Foresight Update 22

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Nanotechnology on the Web

by Lewis M. Phelps

Nanotechnology and the World Wide Web were made for each other. On one hand, nanotechnology is a complex and intellectually diverse subject with ties to many scientific disciplines. It portends rapid technological development and significant social and economic changes. It's a field in which knowledge is growing exponentially...faster than the printed page can accommodate.

On the other hand, unless you have spent the last year camping on the Barents Sea shores of Novaja Zemlja, you know that the World Wide Web is an explosively fast-growing communications medium whose unique ability to forge links between loosely related pieces of information is changing the way people work and learn. (If you don't already have access to the World Wide Web, read the accompanying sidebar story, "Getting on the Web," on page 7.) This article profiles some of the main nanotechnology sites on the Web. Internet addresses of all mentioned sites are included in a sidebar on page 6.

Browsing through these sites spotlights the truly global nature of research underway on nanotechnology-related subjects today. Beside numerous U.S. institutions, significant work is described in Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, and Hungary. By the time you read this article, new countries are likely to have joined the list.
Foresight and IMM have just published their first rudimentary home pages. Watch these over the next few months as they evolve. (Web addresses for these and all pages described here are given in the accompanying box.)

Meanwhile, an excellent nanotechnology entry point to the Web is the Nanotechnology page created by Dr. Ralph Merkle at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. As most Foresight Institute members know, Ralph is deeply involved in nanotechnology-related work, including creation of computer software used to design molecular-level machines.

This well-designed and up-to-date nanotechology home page features an excellent introduction to key nanotechnology concepts, a number of related articles, a comprehensive listing of books, periodicals, other key print documents related to the subject, and links to other major nanotechnology Web sites. Ralph has recently added the complete text of Richard Feynman's now-famous 1959 talk at Caltech, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" If you're new to nanotechnology, this is an excellent place to begin learning.

Also not to be missed at this site is Ralph's witty and devastating rebuttal of criticism aimed at nanotechnogy concepts by an ill-informed book review in Nature magazine. The writer apparently chose the book review as a vehicle for a general attack on nanotechnology. Ralph's rebuttal concludes, "The New York Times published an article in 1920 explaining that flight to the moon was impossible because there wasn't any air for a rocket to push against. Nature now joins the club with [this] article."

Another highly useful site is NanoLink-Key Nanotechnology Sites on the Web. Offered by the National University of Singapore and Memex Research, this home page offers a comprehensive set of links (over 50) to world-wide sites with nanotechnology-related information.

From either of these sites, you're only a mouse click away from other valuable sources of nanotechnology information. Without attempting a complete catalog (well beyond the space limits of this article), some sites worthy of special notice are:

Finally, new nanotechnology-related sites appear on the Web with some frequency. You can find them with "search engines" such as WebCrawler. Some simply point to the other nanotechnology sites; others have real content.

Perhaps representative of these newcomers is a personal home page created by Tom Nugent, a U.S. citizen interning in the Space Development Division at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries in Japan. Through his interest in space travel, and personal connections with several people involved in Molecular Manufacturing Enterprises Inc., he became interested in nanotechnology. He created the nano-page, he says, because, "after I finish the internship here in Japan, I plan on attending engineering graduate school, most likely in an area that would allow me to do work in nanotechnology. So I am using the links on my nano-page to stay up-to-date with developments, as well as to become familiar with the people in the field. And of course so that anyone who finds my page can learn more about nanotech." Tom's home page also provides interesting links to Web sites devoted to Space Development, Japan's Space Program, Search Engines, and Ballroom Dancing.

Lew Phelps is guest editor of this issue of Update. He prowls the Web through an America OnLine connection from his office in Pasadena, CA.

Foresight Update 22 - Table of Contents


Web URL's for Nanotechnology Sites

Foresight Institute
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
Nanotechnology (Ralph Merkle's page at Xerox)
Nanolink: Key Technology Sites on the Web (in Singapore)
Nanotechnology Archives (at Rutgers)
Idea Futures and
Laboratory for Molecular Robotics (at USC)
Nanomanipulator Project (at UNC)
Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group
Nanotools: The STM Home Brew Page
Initiatives in Nanotechnology (at Rice University)
Tom Nugent's Home Page

Foresight Update 22 - Table of Contents


Dr. Ralph Merkle on nanotechnology and the Web

I first got interested in nanotechnology when I heard Drexler give a talk on the subject at Stanford, circa '85 or '86. I read Engines of Creation and rapidly concluded that Drexler was fairly obviously correct in the substance of his conclusions. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, when I found that there were very few people working in this area. My interest in this area increased over the next few years, until I eventually decided to pursue it full time at Xerox PARC. Given the likely impact, I continue to view this area as remarkably underfunded and under researched, though there is at last evidence of growing interest.

With the explosive growth of the Web during the past year it's rather obvious that here, at last, is a communications and publication medium that takes advantage of electronic distribution in a sufficiently convenient manner that it can secure a mass audience. As Web publication is rapid, convenient, and permits the individual author to bypass the slow and clumsy refereeing process, I adopted it as soon it was obvious that it would more easily permit distribution to a wider audience than the more conventional paper publication.

Those familiar with my past work in cryptography might recall that my first publication on public key distribution was held up for three years by the referees because it was "not in keeping with current cryptographic thinking." My opinion both of the referees for that particular paper and of the refereeing process in general were correspondingly reducedWhile some traditional magazines continue to argue that refereeing is essential to maintain "quality," it has been my experience that monopoly, even the limited monopoly provided by a magazine or journal, simply slows down the dissemination of new ideas.

The Web, of course, makes it easy for bad ideas to get their own page; we risk being swamped by second-rate pages. This problem, however, can be relatively easily dealt with by reputation. People who maintain quality Web sites will soon become recognized, and links recommended by those sites will be read more rapidly. A new page that is worthwhile will at first attract little interest, but as time goes by and more people evaluate it and find it worthwhile, the web of links pointing to the new page and recommending it will increase. Casual readers who have neither the time nor the inclination to search out the obscure but well-done page can rely on established pages to point the way.

At the present time, my nanotechnology page ( is receiving about 100 "hits" each day. (Note that there are many more hits on the site as a whole, but somehow I don't think that retrievals of small "gif" files used to dress up the nanotechnology page provide an unbiased estimate of the traffic). I expect this number to increase as the Web grows. Naturally, I would encourage anyone working on nanotechnology to establish a Web page and describe his or her work on it.

The upcoming Fourth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology is using the Web extensively. The conference page is at It currently has a list of speakers and their topics, and some abstracts. We'll be making preprints of the papers submitted to the conference available on the Web, as well.

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From Foresight Update 22, originally published 15 October 1995.