Foresight Debate with Scientific American

Foresight Institute vs Scientific American
Debate on nanotechnology: Letters to Scientific American

Overview of the Debate

Round 1 -- Part 1 | Letters | Part 2

Letters -- Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

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

    Reifman, Dr. Edward M. Encino, CA    
    Theriault, P. Chris Hughes Aircraft    
    Blenkinsop, David Crane Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada    
    Freitas, Robert A. Pilot Hill, CA    
    Kidd, Geoffrey UC Berkeley, CA    
    Hughes, Bernard Timedancer Systems, Vancouver B.C. Canada    
    Cochran, Connor Freff Primenet    
    Allen, Eric E. Cornell University    
    Orta, Robert    
    Artym, Dr. Rich    
    Artym, Dr. Rich, reply to Rennie, John Editor-in-Chief, Scientific American    
    Hansen, Steinar Trondheim, Norway    
    Wallace, James    
    Gillett, Dr. Stephen L. Dept. of Geological Sci., U. of Nevada    
    Haw, James Professor of Chemistry, Texas A&M University    

Reifman, Dr. Edward M.

Date: Thu, 11 Apr 1996 10:02:36 -0700
From: (Edward M. Reifman )

Re: April, 1996 issue of Scientific American
Article: Waiting for Breakthroughs


I had thought that I would enjoy finding myself quoted in your magazine. In fact, I was quite upset that a reference made in jest to your reporter, Gary Stix, was used out of context to ridicule nanotechnology and the conference that we both attended. With a graduate degree in biomedical engineering as well as dentistry, I do not consider myself an "aesthete of science and technology." Dr. K. Eric Drexler, whom Mr. Stix mocks in his article, "Waiting for Breakthroughs," is one of many fine researchers working to advance the field of molecular nanotechnology. Should I and others learn from these events that we should not speak to journalists at all, for fear that they will write something misleading, unfair, and inherently untrue? That would be a sad lesson for us to learn.

Edward M. Reifman, DDS
Encino, California


Theriault, P. Chris

From: pctheriault@CCGATE.HAC.COM
Date: Sat, 13 Apr 96 17:49:00 PST
Encoding: 57 Text
Subject: Copy of letter to Scientific American

Mr. Mr. John Rennie, Editor in Chief, Scientific American

One of your staff writers, Gary Stix, author of past Scientific American articles including:

wrote an article titled Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs in your April issue.

This article has completely changed my opinion of your magazine. Until I read the article, I thought that I could rely on your magazine to provide accurate information with minimal bias. Now, you have published an article dealing with a subject that I have followed in detail for many years.

I was mistaken.

Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs was inaccurate, biased and misleading. I was further saddened to see the personal attacks on K. Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle. Whether or not they are correct in their views, they are not the field. Such attacks further discredit your magazine.

I see no reason for an author to avoid trying to prove that molecular manipulation will not lead to the capabilities that Drexler and like minds foresee. In your magazine, I expect the issues to be addressed and the manner of presentation to be held to a high standard.

I can no longer trust your magazine to be a reliable source of information.

While the article was clearly negative overall, it did not point out one clear reason for being so. I find this amazing. I fully realize that many have trouble with the vast potentials that those exploring nanotechnology point out. It would have lent credibility to the article if it had so much as pointed out one obstacle in the path to useful nanotechnology that has not been clearly dealt with in information available in libraries across America.

I bring reliability to bleeding edge technology as a career. I hope to someday be part of the process to bring nanotechnology to the same usefulness as electronics, optics and cryogenics in my projects. This goal was in no way illuminated by the April 1996 Scientific American article Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs.

P. Chris Theriault
Hughes Aircraft El Segundo, CA


Blenkinsop, David

From: David Blenkinsop <>
To: "''" <>
Cc: "''" <>
Subject: "Trends in Nanotech" hatchet job
Date: Tue, 9 Apr 1996 15:51:54 -0500
Mime-Version: 1.0

From: David Blenkinsop, Crane Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada

To: The editors, Scientific American magazine

As a nonscientist with an interest in nanotechnology, I was quite disappointed with the overall tone of your "Trends in Nanotechnology" article (April 1996). While the article does contain some interesting information, including mention of the advanced or speculative consequences that people tend to see in this, the main focus seems quite negative, almost irrationally skeptical. The article presents a long list of objections to nanotechnology, all of which, I believe, have been answered or dealt with in theoretical outline over the past fifteen years, since Eric Drexler's 1981 paper in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Proceedings. Surely the case in favor of molecular construction could have been explained more clearly, even if much is still only an outline and not a practical working reality?

Possibly the worst part of this article is the air of ridicule, including remarks about certain nanotech researchers being "alienated from the mainstream", "guffaws from many scientists", etc. To put down certain forecasts or conclusions simply because they seem outlandish isn't particularly scientific, although it's somewhat understandable. One might hope that a popular magazine like Scientific American would keep an open mind toward a key issue that interests the public, particularly as there is nothing clearly impossible about nanotechnology.

As one example of scientific criticism of nanotechnology, I would note the comment from British chemist David E. H. Jones, to the effect that molecular robots (or assemblers) wouldn't be able to build anything, "as they wouldn't know where they themselves are". This is a kind of "expert" criticism that flabbergasts those of us who know something about it, since even today's factory robots seem able to do useful work without necessarily having to know their own location! If nanotech theorists like Eric Drexler make big leaps from the limited reliability of today's robots to the considerably better projected reliability of assemblers, that might be criticized on some level, but it certainly has little to do with whether the assemblers know where they are or not! On the most basic level, we are talking about machines that need only make repetitive motions in a tightly controlled environment, so if reliability can be addressed (which Drexler has done, in theory) you should be able to have large scale molecular manufacturing.

Admittedly, it is true that, after a decade or more of theory, we still have no practical method of direct molecule building. Some success has been had with synthesizing protein based machines, but that in itself is an arduous and roundabout procedure. What is really needed here is to be able to start building molecular structures step by step, even if the scale, complexity and speed of construction are extremely limited at first. To achieve this goal, proponents see the possibility of attaching a reactive tip to a scanning microscope probe and using that for the step by step deposition of molecules onto a work piece. Unfortunately, your article barely addresses the difficulties of making such a first molecular manipulator, and raises no prospects at all for overcoming those difficulties. The result is an article that is basically a hatchet job on a potentially good idea, maybe even an earthshaking idea.

In considering this, I wonder if critics' objections are motivated as much by the lack of practical breakthroughs as by a desire to keep the future from seeming too strange and science fiction-like? Perhaps it is more comfortable to laugh off a new idea and thus avoid being asked to participate? A great many of these objections have the ring of past objections to other technical developments, as in "man can't fly because they'll never build an engine powerful enough". What I really want to know is whether we are progressing in general capabilities to the point where molecular manipulators will be attainable, and if not, then exactly why not! Double-talk about how these things need a power supply that you just can't build, or whatever, is of no help to anyone, and I am not impressed with experts who support such stock objections.

David Blenkinsop


Freitas, Robert A.

Date: Sat, 13 Apr 1996 01:37:04 -0700 (PDT)
From: Robert Freitas <>
Subject: Nanotechnology

RE: Gary Stix, "Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs," Scientific American (April 1996):94-99.


As co-editor of the historic 1980 NASA study of self-replicating machine systems (Advanced Automation for Space Missions, NASA CP-2255, 1982), I was astonished to see this concept decried as "science fiction" in the pages of Scientific American, a magazine which has been publishing articles praising the idea for nearly half a century (e.g. John G. Kemeny, "Man Viewed as a Machine," (Apr 1955):58-67; Edward F. Moore, "Artificial Living Plants," (Oct 1956):118-126; L.S. Penrose, "Self-Reproducing Machines," (Jun 1959):105-114). NASA's robots-assembling-robots replication demonstration, first proposed in 1980, now occurs daily in Japanese factories. Self-reproducing software such as worms and viruses prowl the Internet, preying on unprotected PCs, networks and mainframes. Machine replication has been extensively studied. It is eminently feasible.

Robert A. Freitas Jr.
Pilot Hill, California


Kidd, Geoffrey

Date: Fri, 05 Apr 1996 08:11:52 -0800
From: Geoffrey Kidd <>
Organization: U. Cal. Berkeley
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: "Waiting for Breakthroughs"

I have read both the original article and the Foresight Institute's response to it. I found the article to be no different in tone or style from what I would expect to find in a "hit piece" written for "National Enquirer." The language used is biased, and Stix' prose is marbled with loaded words. The work contains a number of ad hominem attacks on Eric Drexler, but not one single valid technical criticism of any of the ongoing studies of nanotechnology. If I may point out, oratory does not count in science, only results. Stephen Hawking is not a particularly impressive orator, for obvious reasons, but there is not a physicist on the planet who doesn't listen to him with respect.

I see little point in belaboring you. I will only summarize my reaction to the article by saying that it confirms an opinion I have long been developing that your magazine needs to be retitled, under Truth in Advertising laws, to "Politically Correct Multicultural Something-or-Other"

Pain was a valuable teacher; the universe whispered to you in pleasure, talked to you in reason, but with pain, It shouted.
-- S. M. Stirling "Drakon" Baen Books, 1996

Geoffrey Kidd <*> --


Hughes, Bernard

Date: Thu, 04 Apr 1996 18:27:52 -0800
From: Bernard Hughes <>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Nanotechnology article

Dear editors

I was appalled to read the article on Nanotechnology in your recent issue. Your writer adopted a style more suitable to People magazine than a factual journal. I am usually impressed with your treatment of current research, but in reporting on speculative engineering you seem to completely lost your way.

Your writer quite missed the point of looking at likely technologies at the limits of the possible. The impact of such technology needs to discussed before we get there. Choices we make now will affect what we develop later. To say we shouldnt discuss the results before we implement them seems to be stuck in the dark ages of technology policy.

This is one reader who will view your future articles with some skepticism. I would draw your attention to the Science and Technology section in the Economist. Their writers (23 Mar pg 85) packed in more accurate reporting in four paragraphs than yours did in four pages.

Bernard Hughes

Timedancer Systems.
Vancouver B.C. Canada.


Cochran, Connor Freff

Date: Thu, 04 Apr 1996 19:09:05 -0800
From: BEBOP <>
Organization: Primenet
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Your normal standards were not met


Skepticism is a healthy thing for science. Foolish skepticism is not. I expect better journalism from your magazine than was shown in your article on the recent nanotechnology conference.

Whether or not there ever will be nanotechnology as envisioned by Drexler, Merkle, et al, is a challenging question. It should be directly addressed, not dodged.

If I were to criticize the article writer's approach and conclusions on the basis of his skin condition, preferred mode of dress, social skills, or musical tastes, I would be not just silly, but aggressively so. To denigrate the possible validity of nanotech as a field by resorting to digs at Eric Drexler's speaking style, tea-drinking habits, etc., is no less absurd.

The laws of physics don't care about these things, and neither should SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. In the end it is only those laws, not anyone's attitude (neither Drexler's nor your reporter's) that will determine which visions of nanotechnology turn out to be "science fiction" and which turn out to be science we simply haven't yet realized.

Please: less bias, and more thought.


Connor Freff Cochran


Allen, Eric E.

cc: eallen@CS.Cornell.EDU
Subject: article on molecular nanotechnology
Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 14:42:10 -0400
From: "Eric E. Allen" <

I am writing in response to your article in the April issue concerning molecular nanotechnology. I've been an avid reader of your magazine for quite some time, which is why I must say that I was very disappointed in the level of journalism displayed in that article. Once the ad hominem attacks are eliminated, it becomes little more than a gravely misinformed piece of propaganda. Considering the large base of readers who rely on your magazine to acquire basic information on the latest areas of scientific research, I find your publishing of such an article to be extremely irresponsible. I implore you to at least provide your readers with the online refutation of the Foresight Institute at

Unfortunately, considering the lack of responsibility in publishing this article, I'm afraid that I can no longer support your magazine in buying it, and I can only hope that you'll not allow such incidents to occur in the future.


Eric E. Allen


Orta, Robert

1996 13:24:30 -0700
From: Robert Orta <>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: April 1996 Article, "Waiting for Breakthroughs"

Ladies and Gentleman:

Upon the insistence of my college chemistry instructor, Dr. E.W. Cook, I used Scientific American as a source for my research on nanotechnology/molecular manufacturing. I was pleasantly surprise to find that a current issue of Scientific American contained an article on my topic. Scientific American was highly praised to myself and other students in my class, as an excellent source of precise and technical material on scientific topics. To my knowledge, this periodical is one of the most influential publications in the scientific community.

Your Article in the April issue, "Waiting for Breakthroughs"(by Gary Stix), greeted me with fascinating visualizations and a satisfiable portion of informative pages on nanotechnology/molecular manufacturing. The first sentence of your article "That's the messiah", had the makings of a disturbing fixation with K. Eric Drexler from the start. As I read on, I became acutely aware of the vexed tone the aurthor cradeled for not only Mr. Drexler but also for the validity of the subject being discussed throughout the article. I was hoping to learn more about the science and research involved in this new field of science. It seemed the bulk of the article was concerned with creating a mysticism about nanotechnology, whereas the focus should have remained on the past and current work being done to realize this technology.

I find it disheartening to bring this information to your attention. I hope, in the future, I can expect to see more of the writing that Scientific American is known and respected for.


Robert Orta


Artym, Dr. Rich

96 18:07:45 0100
From: "Dr. Rich Artym" <>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Trends in Nanotechnology: lost SciAm sale.

Dear Sirs,

With reference to your article 'Trends in Nanotechnology' in the April issue, I have been a strong supporter of Scientific American for decades, but now must sadly bow out. If I wished to read non-technical posturing, I would go to the tabloid press.

You have lost a sale, and will not regain it unless you withdraw support for the published item.

With regret,



Artym, Dr. Rich, reply to Rennie, John

Date: Mon, 22 Apr 1996 10:26:25 -0700
Mime-Version: 1.0
From: (Judy Hill)
Subject: Re: Reply from SciAm

From: "Dr. Rich Artym" <>
Subject: Re: Reply from SciAm
Date: Sat, 20 Apr 1996 09:34:00 +0100 (BST)

Dear John Rennie, [Editor-in-Chief, SciAm]

In message <> you write:

You did not detail what bothered you about it, and so I cannot discuss or defend it with you, but I will say that although you consider the article to be "non-technical posturing," its observations and conclusions are supported by many serious researchers in the physical science community.

I am afraid that is not a scientific defense: many serious researchers supported the notion that the Earth is flat. Science is not about the personal support of scientists, but about the mathematical consistency of theories and their relationship to numeric experimental observations. Your article committed the unpardonable scientific sin of quoting only opinions and almost entirely disregarding hard technical detail of any sort, which is exceedingly unusual for SciAm. It was "posturing" because it stayed so clear of technical detail that it contained almost nothing that can be disputed from a technical standpoint, which is the only kind of standpoint appropriate to science and, I would hope, to SciAm. The article reduced almost entirely to a personal statement of lack of belief that nanotechnology is possible, and quite blatantly avoided mentioning any hard detail since this quite universally supports the opposite view. Indeed, it went to extraordinary lengths to avoid presenting any answers from the technical literature, despite clearly knowing about the sources.

I am afraid that this was not a case of an article containing a few errors: it was a deliberate fabrication of an anti-nanotechnological stance using only the techniques of tabloid journalism, and totally devoid of even the slightest lay scientific validity.

I hope that this explains what "bothered me about it": the title of your otherwise-excellent journal contains the word "Scientific". The article was not.


R. Artym.


Hansen, Steinar

Date: Tue, 23 Apr 1996 12:26:55 +0200
From: Steinar Hansen <>
Organization: Norsk Simulatorsenter
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Nanotechnology article

I have just finished reading Gary Stix' article on Nanotechnology in your april number and is appaled at the use of strongly biased language and hidden arguments in the text. I have always found Scientific American to be one of the best popular science magazines available in the world and your articles usually are both objective, neutral and interresting to read. Unfortunately is seems that you have in this case accepted an article which is none of the above. I strongly suggest that you allow an unbiased presentation of nanotechnology to be presented in a later issue.

To give a definition of nanotechnology in full: nanotechnology is a manufacturing technology able to inexpensively fabricate, with molecular precision, most structures consistent with physical law. In my opinion the possibility of nanotechnology, which the article seems to contradict, is evidently possible in that it already exists. Not only does it exist, it has existed for several billion years in self replicating organisms in nature. Whether or not our present capabilities seem sufficient to copy nature in making self replicating systems is one of the major issues in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology addresses the issue of whether it is possible to- and if so can we develop the capabilities to make systems which can position atoms in a precise manner and by this make self replicating systems. As I have already given an example of an existence proof, the first part of this issue should be clear. The second part can only be answered in time by our developments in the relevant fields, such as chemistry, material sciences, computer science, medicine and probably many others which now seems unnecessary. Our feelings today about whether or not such a development may bring about consequences which seems to be too mind boggling to comprehend should not be seen as any objective proof. A farmer 300 years ago would probably not have believed that we ever could have developed robots, computers or (to him more interresting perhaps) tractors. This might be the timescale for development of nanotechnology and then again it might not. One thing is certain the development of nanotechnology is not and never will be impossible.

Steinar Hansen
Trondheim, Norway


Wallace, James

Date: Wed, 24 Apr 1996 10:02:37 -0700
From: (James Wallace )
Subject: April 96 Article on Nanotechnology

Dear Sirs,

I have been a frequent reader of your magazine for some years. I found the article on Nanotechnology in your April 96 issue to be very interesting. After reading it I decided to seek out additional information on the subject. I was greatly dismayed to discover that your article was less than fair in its presentation of the subject and the people involved. You have done an enormous disservice to your readers by publishing such a blatantly biased and ill-conceived article. Further, I am shocked at your attempts to squelch an open debate on the content of the article by threatening the Foresight Institute for reproducing portions of the article in their rebuttal. If this is not "fair use", I can't conceive what would be. Your attempt to stifle this use of the article is outrageous and chilling.

I expect that you will do the right thing, thereby salvaging your reputation, and either admit the weakness of the article or publish the Foresight Institute's rebuttal in full. If I do not see some such action I will feel compelled to no longer purchase your magazine and to encourage my friends and acquaintances to do the same. From the time I was in high school I looked to SA as a solidly respectable journal on diverse scientific issues. I would be greatly saddened to discover that such trust on my part had been misplaced.


James "Rusty" Wallace

The contents of this posting represent the opinions of myself and are not intended to represent the opinions of my employer. Recipients of this posting have my permission to distribute and/or publish the contents.


Gillett, Dr. Stephen L.

Date: Mon, 15 Apr 1996 13:05:22 -0700
From: (Steve Gillett)
Subject: SciAm Bullying

I had not taken the SciAm stuff too seriously before, but their attempt to force you to remove the quotations in your rebuttal on your Web page made me extremely angry. Hence the following letter.

I would strongly encourage Foresight not to cave in to such bullying, as I think there are deep issues of free speech and intellectual integrity involved here, and (as a layperson, admittedly) I would think it extremely unlikely that any legal challenge of theirs could succeed. Certainly, my reading of the "fair use" tests (in the Web pages you cited) would seem to admit of no ambiguity whatsoever; "comment", "criticism", and "purpose" would all seem to cover it easily. I would assume, however, that you've gotten an attorney's formal opinion on this issue.

Stephen L. Gillett


Scientific American, Inc.
415 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10017-1111

To whom it may concern:

Your demand that the Foresight Institute remove its detailed rebuttal of your article on "Nanotechnology" (4/96 issue), on the basis of an alleged violation of _Scientific American_'s copyright, is outrageous. After an article largely characterized by ad hominem innuendo with negligible technical content (an approach seemingly more appropriate to _People_ than to _Scientific American_, though that's a separate issue), such an attempt to deny the targets a chance to respond point by point to your contentions is not just heavy-handed but directly contrary to the very spirit of the free and open interchange of ideas.

As for your claim that _Scientific American_'s letter column is the "proper way" to comment on articles: _Scientific American_'s letter column is not the only, or indeed necessarily the most appropriate, venue for the discussion of issues raised in the magazine, and certainly my layperson's reading of the "fair use" provisions of the copyright law would seem to give scant support to such a sweeping claim. Attempting to channel discussion and squelch criticism in such a way, moreover, is also directly contrary to the fundamental nature of scientific inquiry and thus is likely to seriously damage _Scientific American_'s credibility. This would not seem to be in your interest.

Stephen L. Gillett, Ph.D.
Instructor/Research Associate
Dept. Geological Sciences
University of Nevada
Reno, NV 89557


Haw, James

Date: Tue, 09 Apr 1996 16:55:00 -0500
From: Professor James Haw <>
Organization: Texas A&M University
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: Foresight Lacking

Dear Editor:

Congratulations on a fine article by staff writer Gary Stix. The rambling tirade created on the Web by the Foresight Institute to attack (advertise) your effort reminds me of some of the "Cold Fusion" Web sites. As much as I liked Richard Feynman's work including his amusing 1959 lecture, I can't resist the parallels with the appeals to the authority of Feynman's co-laureat Julian Schwinger by the cold fusion mafia. In his last years Schwinger became isolated from the mainstream scientific community, and shortly before his death wrote down some theoretical ideas about cold fusion. Thus, every cold fusion propoaganda piece drips with references to "Nobel Lauriate Julian Schwinger". Feynman gave his "nano" lecture at the hight of his intellectual powers, but he did not intend to become a nano-Moses. Were he still with us, he would either vehemently reject the appeal to authority or, more likely, play along until he saw a way to turn it into a prank.

Of course, the purpose of Scientific American is to provide information to the general public and this differs somewhat from the mission of Science or Nature. Had a critical article appeared in such a journal, I suspect that such a vehement result would not have occured. I notice the parallels with, for example, the repeated attacks by cold fusion advocates of the journalism of Gary Taubes, Frank Close etc. and the comparitive neglect of critics who publish in the scientific literature. I would be curious to know the extent to which members of the general public are being solicited for investment in Nanothis or Nanothat. I quote from the Foresight Institute web page, "If you'd like a higher level of involvement, you may wish to join our Senior Associate program. By pledging an annual contribution of $250, $500, $1000, or $5000 for five years, you are brought into the circle of those most committed to making a difference in nanotechnology." I think that says it all.

If you think my comments would make a suitable letter to the Editor in Scientific American, please e-mail me, and I'll prepare a second draft for you.

Thank you.

Jim Haw, Professor of Chemistry

The letters column from the August 1996 Scientific American

Letters -- Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

Round 1 -- Part 1 | Letters | Part 2

Overview of the Debate