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Foresight Debate with Scientific American

Foresight Institute vs Scientific American
Debate on nanotechnology: Round 4 from Merkle

Overview of the Debate

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

Round 4 -- Part 1 | Part 2

Response to Scientific American's letter of May 10, 1996
by Ralph C. Merkle, Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, CA.

The curious omission of David Jones

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Curiously absent from Scientific American's defense is any mention of David Jones (a chemist and Nature columnist) or of his criticisms. Their original story devoted over a column to his "pointed critique," the only published argument against nanotechnology that they found worth citing. In this round, Scientific American asserts that certain other scientists "can muster technical arguments" to defend this position (note Drexler's response), but the name and arguments of their previous champion have been quietly dropped.

If "Scientific American stands by the article..." do they stand by the technical validity of their quotes from David Jones? Much of the story is quotes: if they don't stand by the content of those quotes (not just the fact that someone somewhere said them) then their claim to "stand by the article" is hollow.

So, Scientific American is now faced with the following options:

  1. Stand by the technical validity of the quotes from David Jones, casting doubts on their ability to evaluate the technical issues. (Jones' comments were critiqued in detail, a fact that Scientific American conveniently omitted).
  2. Disavow the quotes from David Jones, casting doubts on the significance of their claim to "stand by" the article.
  3. Don't mention David Jones and hope nobody notices.

This is just to let Scientific American know that they can rule out the third option.....

Vanishing Nanosystems

The second notable omission is any reference to Nanosystems. It was published in 1992 and no significant technical objections have yet been found. Our original observations about Nanosystems still hold.

Scientific American said that nothing has happened in nanotechnology since 1986 when Engines of Creation was published. This is a truly remarkable claim -- the reader is invited to read and follow the links therein to judge the accuracy (or otherwise) of Scientific American's statement.

Drexler comments on the utility (or lack thereof) of "proof" in the current discussion.

Definitional confusion

The original story conflated two very different definitions of nanotechnology, thus creating a muddle. In their defense, they claim neither Eric Drexler nor I objected to this.

It is usually not possible to determine that a term is used consistently in a work without reviewing the entire work.

It's difficult to be accurate without asking people to read your work before publishing it, but that's their policy and their problem, not ours. Scientists pass around preprints and ask for comments. This is a fine way to catch errors of exactly the type that Scientific American committed.

I view the definitional muddle around the term "nanotechnology" as sufficiently important to have devoted several paragraphs on my nanotechnology home page to the subject. Evidently, Scientific American failed to grasp its import.


In their defense, Scientific American argues that they included favorable statements about nanotechnology. They do indeed compare Drexler favorably with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but this repackaging of the non-substantive "criticism" that "it's science fiction" can hardly be viewed as favorable.

They also say "The article contains extensive passages in which Drexler and other proponents make their case for nanotechnology". This is not accurate. There are passages where the logical consequences of such a technology are explained, but these passages do not address feasibility. The passages that address technical feasibility are (a) rare and (b) systematically biased. Their main attack on technical feasibility quoted David Jones for over a column and then devoted two sentences to the inaccurate claim that the only response was to read Nanosystems. While reading Nanosystems is good advice, the specific rebuttal to Jones' comments was conveniently omitted. If Jones' criticisms are valid Scientific American should be proud to stand behind them, yet their letter makes no mention of him. I assume they have decided his statements are indefensible. If they remain silent on this subject, everyone else will assume so as well.


Scientific American tries to defend itself from the claim that they misused the name of Feynman. Feynman's son disagrees with them. He isn't alone. Readers are invited to read Feynman's talk There's plenty of room at the bottom and decide for themselves.

The comments on Feynman from our original response to their story remain valid

Self replication

Scientific American argues that the existence of biological self replicating systems does not, per se, prove that artificial self replicating systems are feasible. This is correct. And the existence of birds does not prove that a metal airplane powered by gasoline can fly. But arguments against artificial self replicating systems are almost invariably applicable to the biological variety. Pointing out the existence of biological self replicating systems is a compact and simple way of deflating these arguments.

While Scientific American calls for "proof" that molecular nanotechnology is feasible (and incorrectly implies delivering such a proof is our objective), they quite explicitly argue that they don't, can't, and shouldn't have to prove anything. We assume the reader will notice and disregard this debater's trick. As Drexler notes it is necessary to weigh the evidence for alternative conclusions.

To understand why artificial self replicating systems are feasible, it's necessary to actually study the literature on the subject. Quite a few designs have been proposed by quite a few authors (including myself) that operate in quite a few environments. Interest in such artificial systems is motivated by the observation that there are many valuable things that biological systems appear unable to make -- diamondoid structures being a prime example.


The Scientific American story advanced very few arguments bearing on the technical feasibility of nanotechnology. Those few arguments were systematically biased and distorted -- to such an extent that they no longer cite them in their own defense. On this basis, Scientific American argues that we should not pursue research in molecular nanotechnology.

As the payoff is large, as there are no known valid technical arguments against feasibility, and as there are many technical arguments supporting the feasibility of nanotechnology, further research should be pursued.

--Ralph Merkle

Round 4 -- Part 1 | Part 2

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

Overview of the Debate


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