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Foresight Debate with Scientific American

Foresight Institute vs Scientific American
Debate on nanotechnology: Epilogue


Overview of the Debate

Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Epilogue

Epilogue | Addition

    September 1996    
    January 1997    
    April 1997    
    June 1997    



Foresight response to some thoughts expressed in the August 1996 Scientific American

The "Letters to the Editors" section of the August issue of Scientific American carried four letters about the "Waiting for Breakthroughs" article on nanotechnology published in the April issue. Under the heading "Mega-discord over nanotech" were three letters critical of the article (from Carl Feynman, Edward Reifman, and Eric Drexler), and one letter from James Haw of Texas A&M University supporting the April article.

Prof. Haw professes to see parallels between nanotechnology and cold fusion, and speculates that were Richard Feynman still with us, he would reject "the appeals to [Feynman's] authority" from "the nanotechnology crowd" and the attempt (perceived by Haw) to cast Feynman in the role of "a nano-Moses." Undoubtedly Richard Feynman would have had no patience with cults or appeals to authority.

What is frustrating to those who have presented detailed technical proposals on molecular nanotechnology is that proper acknowledgment of the prior contributions of a brilliant and creative mind is perceived as saying "you should believe what we are saying because Richard Feynman had ideas pointing in this direction." It would seem that instead the principal use of appeals to authority in this debate has been on the part of Scientific American, who base their conclusion that nanotechnology is not feasible upon vague statements by some prominent scientists unsupported by specific technical criticisms of the specific proposals made.

Prof. Haw further cites the description of the Senior Associate Program on the Foresight Institute Web page as evidence that the attempt to raise funds "says it all" about the "motivation behind too much of the current promotion of nanotechnology..." This seems to this writer a strange argument for one affiliated with an educational institution to make. Foresight is a non-profit educational foundation subsisting primarily on voluntary charitable donations. Is the work of universities any less important or any less noble because they often appeal to the public for charitable donations?

In response to the four letters, the editors of Scientific American make clear that they stand by their treatment of molecular nanotechnology in the April article: "...we think that readers of the critique [SciAmResponse.html] will find little in the way of specific cited errors."

What is most frustrating after this extended debate is not the fact that the editors of Scientific American still believe molecular nanotechnology not to be feasible. It is the fact that no specific technical criticisms of the technical proposals made have been offered. Is nanotechnology "cargo cult science" because some principle of physics has been ignored? Because computational simulation is inaccurate? Because there is no conceivable practical route to device fabrication?

Why has Scientific American been so reluctant, in this case at least, to engage in a real confrontation of technical ideas and facts? I have no answer, but I found the following quotation, forwarded by Chris Peterson, thought-provoking.

-- Jim Lewis, Sept. 3, 1996


from "Read All About It" by Adam Gopnik
The New Yorker (12/12/94):

"In the past twenty years, the American press has undergone a transformation from an access culture to an aggression culture: the tradition, developed after the Civil War, in which a journalist's advancement depended on his intimacy with power, has mutated into one in which his success can also depend on a willingness to stage visible, ritualized displays of aggression. The reporter used to gain status by dining with his subjects; now he gains status by dining on them....Aggression has become a kind of abstract form, practiced in a void of ideas, or even of ordinary sympathy. In a grim paradox, the media in America, because their aggression has been kept quarantined from good ideas, have become surprisingly vulnerable to bad ideas. Having turned themselves into a forum for the sort of craziness that was previously kept to the margins of American life, the media have nothing left to do but watch the process, and act as though it were entertaining; the jaded tone and the prosecutorial tone are masks, switched quickly enough so that you can appear active and neutral at the same time. Or, to put it another way, the cynicism and the sanctimony turn out to be a little like electricity and magnetism -- two aspects of a single field, perpetuating themselves in a thought-free vacuum."


Quoted from the book Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture ed. Katherine Washburn & John Thornton (Norton 1996).

Editorial in Analog

A recent addition to the discussion is "TOO HARD?", an editorial by Stanley Schmidt published in the January 1997 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Epilogue, April 1997, a year later

An article on the Scientific American Web site hails computational nanotechnology work done at NASA Ames Research Center as showing that "...molecule-sized machine parts ... are certainly plausible and could have enormous potential." After describing the supercomputer molecular dynamics simulations of gears made from fullerene nanotubes, done by Al Globus and colleagues, the article concludes that "...more and more, research is demonstrating that such things are possible--possibly sooner than most of us think."

June 1997, from a post on sci.nanotech:

From cs.rutgers.edu!nanotech Thu Jun 19 20:43:30 1997
Redistributed: NanoTechnology:All Areas:Xerox
X-NS-Transport-ID: 0800207424C501001579
Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 20:37:06 PDT
From: Nanotechnology Newsgroup Nexus
To: nanotech@cs.rutgers.EDU
Content-Length: 1496

Path: nanotech
Newsgroups: sci.nanotech
TechSubList: t
From: johnmwrk@aol.com (JohnMWrk)
Organization: AOL http://www.aol.com
Subject:
SciAm Now Advertising Nanotech
Approved: nanotech@aramis.rutgers.edu

I just received an interesting one page marketing brochure from Scientific American offering a subscription to the mag. It included four short paragraphs. One about curiosity. One about science shaping our world. One about space exploration, and yes one final paragraph about nanotechnology that reads as follows:

"Nanotechnology promises to change our lives for good. Machines and robots built atom by atom -- and measuring no more than a micron across -- will fight cancer cell by cell or store terabytes of data on space as small as the head of a pin.

Join us on an amazing monthly quest for knowledge. Claim your FREE trial issue of Scientific American today."

I find this to be pretty interesting. There have been a couple of articles about nano sciences since the Gary Stix article was run but nothing to indicate that nanotechology is now something they are going to faithfully research and report about on a regular basis. Of course this could be a brochure that is customized to people with different interest. I did send them a fairly lengthy letter explaining my displeasure with the Gary Stix article and how I would not buy another SciAm until there was fair reporting about nanotechnology.

Has anyone else received one of these brochures?

John McPherson
JohnMwrk@aol.com

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