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Foresight Debate with Scientific American

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Debate on nanotechnology: Letters to Scientific American

A sample of letters sent to Scientific American about "Trends in Nanotechnology:
Waiting for Breakthroughs" (April '96):

    Feynman, Carl Method Software Inc. (son of Richard Feynman)    
    Cochran, Kyle, MIT Lincoln Laboratory    
    Forrest, David R., Sc.D., P.E., Natrona Heights, PA    
    Arnold, Marc, St. Louis, MO    
    Krummenacker, Markus, SRI International, Menlo Park, CA    
    Von Ehr, James, VP, Macromedia, TX    
    Naegle, David, Silicon Graphics, CA    
    Klemencic, Don    
    Strout, Joseph J., Dept. of Neuroscience, UCSD    
    Hall, J. Storrs, PhD., Rutgers University    
    Friedlander, Richard A.    
    Alfieri, Robert, Silicon Graphics, Menlo Park, CA    
    Muhlestein, Mark    
    Korcok, Michael, Cornell University    
    Weinstein, Earl, University of Pennsylvania    
    Kim Gunnar    
    Norton, Michael, Marshall University    

Scientific American response in their August issue

Scientific American published four letters commenting on "Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs" in their August 1996 issue. One letter, from James F. Haw of Texas A&M University, is supportive of their article. Critical of the article is a slightly edited version of the letter below from Carl Feynman, a letter from Edward M. Reifman stating his comment to Mr. Stix at the conference was taken out of context, and a short letter from K. Eric Drexler pointing to the critique of the article at this Web site. The editors reply stating that "...we think that readers of the critique will find little in the way of specific cited errors."


Feynman, Carl

From: Carl Feynman
Newsgroups: sci.nanotech
Subject: Re: S.A. Article on Nanotech
Date: 6 Apr 1996 15:28:38 -0500
Organization: Method Software, Inc.
Message-ID: 4k6k5m$>

Here's a letter I sent to the editors of Scientific American a couple of weeks ago regarding the article on nanotechnology. We'll see if they print it.

----Begin quoted material----

The Editors
Scientific American
415 Madison Ave.
New York
NY 10017-1111

Dear Editors:

I was dismayed to read in your April 1996 issue ("Waiting for Breakthroughs") an extended quotation from Richard Feynman's essay "Cargo Cult Science" used as a critique of nanotechnology. I am sure he would have found such misuse of his idea quite unreasonable. I should know, because I talked with him at length about the prospects of nanotechnology.

As the article itself points out, Richard Feynman saw no basis in physical laws that would preclude realization of the concepts of nanotechnology. To claim that nanotechnology is cargo cult science because its proponents analyze the capabilites of devices not yet constructed is as absurd as to say that astronautics was cargo cult science before Sputnik.

Richard Feynman did not regard setting "stretch" technological goals as cargo cult science. Quite the opposite. In the course of his 1958 talk in which he proposed manipulating atoms, he offered cash prizes from his own financial resources for breakthrough achievements in working at a very small scale. If he were still alive, I think that he would be pleased to have his name associated with a large cash prize that seeks to accelerate the realization of one of his most exciting ideas. That is why I have participated in defining the conditions for winning the Feynman Grand Prize, and have agreed to naming the prize in his memory.

Carl Feynman
Method Software Inc.
Acton, MA

(The writer is a computer scientist and the son of physicist Richard Feynman.)

----End quoted material----

--Carl Feynman

Chief Engineer
Method Software Inc. (508)635-9238
1 Gregory Ln., Acton MA 01720


Cochran, Kyle

Date: Tue, 02 Apr 1996 11:48:32 -0500
From: Kyle Cochran
Organization: MIT Lincoln Laboratory
Mime-Version: 1.0
Subject: RE: April 1996 article -- Trends in Nanotechnology

Dear Sir,

I recently read an article in the April 1996 Scientific American called "Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs" by Scientific American staff writer Gary Stix. In general, I was extremely disappointed with the article's lack of technical substance.

Perhaps, I'm reading too much into the article, but it seemed to me that the writer was attempting to make fun of nanotechnology and the researchers in the field. At various points in the article, Mr. Stix compares attendees at a Foresight Conference to acolytes, compares Dr. Drexler to the cartoon character Mr. Peabody, and concludes by comparing nanotechnology to Cargo Cult science. Is this a technical article or a personal attack? I expect more science from articles in Scientific American.

To be more specific, it seems strange that the same article which mentions Nobelist Richard P. Feynman's 1959 speech "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", would then turn around and use Feynman's words about Cargo Cult science to denigrate an idea that Feynman himself points to in his 1959 speech. As Feynman says in his 1959 speech:

"I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle"

A Proposal

I understand that in order to further the cause of "good science", one can debunk "bad science", and perhaps that was the purpose of this article. However, wouldn't a thoughtful article, with input from proponents and critics of a field (but which avoids sensationalism), be more useful than the kind of article that Mr. Stix has written?

Can Scientific American provide space for an article discussing the fundamental issues for nanotechnology?

--Is nanotechnology (of the kind envisioned by Drexler et al) possible?

-- Can molecules be placed with atomic precision to form stable structures? (See recent work done at IBM Zurich positioning individual molecules at room temperature)

-- Can issues like thermodynamics and information flow be overcome in a system of assemblers? (See a point by point rebuttal of David Jones views on these issues on the WWW

-- In order to construct nanoscale structures, can stable intermediate structures be found?

-- Are there insurmountable problems in the field, e.g. problems related to power, radiation effects, information storage, energy, etc.?

-- Is it worthwhile to pursue the kind of theoretical applied science that Drexler proposes?

Perhaps in addition to one or more followup articles, Scientific American could sponsor a series of "fact forums" or a series of debates about nanotechnology and related areas, with researchers chosen from related fields, so that an unbiased opinion could be formed about the field.

This topic should be carefully considered by a periodical of the caliber of Scientific American, so that the readership of your magazine can form an opinion about the feasibility or infeasibility of nanotechnology based upon the scientific issues. I believe that since the possible implications of nanotechnology are far-reaching, the topic deserves a more studied analysis.

Sincerely yours,
Kyle Cochran

Opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect my employer's views

Kyle Cochran


Forrest, David R.

Date: Tue, 02 Apr 1996 07:57:05 -0500
From: David Forrest
Organization: Forrest Enterprises
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Molecular Nanotechnology

2 April 1996

Dear Editor,

In your recent story on "Trends in Nanotechnology" you spent so much effort worrying about the personalities of the researchers that you missed the key distinction between molecular nanotechnology and the other "nanotechnologies." In increasing order of control over atomic and molecular trajectories we have:

1. Nanolithography (bulk disorder, crude control over etching and patterning)
2. Synthetic chemistry (random transport and orientation, precise structure results)
3. Self-assembling monolayers (random transport, uniform orientation and long range order, limited complexity)
4. Protein synthesis with ribosomes (random transport, precise interlocking of amino acids folding to repeatable patterns, greater range of complex structures)
5. Scanning probe manipulation (control over individual atoms but limited capabilities for complex structures)
6. Molecular nanotechnology with assembler systems (all trajectories controlled, atomically precise structures of macroscopic dimension)

Only the last is not physically realized at this time. As computational results showed in the conference your writer attended, key concepts in molecular nanotechnology such as the stability of nanomechanical gears and the abstraction of single atoms from a surface were validated. There is little doubt that more than a decade of work is needed to create complex assembler systems, but that is separate from the issues of whether those systems are possible or desirable.

Next time, please stick to the technical and policy issues and get them right.

David R. Forrest, Sc.D., P.E.
Materials Engineer
Natrona Heights, PA


Arnold, Marc

Date: Sun, 31 Mar 1996 12:38:25 -0500
Subject: Letter to SciAm Editors

"Waiting for Breakthroughs"
Letter to the Editor
31 March 1996

As a principal sponsor of the $250,000 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology mentioned in Mr. Stix's "Waiting for Breakthroughs" [April '96], I was angered by the inaccurate and biased report on the Fourth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.

Rather than addressing scientific issues concerning nanotechnology, the article delivered an ad hominem attack on Eric Drexler in the guise of scientific journalism. Shame on you. The article was neither Scientific nor American. A detailed rebuttal to the article has been posted at:

The article's illustrations hinted at the many exciting developments in nanoscale technology. Scientific American should host articles which present a balanced inquiry into the feasibility and potential implications of nanotechnology as envisioned by Drexler... An approach more consistent with Editor in Chief Rennie's stated goal "to offer the best informed opinion on the promise of [new advances]".

Marc Arnold
St Louis, Missouri


Krummenacker, Markus

Date: Tue, 26 Mar 1996 12:30:03 -0800
From: Markus Krummenacker
Organization: SRI International, Menlo Park, CA
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: dismissive Nanotech article in April issue

Dear Ladies / Gentlemen

I am disappointed to see that the report by Gary Stix in the April issue on nanotechnology and the recent Foresight Conference has come out so negative. For me, as well as many other people I know, it was an exhilarating and intellectually invigorating experience, to see a new and emerging technology frontier discussed with detailed research results from early, ground-breaking work. I have also enjoyed previous Foresight nanotechnology conferences, because of the earnest seriousness that the Foresight Institute is devoting to tackling a complicated topic.

Having attended this series of conferences since 1991 and given a talk myself in 1993, it was very noticeable that the recent conference was the best one so far. Establishing the field has come a long way, and it is good to see that the issues are now understood and accepted by a sizeable research community. Many recognized names from academia and the national labs attended and presented their research results, showing that we are already moving towards the goal of building molecular machinery at quite a pace. It is thus incomprehensible to me how Gary Stix could write a report that is so twisted, focusing more on the personalities of the people involved, rather than on whether what they actually say and publish makes sense.

Scientific American seems to have had problems with the concept of nanotechnology before. More realistic reporting would be very desirable. I have unfortunately been able to observe a dissatisfactory trend, which has led me to not renew my subscription to Scientific American. This publication once excelled at explaining modern and intricate research to laypeople in comprehensible terms, which is very laudable. However, I feel that increasingly, there is more emphasis on how flashy a topic or story might be, rather than merely sincerely explaining complicated matters in an understandable manner. A case in point are the many articles on quantum physics that try to emphasize more how unbelievably weird the quantum world is, instead of just explaining the experimental evidence that is available. The result is that these articles are more confusing than clarifying. With nanotechnology, the issue is similar in that you paint a picture of how weird it all is, instead of explaining what the evidence in favor of (or against) the concept is, and what implications would arise if the evidence would hold up to scrutiny.

I hope that it is never too late to get good journalistic reporting style back on track again. I hope will you succeed again.

Many Greetings
Markus Krummenacker Computer Scientist

SRI International e-mail:
333 Ravenswood Avenue room: EJ213
Menlo Park, CA 94025, USA


Von Ehr, James

Mime-Version: 1.0
Date: Mon, 25 Mar 1996 13:14:15 -0600

From: (Jim Von Ehr)
Subject: Nanotechnology article


I was astonished to read Gary Stix' article on nanotechnology. This style of negative diatribe against a nascent technology, and particularly the personal attacks on Dr. Drexler and his "acolytes", are unworthy of your otherwise excellent magazine. The use of judgemental words like "fantasies" and "strange mix" make it clear to a critical reader that this is an attack article. Non-critical readers, used to this biased style of reporting in "news" magazines and newspapers, may be drawn into the writer's viewpoint without understanding this is advocacy journalism, not unbiased reporting.

I first read about nanotechnology in a Scientific American article many years ago. After hearing Dr. Drexler speak, I read Nanosystems, and realized this was not "science fiction", but a well-grounded prediction of the ultimate future of materials engineering. Most of us who have studied the field know the difference. It is too bad that Mr. Stix was unable to understand or even report on the technological issues raised at the conference, and had to spend most of his article in irrelevancies and personal attacks. I regret the time I wasted on the phone with him discussing why I helped endow the Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology.

I enjoy reading your columns with excerpts from 50 and 100 years ago. It will be amusing to read the pull quotes from the article in 25 years, where you will make it sound like you predicted the nanotechnology revolution. But right now, I'm disappointed in you. The tone of this article belies the "Scientific" in your name.

Don't cancel my subscription; I still love the magazine, and I want to read the future articles that will show the world how irrelevant this article was.


Jim Von Ehr
VP, Macromedia


Naegle, David

Date: Tue, 26 Mar 96 18:32:57 -0800
From: David Naegle
Organization: Silicon Graphics, Inc.
Mime-Version: 1.0
Subject: (no subject)

Dear Editors,

As an attendee at the Fourth Foresight conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, as well as a subscriber to Scientific American, I was very disapointed with Gary Stix' coverage of the conference and the subject of nanotechnology in your April 1996 issue.

What I find particularly surprising is the bias and tone of the article, which is at odds with Scientific American's usual coverage of new ideas and given to both engineering and scientific approaches to technical subjects.

The article seems to shy away from its subject: trends in nanotechnology. I read very little about molecular nanotechnology in the article. Instead, I waded through a lot of irrelevant commentary about the "cult of nanoism". Drexler himself has expressed concern about the "bogosity factor": the phenomenon that some people will see a new, promising field as a cause in and of itself, view it as a panacea, and make brash, unsubstantiated claims for it. With Mr. Stix' article, Scientific American has missed an opportunity to reduce the hype and bogosity and open a public dialog on the implications of molecular manufacturing.

Nanotechnology is no different than other fields with respect to attracting people with unorthodox and even wacky ideas. I think that says more about our rapidly expanding ability to communicate, than it does about nanotechnology, nuclear power, spaceflight, or any of a number of other subjects. Ultimately, what's important is whether the central premise is valid, not how much hype has accreted to the idea.

One of the things that has most pleased me about Scientific American is that it does not usually condescend to its readership. Mr. Stix article should have spent more time on the substance and less time on the fashionability of nanotechnology. I think the least you could do is take advantage of the Foresight Institute's offer to conduct a discussion of the article, by publishing the URL of their critique of Mr. Stix' article:

Readers should be given an oportunity to decide for themselves.

David Naegle


Klemencic, Don

Date: Mon, 25 Mar 96 06:01:07 UT
From: "Don Klemencic"
Subject: my letter to Scientific American re. Stix article

On 03/18/96 I sent this letter to Scientific American:

"The article about nanotechnology by Gary Stix in the April '96 issue of Scientific American was remarkable for its vacuousness. The closest that Stix came to giving even the appearance of a substantive attack on Drexler's program was the discussion of the David Jones article in Nature. If he had looked he would have found that Jones' critique had been demolished by Ralph Merkle (at in a note that, in sharp contrast to the Stix article, was very substantive while being witty. If in six pages the strongest point he could make was that many researchers doing empirical work in atomic manipulation discount Drexler's theoretical program, then the proper conclusion to be drawn is noteworthy and may be a surprise to some readers: that no strong technical obstacle to that program has yet been identified. A celebration of spleen does not constitute an argument. This article was unworthy of Scientific American."

I didn't read the response at until after I had mailed my letter. From what I read there, I gather it's unlikely that Scientific American is going to publish the address to Ralph Merkle's article that I mentioned in my letter.

...[text shortened]...

My address is, and I take pride in being I.M.M. Senior Associate #9.


Strout, Joseph J.

Date: Thu, 28 Mar 96 17:49:11 0800
From: "Joseph J. Strout"
Organization: UCSD
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: "Trends in Nanotechnology" (April 96)

Dear Scientific American:

I have been a subscriber to your magazine for many years, and I have always thought it the most respectable popular science periodical. However, your recent review of nanotechnology was quite disappointing. The author had a clearly negative view of the topic, but could not present firm arguments against it. Instead, he resorted to personal attacks, biased language, and vague innuendo.

Ralph Merkle has composed a review/rebuttal to your article which is available on the Web, and I will not repeat his arguments here. I note that you have not posted any response to his critiques; I encourage you to do so. Either a refutation of Merkle's points, or an apology to your readers, is in order.

I already knew enough about nanotechnology to see the bias in the article as soon as I read it. But I wonder: if I had been ignorant of the field, would I have realized that the presentation was distorted? I must now read every Scientific American article was distrust and keep a watchful eye out for this sort of unscientific journalism. This reduces my appreciation of the magazine a great deal. I can only hope that this was a rare mistake, and will not be repeated again.

Joseph J. Strout

| Joseph J. Strout Department of Neuroscience, UCSD                 |
|                |


Hall, J. Storrs

Date: Wed, 3 Apr 1996 15:32:55 -0500
From: J Storrs Hall
Subject: nanotechnology article

Dear Editors,

Gary Styx' article on nanotechnology (Apr, p. 94-99) fills a much-needed gap in the annals of technological forecasting. I was gratified to note that although he quoted my article on Utility Fog, he graciously forebore to implicate me by name, and omitted the devastating technical critique that I look like Yosemite Sam. Mr. Styx is now deservedly in the company of such famous forecasters such as Sir William Preece, who showed us that the electric light was impossible, and Simon Newcomb, who performed that service with respect to heavier-than-air flight. However, he missed a rhetorical flourish, which I am happy to be able to remedy. Recalling the words of Dr. Richard van der Riet Woolley on the subject of space travel, Styx should have written, "Nanotechnology is utter bilge."

J. Storrs Hall, PhD.


Friedlander, Richard A.

Date: Fri, 29 Mar 96 09:44:54 -0800
From: "Richard A. Friedlander"
Mime-Version: 1.0
Subject: (no subject)

I am a subscriber to Scientific American. My older brother used to read it when I was a child in the 1950s. I have always loved it, and still do. However, your coverage of nanotechnology was the poorest piece of scientific journalism I have seen in these 40 years.

I wonder if the author looked at Drexler's "Nanosystems", which expostulation was an expanded version of his PhD theses from MIT? It is rough going, to be sure, but your writers are paid, aren't they?

The only other work I can think of that is as original and profound as "Nanosystems" is Buckminster Fuller's "Synergetics". I believe that "Synergetics" full implications have yet to be realized notwithstanding the discovery of Buckminsterfullerenes.

Nanotechnology deserves a better look by Scientific American. I would much prefer information from which I may form my own opinion about the feasibility of nanotechnology than the crap you published. Remember Arthur C. Clarke's admonition: "anyone who says something is impossible is most certainly premature and probably wrong."

On the plus side: Christian De Duve's article on the possible evolution of Eukaryotes from Prokaryotes was stimulating and beautiful.

Still a faithful reader,
Rick Friedlander


Alfieri, Robert

From: (Bob Alfieri)
Subject: "Trends in Nanotechnology"
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 1996 21:46:33 -0800 (PST)
Mime-Version: 1.0

"Trends in Nanotechnology" [April 1996] depicts Molecular Nanotechnology as science fiction with a "Drexlerian" cult following. MNT is actually a serious engineering discipline that fits conservatively within the bounds of well-established physical laws. The only barrier to MNT's realization is a challenging bootstrapping problem whose solution depends on modest funding and a few clever minds.

Robert Alfieri
Menlo Park, CA

Bob Alfieri 415-933-6055 Silicon Graphics, Inc.


Muhlestein, Mark

Date: Thu, 21 Mar 96 18:47:38 -0700
From: Mark Muhlestein
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Your April 1996 news item on nanotechnology

I have read Ralph Merkle's detailed response to Gary Stix's piece on nanotechnology. ( I would be very interested to see a response or rebuttal to Ralph's points. Unfortunately, I am left with impression that your story is highly biased, and is unworthy of the standard I have come to expect from your fine publication. If you find that the piece is indeed as far from balanced reporting as it appears, I would be very pleased to see a retraction or correction. At the very least, it would promote your perception of fairness to publish the URL to Ralph's response.


Mark Muhlestein --


Korcok, Michael

Date: Mon, 25 Mar 1996 19:00:28 -0500
From: Michael Miroslav Korcok
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: nanotechnology


The article on nanotechnology was disturbingly unimpressive. Although I stopped reading Scientific American seriously about the time I left to begin my undergraduate studies at MIT, I have still occasionally picked up a copy for informal reading. No more.

Perhaps you all should reconsider some basic issues of civility and quality in your publication?

Michael Korcok
Cornell University


Weinstein, Earl

Posted-Date: Tue, 26 Mar 1996 18:19:14 -0500 (EST)
Date: Tue, 26 Mar 96 12:25:36 0500
From: Earl Weinstein
Organization: The University of Pennsylvania
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Nanotech Article

As an undergraduate, I must perpetually deal with the world of science speculation from which I draw inspiration, and the world of scientific reality which I confront in the lab. I appreciate therefore, that the recent article on nanotechnology was an attempt to reconcile the dual nature of these two worlds, and provide a "realistic" assessment of its potential. The article failed, however, to acknowledge that the world of scientific speculation must be dealt with in a different way from the world of scientific fact. Case in point, we do not have a universal assembler, but work is being done towards this end. The mere fact that "nanoists'" speculations seem to outweigh their output of facts cannot, therefore, be used to discredit their program in the world of speculation and the eventual possibility that it will be realized in the world of scientific fact. Remember, these are not talk-show hosts making wild speculations about UFO's or other such nonsense. Rather they are trained scientists, who deserve to have their ideas presented in a respectable, objective, manner.

Earl Weinstein


Kim Gunnar

Date: Fri, 22 Mar 1996 13:15:43 +0100
From: "Kim Gunnar St|vring \\yhus"
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Termination of subscription.

Due to the recent number of unscientific and wrong articles, such as those about complexity, consciousness, infinitesimals, and mostly nanotechnology, I wish to terminate my subscription, provided I can get the remaining subscription money refunded.



Norton, Michael

Date: Fri, 21 Jun 1996 00:50:57 -0700
From: Michael Norton
Subject: Nanotechnology
MIME-version: 1.0

My name is Mike Norton, a professor of solid state chemistry at a relatively small university, Marshall University.

I have been a long term reader of Scientific American. The article on "Nanotechnology..Breakthrough" was the least forward looking article I've ever seen in Scientific American. Maybe later you'll be able to claim it was a joke.

I and my students are very enthusiastic about molecular nanotechnology. Apparently your author has some problem with the timing of seeing this technology coming to fruition. The important question to ask is: Will humans ever be able to make assemblers.... Even if it takes 1000 years or more (most of us doubt it will take that long) the real question is "Is this beyond human capability". The question is not cost, or current technological capability. A lot has changed in the last 100 years! The laws of physics will not change with time, if these laws represent the only obstacles to any human achievement, molecular nanotechnology is really inevitable.

Thank goodness students will not be deterred by your article. What a missed opportunity to speed up the inevitable, but you chose instead to present a rather dull face to the public, who look to your publication for leading edge information. The Luddites (the ones who also didn't quite appreciate the value of new technology either) would be proud to call you one of their own.

The letters column from the August 1996 Scientific American


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