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News Archive: 1995 Letter to Nature

Preparing for nanotechnology

 

Dr. Fahy wrote the following letter to Nature, which is reprinted here with his kind permission, in response to a book review published in Nature. Background information to this letter.

Gregory M. Fahy, Ph.D. Box 2517 Gaithersburg, MD 20886

5/9/95

Sir --

David E. H. Jones' review of Ed Regis' popular book on molecular nanotechnology (Nature 374, 835-837); 1995) was largely devoted to demolishing a straw man. If Jones had actually read the technical literature he chose to criticize so extensively rather than criticizing an impression of this literature obtained from the popular account, he would not have made the embarrassing error of criticizing misconceptions that do not exist. It is symptomatic that he is unable even to identify Drexler's correct affiliation. The answers to his criticisms are found, among other places, in Drexler's book, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992). If this is not sufficient, he might want to consult with some of the Nobel laureates who have been working on or otherwise supporting this area.

Unfortunately, Jones has gotten the impression that molecular nanotechnology necessarily involves reducing "a chunk of raw material into its component atoms" for later manipulation of the single atoms "like so many marbles." He fails to understand that living systems attain atomic specificity in their molecular products without such heroic measures, and that this is why Regis has emphasized the parallel between life and molecular nanotechnology that Jones erroneously dismisses. Jones' further argument that "the chemistry of life centres on some highly specialized organic chemicals" ignores information processing by non-organic computers as well as demonstrated examples of self-replicating chemicals other than DNA and RNA

Jones' notion that molecular nanotechnologists have overlooked Maxwell's Demon amidst their cogs and bearings suggests that the scientists and engineers working on molecular nanotechnology are fools. This is an error.

Jones concludes that "nanotechnology need not be taken seriously." Yet virtually every current issue of Nature(including the issue in which Jones' review appeared) contains articles describing successful engineering and occasionally even successful device fabrication on the molecular level, and, as Nature has chronicled, the Japanese government has devoted major resources to creating the technology that Jones dismisses. Like it or not, this relentless technical progress and relentless international competition have significant implications for the future, and these implications deserve serious attention. Perhaps future critics of molecular nanotechnology will at least acknowledge that the limits of molecular engineering are a proper subject of study.

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