Foresight Update 24

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4


Scientific American without the Science:

Lengthy Story Launches Ad Hominem Attack

[Editor's Note: For an update and overview of this debate, now in its fourth round of discussion, see]

Scientific American
staff writer Gary Stix attended last fall's Foresight Conference in Palo Alto. He used that event as a springboard to launch a wholly unscientific attack on nanotechnology and Foresight Institute. Built around ad hominem attack and undefendable quotations lifted from World Wide Web sources, the news story concludes that nanotechnology involving a general purpose assembler is akin to "Cargo Cult Science," a pathology described by the late Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman.

His son, Carl Feynman, has written a letter to Scientific American objecting to their misuse of his father's essay (see As Carl points out, Richard Feynman saw great promise in nanotechnology, and considered it wholly achievable. We're waiting to see if they will publish his and other pro-nanotechnology letters they have received from the science community.

Meanwhile, for those interested in a vigorous rebuttal to the Scientific American news story, visit on the World Wide Web. There, Ralph Merkle has done a splendid job of explaining the technological aspects of the field clearly and precisely, while dismantling the story. An email version can be requested from

Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler commented, "Over the last twenty years, the intellectual quality of Scientific American has visibly declined, a circumstance that must demoralize the better members of its staff. This decline appears in the level of writing, in the displacement of informative diagrams by decorative illustrations, and in the dilution of science and technology coverage with business and politics.

"With the rise of the Web, however, the decay of general science publications matters less and less. The Web opens a fresh channel for publication on science and technology, one dominated not by organizations entrenched in their printing and distribution systems, pursuing sales down into the swamps, but rather by a free exchange of ideas and responses. On the Web, colorful pictures and biased reporting can't push aside more serious explorations of the complex dangers and opportunities presented by the real world."

Regarding some of the less technical matters raised in the Scientific American article, Eric confirms his view that "milk really does have merit as an additive to iced tea, but not with lemon," and notes that, whatever the accuracy of the comparisons made by Mr. Stix, it is true that as a child he was fond of Mr. Peabody, and "still admires him for his thoughtfulness, responsibility, doggish loyalty, and time-spanning curiosity."

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents


"...One Very Large Step for Mankind"

by Lew Phelps

Economic and political constraints have diminished the scope and reach of America's space exploration and development program. Many people seeking to increase long-term investment in space infrastructure, and make space travel more cost-effective, are looking toward nanotechnology as a means to achieve those goals.

Recent developments in this area include:

The Space Studies Institute report provides recommendations for continuing research to the SSI Board. Removing weight (and also size) from things that must be sent off-planet is an obvious means to advance the prospects of space development, since the cost of lifting a pound to orbit hasn't declined significantly in decades, the report says. "The ultimate leverage is achieved with a molecular nanotechnology-based self-replicating system," the report says. It recognizes that getting there won't be easy; it "will require at least two types of breakthrough to accomplish the actual synthesis of molecular nanotechnology devices useful for space and the achievement of real-world machine self-replication.

Based on the report, SSI's board approved four research initiatives, including "Molecular Nanotechnology for Space" (MNTS), for which the principal investigator will be Tom McKendree. The initiative is a Ph.D. research project planned for completion in the spring of 1997. McKendree's work will be supported by his employer, Hughes Electronics. He is addressing two major inter-related issues regarding the High Frontier- space manufacturing and space transportation.

He will begin with established "location theory" models which support decisions regarding the geographic placement of terrestrial factories as a function of the manufacturing investments and the locations and costs of all resource inputs as well as market outputs. This model will then be expanded to space with its analogous but complex costs and timing constraints for astrodynamic maneuvers. Finally, the impacts of molecular nanotechnology will be assessed.

The molecular nanotechnology impacts on space transportation to be examined include lower-cost conventional rockets, feasible skyhooks and momentum transfer tethers, and ultrathin solar sails. The MNT impacts on manufacturing to be examined include low cost, multiproduct manufacturing, minimal tooling, high-strength structures, synthesis of "vitamin parts," and self-replication.

The other SSI research initiatives include Sub-Kilogram Intelligent Robots, Accelerated Near Earth Object Discovery, and Quest for Self-Replicating Systems.

Minimizing the Initial Space Manufacturing Base by Steve Vetter notes that the cost of opening the High Frontier is very dependent on the cost of transporting the initial mining and manufacturing facilities from the Earth. This cost is closely related to the mass of these facilities. His paper examines what limits are encountered as one tries to shrink the mass of the initial base. Solutions are proposed to break through or work around each limit as it is encountered. "Finally, we come to the conclusion that the only real limit is at the molecular level," Vetter writes. "This leads to the realization that building things from the bottom up, with atomic precision, is not only possible, but highly advantageous to the goal of opening the high frontier. This work is based partly on research in minimizing the mass of a solar power satellite, lunar-material-insensitive SPS designs, robots, self-replicating systems, and other related areas of technology." The heavily referenced paper assumes no new science, but is based on projections of scientifically-understood technological progress.

Advanced Technologies discussions at the SSI 1995 annual meeting included presentation of four papers, including Vetter's topic discussed above. Another with nanotechnology implications was Bruce Mackenzie's discussion of "Bootstrapping Space Communities with Micro Rovers and High-Tensile Boot Laces." (The latter term refers to tethers and cable-like links between a planetary surface and an orbiting platform.) "The tethers make use of expected advances in material science," Vetter commented. "The better material you have, the more efficient tether you can have."

Mackenzie's proposal looked at mass requirements, and determined that to keep the system running efficiently, you would have to send substantial weight into space to keep the angular momentum balanced with (mined and manufactured) products going to the surface, about as much mass would have to be lifted into orbit. "Basically, we can probably bootstrap up a space manufacturing facility, with just a few hundred kilograms of equipment, plus a few tons of tether and ballast and some ability to do some processing at some other point, like at a low Earth orbit space station." The system requires not only efficient tethers (manufactured, no doubt, from atomically precise materials), but also self-replicating devices that could copy themselves a number of times, then convert to mining and manufacturing duties. The need for nanoscale computing devices is also clear.

Planning Scenarios for Space Development, Tom McKendree's paper, published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, uses the scenario planning approach advanced by Foresight Institute Advisory Board member Peter Schwartz (President of Global Business Network). Scenarios are fictional representations of alternative futures, focused on particular issues. McKendree proposes a "Slow and Planned" scenario and a "Sooners" scenario.

In "Slow and Planned," space development evolves gradually, with major institutional players (governments and aerospace corporations) gradually paying more attention to molecular nanotechnology's development and capabilities. Private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate becomes a significant issue, and a market develops to allocate rights to carbonaceous solar system bodies that have been distributed to all adult citizens of the world. Large corporations accumulate development rights in space, paving the way for actual (gradual) exploration of the High Frontier. The scenario's key features are relatively slow development of molecular nanotechnology capability, and a high level of planning. Its central feature is a well-conceived set of "rules of the road" for space development.

"Sooners" envisions an extraterrestrial land rush based on Internet distribution of information that allows small players to build rocket probes and self-replicating manufacturing capability very inexpensively. Before large institutions understand what's happened, every developable asteroid in the solar system is claimed, developed, and colonized. It's a disorganized, almost anarchic path to space development, but it occurs faster and more completely than the highly-planned path. The scenario's key features are relatively fast development of molecular nanotechnology capability, and a low level of planning. It shows what might happen if the ability to go into space precedes creation of appropriate "rules of the road."

Readers interested in using nanotechnology for space development should point their Web browser at:, the home page of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, a chapter of the National Space Society.

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents


Japanese "Atomcraft Project" Outlines Major Goals,
Publishes Interim Report

In its third interim activity report, the Aono Atomcraft Project of Japan outlined its goals and technical results. The Atomcraft Project is sponsored by the Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) program of the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC). The project was begun in 1989.

The coined word used in the project name, "Atomcraft," expresses "a new world of atomic-scale science and technology, including the creation of artificial micromaterials, quasi-molecules and other customized atomic arrangements which exhibit novel electronic, material and optical properties. Although only a dream a decade ago, this is now an actively pursued area of research, thanks to the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) by Binning and Rohrer," says Atomcraft Project Director Masakazu Aono in the report's introduction.

"Even though the STM was originally invented to observe individual atoms, it is also useful for manipulating individual atoms by carefully controlling the local interactions between the probe tip and the sample appropriately. In fact, several preliminary demonstrations suggest the power of this approach. Challenges remain, however, in clearly understanding the physical mechanisms involved and in many issues related to technological feasibility. Our project has been organized to perform systematic studies to overcome such scientific and technological hurdles and apply these results to the fields mentioned above," Aono says.

The project consists of three groups:

Basic Analysis Group:

Atomcraft attaches importance to the close cooperation between experimentalists and theorists, so this group consists mainly of theorists, to balance the project's large number of experimentalists. "The theorists are making various calculations to interpret experimental results and design promising experiments for atomcraft. In an experimental subgroup an apparatus for single-atom elemental analysis is also under construction," the report says.

Structure Control Group:

Researchers in this group are studying various possible techniques for atomcraft, i.e., the manipulation of single atoms and the creation of nanometer-scale structure patterns. Specifically, these include the preparation of atomically sharp tips made of desirable materials, the compensation of thermal drift between tip and sample, the development of hardware and software that can control the movement and electric parameters of the tip in a sophisticated manner, and the preparation of sample surfaces with desirable composition and atomic arrangement. In addition, prototype experiments to control single electrons in nanometer-scale structures at room temperature are also in progress.

Surface Measurement Group:

This group is observing and analyzing various new phenomena related to atomcraft. "One of the most important research subjects is to clarify physical mechanisms involved in atom manipulation. New chemistry observed under the extreme conditions between tip and sample is also being studied. The key to these studies is to prepare tips with desirable shape and composition routinely with the use of an appropriate monitoring method in situ. Another important research subject is to directly measure the electronic properties of created novel micromaterials and nanometer-scale structure patterns in a wide temperature range," the report says.

For more information, including copies of the group's report (which contains technical papers in both English and Japanese), contact:

Aono Atomcraft Project
The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN)
Hirosawa 2-1, Wako-shi, Saitama, 351-01 Japan; Phone 81-484-62-1111; Fax 81-484-62-4656

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4

From Foresight Update 24, originally published 15 April 1996.