invalidate his ideas. If other mechanisms apart from SPM molecule abstract can be found that enable customized diamond molecular structures, then his conclusions will still be relevant even if his pathway (which is the tough and oft-neglected concern) is false.

  9. ===
    Nanotechnology, above all an applied science, has been the subject of a possibly unprecedented push for early consideration of social, environmental and ethical impacts. Here the rhetoric is overwhelmingly positive… The possible downsides are largely limited to the potential toxicity of some nanoparticles

    The first thing which leaps to my mind after “nanotech”, from years on the extropians list, and from reading Engines of Creation, is “gray goo”. I’m fairly sure Drexler spent some pages worrying about this, and talking about extreme safety measures for nanotech research; I know the extropians spent a lot of time worrying about gray goo, because I was the local archconservative asking about power supplies and mobility and the flammability of tiny particles of diamond in an oxygen atmosphere.

    Perhaps this hasn’t filtered out to the public or politicians, but certainly many nanotech advocates have worried themselves sick over the existential crisis of our being wiped out by runaway nanobots. This shows up in a lot of nano-oriented science fiction novels as well, plus the (larger scale) Replicators of the TV show Stargate: SG-1, which nearly wiped out everyone, allies and enemies of Earth alike.

  10. To reply to your point in the context of this book review, I’m guessing (on the grounds of the omission of any mention of Drexler) that this book reflects the sceptical end of the scientific consensus about Drexlerian nanotechnology, which is that it isn’t possible, from which it follows that one doesn’t need to worry about goo, grey or otherwise.

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