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

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

    Ingram, Russ IPA, NET    
    Smith, Bruce K. , San Rafael, CA    
    Ware, Will    
    Arko, Pace    
    Wong, Samuel North York, ON, Canada    
    Winfield, Robert James    
    Carter, Robert J. Gurnee, IL    
    Fylstra, Dan Incline Village, NV    
    Fylstra, Dan reply to Scientific American response to above letter    

Ingram, Russ

Date: Mon, 08 Apr 1996 12:05:09 -0600
From: faymall <>
Organization: IPA,NET
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: nanotech

I usually like Gary Stix' writing, but with all the subtle innuendos in this article, maybe I should go back and reread his earlier writings and look for similar misleading statements.

Russ Ingram (


Smith, Bruce K.

Smith, Bruce Date: Thu, 11 Apr 1996 22:18:51 -0700
From: (Bruce Smith)
Subject: letter

I sent a letter to Sci Am about the Gary Stix piece, [text deleted]. After Sci Am publishes its
responses, it's fine to put it on the web site if you want.


Subject: letter about Stix April 96 piece

Comparing the careful, detailed, technical scholarship in _Nanosystems_ and other published work supporting the possibility of precise, fairly general molecular manufacturing (sometimes called "nanotechnology"), to the lack of anything resembling these qualities in Stix's criticisms of these ideas (or in the very few other published criticisms that I've seen), I have to conclude that it is the possibility that molecular manufacturing is *not* feasible that is presently supported only by "science fiction", and that is probably the result of wishful thinking.

Bruce K. Smith
San Rafael, CA


Ware, Will

Date: Thu, 25 Apr 1996 18:41:14 -0400
From: (Will Ware)
Subject: The April 96 article on nanotechnology

I am writing to let you know that your April 96 article on nanotechnology was extremely disappointing. The frequent use of purely personal attacks and the near absence of substantial content does a disservice not only to workers in nanotechnology, but yourselves as well, and ultimately the scientific community at large. I have expressed my thoughts on the matter in more detail in a page on the worldwide web, at

It has also come to my attention that you have legally threatened the Foresight Institute, claiming that their citations of your article in their response are a violation of copyright, and suggested to them that the proper place for their response is your own letters column. The accuracy of your interpretation of copyright law is a legal matter on which I can claim no expertise, but the overall attempt at "damage control" is transparent and distasteful.

Science is not only about getting one's facts straight. It is also about free, open debate of conflicting opinions. As an ethical principle, this is relatively new in human history, and after several centuries of scientific progress, it is still not widely accepted throughout the world. I welcome it as a civilizing influence, and I would hope that any publication with the word "Scientific" in its title would agree.

Will Ware <> web <>
PGP fingerprint 45A8 722C D149 10CC F0CF 48FB 93BF 7289


Arko, Pace

Date: 20 May 96 06:09:50 EDT
From: Pace Arko 73542.1601@CompuServe.COM
Subject: An April Fools Prank?

To the Editors of the Scientific American:

I've read Scientific American for many years and, on the whole, I have been very happy with its coverage. However, I was disappointed by Mr. Stix' article "Trends in Nanotechnology" in last April's edition. I am only a well informed layperson, and perhaps unable to judge, but the article struck me as biased and sensationalist. It seemed to avoid the technical issues involved and suffered from several misconceptions as to what molecular engineering is and what it is not. Perhaps this is understandable because the scientific and engineering communities are not quite agreed on the validity of nanotechnology, but still, the tone of the article seemed stronger than necessary.

I imagine you have received endless mail on this particular topic, but I feel I must include my opinions as well. I hope that you will print some of these letters (especially the ones from experts) and Mr. Stix' responses in future issues or perhaps at your web page on the internet.

I view this one article as an exception and I look forward to a return to your well deserved reputation for levelheaded science journalism.


Pace Arko


Wong, Samuel

Date: Thu, 16 May 1996 21:32:57 -0400
Subject: copy of letter to Scientific American

Sorry for the long delay in forwarding to you a complete copy of my letter to Scientific American. I don't normally check the mail on my America Online account, but given that Scientific American is on America Online, I thought it appropriate.

Please find below the text of the letter sent earlier. Please don't hesitate to contact me again if you have any further questions.

[sent to Scientific American]

I read with passing interest the debate on the internet newsgroup sci.nanotech regarding your article "Trends in Nanotechnology" in your April 1996 issue. As a student I never liked your publication because it deos not have the rigour of a refereed journal, nor the relevance of a true populist publication like Popular Science. So when my employer recently offered to pay for my subscriptions, I eventually chose IEEE and its Spectrum publication. Spectrum somehow manages to be scientifcally accurate and relevant. My reading of your recent article on nanotechnology merely confirmed my decision.

So why am I writing? Your attempt to stiffle public debate and inquiry by hiding behind copyrights as communicated by Linda Hertz is outrageous! Develop your reputation (good or bad) based on the quality of your publication. Please do not damage the reputation of all scientific inquiry by your pettiness. I question the generosity of the Foresight Institute by placing you on the same side as scientific inquiry as your actions can be interprested as self-serving and profit-driven. I encourage you to take up a serious debate with those familiar with nanotechnology, or risk being made totally irrelevant.

Yours truly,

Samuel Wong
205 Wynford Drive, #2403
North York, Ontario
Canada M3C 3P4

By CC to the nanotech newsgroup and the Foresight Institute, you are free to distribute this letter as you see fit. As per Scientific American's instructions, a hardcopy of this letter has also been sent to them via surface mail.


Winfield, Robert James

Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1996 12:40:27 -0700
From: robert james winfield <>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Subject: nanotechnology

I do not understand what the flap about nanotechnolgy is about, or why one of your authors has chosen to so blithly dismiss nanotechnology.

To put it bluntly, nanotechnology is stunningly obvious to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think.

In the simplest form, nanotechnology posits taking a set of instructions, written by either humans , or computers in conjunction with humans, that direct a set of molecular sized machines to place atoms and molecules in fairly precise positions to build something.

If you look in a mirror, or at any other form of life, the realization may slowly come to you that you are the result of a set of instructions, DNA, read out by RNA, that molecular sized machines, Ribosomes, use to place atoms and molecules in fairly precise positions.

I am sure that your fine magazine has a wealth of information on molecular biology you can use to educate in the finer points of the above so you can also draw the same obvious conclusions.

The proof of the concept, that nanotechnology works, is there. Atomic and molecular manipulation, life in its myriad forms, should convince even the most doubting of its reality.

It is merely an engineering process to get there where life has gone before.


Robert J. Winfield


Carter, Robert J.

ROBERT J. CARTER 4587 Covenant Ct. Gurnee, IL 60031
September 15, 1996

Jack Hanley, Chief Executive Officer
Scientific American, Inc.
415 Madison Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10017-1111

Mr. Hanley:

You have no idea how disappointed I was in Scientific American when I read Gary Stix's tabloid article in April about K. Eric Drexler and nanotechnology with at least 14 errors and 4 omissions by my count (attached). Given my view of Scientific American's search for scientific truth and brilliant illumination of scientific truth during the 28 years I've been reading it, I was even more disappointed and embarrassed by your editor's reply in August, "And with all apologies to Drexler, we think that readers of the critique will find little in the way of specific cited errors." With all apologies to your editor, he either didn't read the internet critique he cites or attempted to cover up past mistakes, hoping no one would notice.

He bases part of his reply on the faulty journalistic assumption defining an error as misquoting a source. In fact, if you properly quote a source whose statement is in error, then you are in error by representing his statement as fact. In other words, I expect a higher sense of journalistic morality and integrity from Scientific American than I would from supermarket tabloids.

Your course appears clear. First, you must publish an apology for a poorly written article if you are to maintain credibility. Second, you should focus debate on nanotechnology. Challenge the best minds in the world to review Nanosystems by Drexler and address the feasibility of the technology.

Very truly yours,

Jake Carter

Attachment: Errors and omissions in Scientific American:

cc: John Rennie, Editor in Chief
"Trends in Nanotechnology, Waiting for Breakthroughs," Scientific American
Gary Stix, staff writer, April

SciAm p.94 col 1, p1, L1 - "That's the messiah" opening line 'quote' from M. Reifman

Error- quoted out of context; twisted to infer a secret confidence to be taken seriously; not the case according to source.

SciAm p.94 col 1, p1, L3 - "strange mix of scientists , entrepreneurs, ..."

Error- belongs on an editorial page. Who thinks this is a strange mix? ... Gary Stix!

SciAm p.94 col 1, p1, L3 - "his own acolytes" referring to Drexler

Error- editorializing by Stix. Alter boys aren't typically used in scientific conferences.

SciAm p.94 col 1, p2, L1 - "Nanotechnology is ... structures ... that measure up to 100 nanometers"

Error- This is not the definition of molecular manufacturing this article attempts to focus on.

SciAm p.94 col 2, p2, L2 - refers to Edward M. Reifman as "the dentist"

Omission- Reifman holds a graduate degree in biomedical engineering... What are Stix's credentials?

SciAm p.94 col 2, p3, L3 - What inspires "actual researchers" ... is ... more "pragmatic"

Error- editorializing by Stix, implied meaning: Drexler is not a researcher and his is an impractical (nonpragmatic) view of molecular nanotechnology. Who says? Gary Stix says.

SciAm p.94 col 3, p3, L1 - "Drexler ... guru ... pedantic ... cartoon character"

Error- editorializing by Stix, bordering on slander.

SciAm p.95 col 2, p2, L3 - " ... Feynman used to toy playfully with the notion ..."

Error- Stix attempts to twist Feynman's interest in Nanotechnology as he did earlier in the article with Reifman's statement. What Feynman actually said was, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big." Toy playfully with the notion, indeed! Dead men can't defend themselves against poor journalism.

SciAm p. 97 col 2, Heading- "Real Nanotechnology"

Error- Stix implies Drexler's computational and theoretical work is fake or "unreal".

Omission- In fact, IBM Zurich used computational models to design a molecule that could be precisely positioned on a surface, at room temperature and in ultra high vacuum. They then verified that the molecule favored by "computational experiments" also worked experimentally. Generally, the scientific community expects quantitative computational theory to lead the way to valid experimental results.
[Editor's note: See details of this molecular manipulation at IBM Zurich's web page]

SciAm p. 97 col 3, p 3, L 2 - " ... David E. H. Jones ... has provided a pointed critique of the idea ... "

Omission - Stix fails to mention the Foresight Institute's rebuttal of Jones' critique. In the rebuttal, Jones' lack of knowledge in the area became obvious. Each of Jones' points was addressed.

SciAm p. 98 col 2, p1, L1 - Quote from Jones, " ... nanotechnology need not be taken seriously. It will remain just another exhibit in the freak show that is the boundless-optimism school of technical forecasting."

Error- journalistic assumption defining an error as misquoting a source. In fact, if you properly quote a source whose statement is in error, then you are in error by representing his statement as fact. Since Jones has been successfully rebutted, Stix is in error.

SciAm p. 98 col 3, p2, L4 - "Barth observes ... considerations that could make many of Drexler's nanodevices impossible to build."

Omission- What are these considerations? I see only one reference, "stability of ... intermediate steps"

Error- Molecular Assembly Sequence Software (MASS) has not indicated this difficulty using a variant of established retrosynthetic analysis taken from classical chemistry.

SciAm p. 99 col 1, p1, L1 - Barth's " message to an Internet bulletin board ... molecular nanotechnology has the makings of a mass social/political movement or a religious faith in the traditions of Marxism or Christianity."

Error- focuses away from technical issues.

Omission- Stix is only too happy to use Internet quotations when it suits his misguided purpose. He fails to mention all the Internet factual data not supporting his premise.

SciAm p. 99 col 1-3 Entire text under heading "On the Border of Science and Fiction"

Error- focuses away from technical issues.

SciAm p. 99 col 3, p1, L1 - "Nanoism resembles a form of postmodern alchemy ..."

Error- Who says? Gary Stix does! Editorializing.

SciAm p. 99 col 3, p4 & 5 - 1974 Caltech, Feynman speech on cargo cult science twisted by Gary Stix to suit his own purposes.

Error- Feynman didn't mention anything resembling molecular nanotechnology in his cargo cult speech. In fact, he had supported it's technical feasibility. His own son confirmed this. Dead men can't defend themselves from poor journalism.


Fylstra, Dan

Letters published with permission from Daniel H. Fylstra
July 7, 1996
Lorraine L. Terlecki
Circulation Director
Scientific American
415 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10017-1111

Dear Ms. Terlecki:

Enclosed is my recent subscription renewal solitication, to which I will not be responding. With some sadness, I am "giving up" on Scientific American. I've been a subscriber in some years and not in others, depending on my time available for reading, but I have always been interested in Scientific American. I'm afraid I can't say that any more. The reason is the steady decline in the quality of your coverage of science.

You occasionally still publish excellent articles, usually written by leading experts in a field. But the articles and columns by your staff writers that I've read in the past year are no better than the "science coverage" in a typical daily newspaper. Sometimes, today's Scientific American more resembles Omni than the magazine from which I used to learn so much.

The last straw was the article on nanotechnology by Gary Stix in your April 1996 issue. I had expected an educational article, but quickly discovered that this was a "people in science" story. Even as such, its coverage of the scientific issues was so poor (and so one-sided) it was embarrassing -- and its cartoon-like characterization of Dr. Eric Drexler was completely uncalled for. I may not agree with Drexler, but I have at least read his books and considered his arguments, something which Gary Stix and your editors apparently did not feel obliged to do.

Ironically, it was in the April issue (in "From the Editors") that you quoted Rufus Porter's description of Scientific American as "a paper that will instruct while it diverts or amuses them, and will retain its excellence and value, when political and ordinary newspapers are thrown aside and forgotten." If you really think that you are still meeting this standard, you should know that, where I used to save a tall stack of back issues of Scientific American for future reference, I now find myself throwing them out with the weekly magazines and the daily newspaper.

Sincerely yours,

Daniel H. Fylstra
P.O. Box 6740
Incline Village, NV 89450


Fylstra, Dan: reply to Scientific American response

Letters published with permission from Daniel H. Fylstra. This letter is a reply to a response from John Rennie, Editor in Chief of Scientific American, to the above letter.

August 25, 1996
John Rennie
Editor in Chief
Scientific American
415 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10017-1111

Dear Mr. Rennie:

Thank you for taking the time to write to me on August 6th, in response to my letter to Lorraine Terlecki. I had not expected a reply, especially from the Editor in Chief, and I applaud your involvement.

Evidently, the nanotechnology article stirred quite a response of which mine was just a sample. I learned about the debate on the World Wide Web and have now read the many comments on both the Scientific American and Foresight Institute Web sites, including your letter to Foresight on May 10th, and Drexler's reply on May 14th. I've also seen (on your Web site) the Letters to the Editor you printed in your August issue. I felt this was a good selection -- though the contrast between the richness of the Web debate, which sprung up overnight, and the limited print coverage which occurred four months later was striking.

I hope you sense the desire on the part of many people for a more in-depth, substantive article on the scientific and technical issues in nanotechnology. I believe you've acknowledged that the April 1996 article did not address the issues in any depth, and this was part of my disappointment.

In your May 10th letter you say, "What continues to attract most people to the field is not the technical challenge, but rather the promise of rectifying the most basic social ills, such as death and poverty." My impression is quite the reverse. There are certainly some "true believers" around the fringes of Drexler's camp who are attracted by the grand "promise," but I believe the majority of the people interested in Drexler's work, particularly in Silicon Valley, are primarily motivated by the technical challenges. I think you've misread these people, who are also likely readers of Scientific American.

The other part of my disappointment with Gary Stix's article was its ad hominem criticisms of Drexler. You've defended this as coverage of the "hype rampant in nanotechnology." I am a real skeptic and agree that a critique of "nanohype" is needed -- as long as it is technically complete and done in a balanced way. But I found it impossible to read your article as "balanced." From its choice of words (e.g. "acolytes" and "devotees"), to its choice of quotes ("that's the messiah") to its selective inclusion of fanciful elements of Engines of Creation and selective omission of Drexler's refereed publications, this article seems slanted from the outset towards the goal of depicting Drexler's and Merkle's nanoscience as "unsound." How do you defend your off-hand dismissal of Drexler's M.I.T. Ph.D. research (published in the award-winning Nanosystems) as "a plea for respectability ... I am not a flake?" How do you justify the transparently made-up distinction between "nanoists" and "real nanotechnology?" I am sure that a few readers cheered, and others with no knowledge of this area were impressed -- but to anyone with even a little background, and a sense of fair-mindedness, your article comes across as inexcusably one-sided. This would be poor practice in any magazine, but it is truly unworthy of a publication like Scientific American. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but please understand that I and other readers expect the best from you, and we were sorely disappointed.

In Eric Drexler's reply to you on May 14th, he specifically challenged you to commission, or write yourself, "a public, scientific criticism ... of the technical content of the case made in Nanosystems." He has certainly put his credibility squarely on the line, making only the reasonable request that the criticism be confined to his own published work. While nanotechnology normally just makes it to the bottom of my "top ten" interests, I must say that this Scientific American controversy has gotten my attention. Should you take up Drexler's challenge, I hope you will let me know -- it would motivate me to re-subscribe to Scientific American in order to see it.

Thanks for your interest.

Sincerely yours,

Daniel H. Fylstra
P.O. Box 6740
Incline Village, NV 89450

Note: 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.

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