I’m grateful to Tim Harper for some kind words about me in his column on Giving his roundup of how nanotechnology fared last year, he notes that 2004 ” was also the year that the tricky issue of the Drexlerian idea of molecular manufacturing – the version popularised by the Foresight Institute – finally began to be addressed in a scientific manner”, and he mentions both this blog and my book Soft Machines in connection with this. But, as he goes on to say, “there is much work to be done, however, to build trust between the scientific and molecular nanotechnology communities”.

To build trust, you need understanding. It’s probably true that many in the scientific community have not made the effort to understand the point of view of the molecular nanotechnology community. But equally, I think that in that community that there is a very widespread lack of understanding about how science works. I don’t mean this in the sense that they don’t understand the scientific method or basic scientific results; it’s the sociological aspects of science as a human enterprise I’m talking about here. You need an understanding of how science as a collective effort selects problems and makes progress in order to be able to predict and understand the ways in which nanoscience will turn into nanotechnology.

A simple example of the sort of misconception that results is the widespread view in the molecular nanotechnology community that the high profile scepticism of figures like Richard Smalley is all that stands in the way of progress towards their goal, because scientists are discouraged from pursuing these lines of enquiry for fear of their career. The truth is absolutely the opposite; there would be no surer way for a young scientist to become rich and famous than by proving Smalley wrong, and you can be confident that if someone with the right experience and the right equipment could think of a way of making a big step towards demonstrating mechanosynthesis, they would be doing it now. And if they were successful, they’d probably find space for a few kind words about Drexler in the speech they gave as they accepted their Nobel prize…