Foresight Update 29

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Web Watch.29

The Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group (MMSG) is a chapter of the National Space Society founded to inform government, industry, academia, the space activist community, and the public about what molecular nanotechnology is and how it can be used to facilitate the development of space. In addition to basic information about the MMSG and a list of links to Web sites related to space and nanotechnology, this site collects a number of documents that discuss the role of nanotechnology in space development. Included are five issues (of the eleven issues that have been published) of the MMSG newsletter The Assembler. The May 1994 issue contains Tom McKendree's thoughts on a "Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing Development." Highlights of the First Quarter 1996 issue include a detailed report on "The Fourth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology" by Tom McKendree, an article by Jerome D. Rosen on "Using Mechanosynthetic Assemblers to Build an Orbital Tower," and an article by Robert J. Coppinger on "The Drexlerian Terraformation of Mars: A New Ark for Humanity." The major feature of the Third Quarter 1996 issue is an article entitled "LEGO(TM)s to the Stars: Active MesoStructures, Kinetic Cellular Automata, and Parallel Nanomachines for Space Applications" written by Tihamer Toth-Fejel and presented at the 1996 International Space Development Conference, New York City, May 1996.

Other major documents provided include the "NSS Position Paper on Space and Molecular Nanotechnology." A more technical consideration of the relation of molecular nanotechnology to space development is presented by the PhD thesis proposal of Tom McKendree, "System Architectures for Space Systems Using Molecular Nanotechnology." An article "Robot Bushes" by Dr. Hans Moravec proposes a progressively branching robot arm design in which the fingers at the end of each arm in turn have even smaller fingers. The several largest fingers are cm in length scale and 1 hertz in movement time scale. After 50 levels of branching, the smallest fingers, numbering about 1015, would be nm in length scale and gigahertz in movement time scale, and able to manipulate matter at the atomic level.

Molecular modeling of nanodevices

A final page, "NASA Explains How Molecular-Sized Gears Might Work," presents a NASA press release that describes work done at NASA's Ames Research Center that uses molecular dynamics to simulate how molecular-sized gears made from fullerene nanotubes might work. The press release is also available at a NASA Web page with a larger picture available. An early draft of the original technical publication referenced by the press release is available on the Web. The computational nanotechnology accomplishments of the group at NASA Ames were featured in Update 26, and their Web site was profiled in that issue's Web Watch column. This research paper is also the subject of an article on the Scientific American Web site.

Molecular dynamics is a very powerful tool for understanding molecular devices, and has been used for that purpose not only by the group at NASA Ames, but also by Bill Goddard's group at Cal Tech to simulate the molecular planetary gear designed by Drexler and Merkle, and by Drs. Don Noid, Bobby Sumpter, and Robert Tuzun at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to model nanometer-scale pistons and laser-driven motors made from graphite nanotubes and buckyballs. Yet another Web page featuring molecular dynamics simulations of fullerene-based nanoscale gears showcases the research of D.H. Robertson at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. These latter three Web sites have available several MPEG movies that demonstrate the movements of these nanodevices, if you have either a fast Internet connection or the patience to download files of several to 20 megabytes each.

The following Web pages do not deal explicitly with nanotechnology, but rather with molecular modeling, a necessity for the design and simulation of molecular devices, as exemplified by the molecular dynamics studies described in the above Web pages. A page at the University of Florida Quantum Theory Project site provides a list of pointers to Web resources. The Center for Molecular Modeling for computational chemical and physics software of the National Institutes of Health has a page that lists Guides and Tutorials available on the Web. One excellent tutorial is the NIH Guide to Molecular Modeling, which offers substantial discussions of computation engines, geometry engines, and graphics engines. A particularly useful feature of the NIH molecular modeling site is the "Universal Molecular Modeling Software List," which lists more than a hundred molecular modeling software packages, classified according to the functions they provide and whether they are available for personal computers.

Ralph Merkle's nanotechnology Web site offers, as part of a vast array of information about nanotechnology, another starting point for material on molecular modeling. The paper "Computational Nanotechnology" discusses molecular modeling specifically from the viewpoint of its role in the design and modeling of molecular devices. There is also a page with useful links to computational chemistry and molecular modeling resources on the Web.

Another useful brief overview of molecular modeling has been written by Oliver Smart. It has an especially good introduction to the basic forces between atoms that must be considered by molecular modeling software, and is part of a larger online course on the principles of protein structure. An elementary but still very informative introduction to molecular modeling is available at the MathMol Web site. In addition to basic information clearly presented, this site offers animated graphics, interactive tutorials, and molecular dynamics simulations done with Java. A much more advanced tutorial on theory and general methodology, including extensive discussion of molecular dynamics, is also available on the web.

A large amount of molecular structural data is available on the Internet, including Eric Drexler's molecular machine parts designs. Such data are in the form of atomic coordinate files, which can be formatted in a number of different file types (chemical MIME types). Information about chemical MIME types (and also) can be found on the web. To view the structures that are encoded by these atomic coordinate files, and to be able to manipulate the images to view the molecules from various perspectives, requires molecular graphics visualization tools. One free molecular graphics visualization tool available over the Internet is RasMol, developed by Roger Sayle. RasMol is available for UNIX, VMS, Macintosh and Microsoft Windows (OS/2 and Windows NT). Excellent introductions to RasMol, along with instructions for obtaining and setting up the program, are available (at the University of Massachusetts and as part of the principles of protein structure course). An alternative free visualization tool is the Netscape (TM) 3.01 Plugin called Chime, supplied by MDL Information Systems, Inc. Additional information about Chime is available on the web. A third free visualization tool is WebLab(TM) Viewer, provided by Molecular Simulations, Inc.

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents


Searching For Nanocritics

By Chris Worth

Scientific criticism is useful, because if someone's looking over your shoulder you'll make doubly sure your methods and results are sound. But most criticism of molecular nanotechnology is just punditry. (Count the !!s and ?!s contained in one Web posting, Fractal Shape Changing Robots: Problems With Current Nanotechnology Research Ideas for an example.)

That's troubling: it reduces science to lawyering, people advocating or debunking MNT with no grasp of its scientific basis. So for seventy-two hours in April I went searching for hard criticism of MNT—which I defined as criticism of the science in the technical text Nanosystems.

First task was to cut away the pundits. Pundits included pop science journalist Gary Stix of Scientific American, whose "Waiting for breakthroughs" article did little more than draw word cartoons of Eric Drexler. After comprehensive rebuttals from Ralph Merkle and Will Ware, SciAm somewhat left-handedly apologised on the Web with an unbiased account of nanotech's possibilities. Lesson learned: you don't find real nanocriticism in magazines written for Joe Sixpack.

Next came what I call "slant" critics—criticism by scientists with narrow credentials. Chemist and Nature columnist David Jones picked a soft target for his punditry: he turned his review of Ed Regis's Nano (a book about people, not science) into a soapbox to deliver his own anti-MNT views from. (It seemed Jones hadn't read Nanosystems either.)

Ralph Merkle disputed him and confirms Jones hasn't replied, either privately or in the pages of Nature. Other slant critics include microtechnologists, who often call their science nanotechnology but aren't working towards mechanosynthesis. Lesson two: check a critic's credentials, and look out for personal opinions masked as criticism.

Our third pundit, software engineer Brad Cox, attacks MNT from a different viewpoint: he argues that molecular nanotechnology is a technology unknowable by man, drawing analogies with that old MNT chestnut Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. (Presumably he files Nanosystems on his fiction shelf.) Lesson three: philosophy isn't criticism. It's like a shark fighting a tiger; neither can enter the other's arena.

That leaves MNT-savvy scientists. Fortunately, these researchers are their own sternest critics.

In Nanosystems Drexler states how difficult molecular nano ball-and-sockets would be and draws several devices in atomic detail—hardly the kind of vague-and-fuzzy work that's difficult to criticize. The Institute for Molecular Manufacturing makes several .pdb files of nanomachines available for computational chemists to analyse, while Merkle and others test a principle for abstracting hydrogen atoms with three qualitatively different computational models before pronouncing it valid.

Markus Krummenacker strategizes on molecular building blocks in his 1994 paper "Steps toward molecular manufacturing", while John Mark Michelson at UCI puts his nanofabrication work on the Web for all to see.

On the sci.nanotech newsgroup, Eugene Leitl tears into nanodreamers with hard science and sporadic personal abuse, footnoted by moderator and MNT researcher John Storrs-Hall. Also on the Web, Nobel prizewinner Richard E. Smalley suggests with evidence that an atom-by-atom assembler couldn't build in resolutions sharper than a cubic nanometre.

And here's where I found my criticism of Nanosystems: Because 1-nanometer resolution isn't sharp enough for mechanosynthesis, it takes about 60 carbon atoms to fill a cubic nanometre.

Smalley, free from dogma, calls for further research. Perhaps this is the next step for MNT researchers: build a nanoscale tool (probably an AFM tip) that can provably abstract and insert a carbon atom or dimer into a surface at room temperature without disturbing nearby atoms. (John Mark Michelson details a method, but it's yet to be tested in real life.)

It's odd that the team to prove Smalley wrong may be led by Smalley himself. In the meantime, check the credentials of every nanocritic you see—and if they're good, listen hard to what he says.

Chris Worth ( is a technology writer and Foresight Senior Associate based in Singapore.

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents



"Thanks of the decade" go to Foresight/IMM/CCIT office manager Judy Hill, as she moves on to a new career as a book author. So much of our organizations' success to date is attributable to her long hours of cheerful work over the years. We will miss her, and the joy she brings to all around her, very much.

Ongoing profound thanks go to Jeffrey Soreff, author of our Recent Progress technical column. The quality and breadth of his analysis makes this column the best anywhere on technical advances in molecular nanotechnology.

For recruiting Foresight's summer intern Franklin Van Ardoy, thanks go to Russell Whitaker. For recruiting new staff member Tanya Jones, we thank Gayle Pergamit. For the donation of three beautiful "dogs," an advanced form of mobile office furniture, we thank MG Taylor (the company of Senior Associates Matt and Gail Taylor), and Sheryl Corchnoy for arranging the donation. For ongoing pro bono legal advice, vigorous thanks go to Elizabeth Enayati of Venture Law Group.

Special thanks to Ka-Ping Yee for assistance at the Gathering and doing systems administration on our two Linux machines. For coding assistance on Web Enhancement, thanks go to Miron Cuperman. For taking photos at the Gathering, we thank Wayne Beckley. For donating Prentice-Hall molecular modeling sets, thanks to Forrest Bishop.

For sending information, we thank Frank Bourgeois, Per Bro, Nimit Chomnawang, Allan Drexler, Dave Forrest, Dan Fylstra, Martin Haeberli, Mark and Judy Haviland, Neil Jacobstein, Andrew Levine, Wayne McConnell, Tom McKendree, Gerald Portis, Greg Rehmke, Richard Smith, Alvin Steinberg, Richard Terra, Dean Tribble, Steve Vetter, Brian Wang, Will Ware.

Chris Peterson, Executive Director, Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents


Upcoming Events

Nanotechnology: Where are We? June 23, Silicon Graphics (Mt. View), MIT Club of Northern California. Lecture by Deepak Srivastava of Computational Molecular Nanotechnology Group at NASA Ames. tel 415-965-4097, email
Nanotechnology: Materials, Manufacturing, and Applications, Cambridge Healthtech Institute, June 26-27, San Francisco. Similar to Foresight Conference series. tel 617-630-1300, fax 617-630-1325, email
On the Edge: Exploring Tomorrow's High-Risk, High-Payoff Technologies, Index Vanguard, July 15-16, Philadelphia. Includes nanotechnology (Eric Drexler) and ultrascale computing. tel 617-492-1500, fax 617-520-1836
American Bar Assn. Millennium Program, Aug. 2, San Francisco. Includes Eric Drexler on nanotechnology. tel 312-988-5000, email
EXTRO-3, August 9-10, San Jose, CA. Includes Eric Drexler (keynote), Chris Peterson on high-tech radical environmentalism, Ralph Merkle and Marvin Minsky on AI. Future of body, brain, computers, communications, law, economy. Contact Extropy Institute, tel 310-398-0375,
Micro- and Nano-Engineering International Conference, Sept. 15-18, Athens, Greece. Includes Nobel laureate Heinrich Rohrer on "Nanotechnology-Nature's Way." tel 305-653-3781, fax 305-651-1723, (USA contact)
American Vacuum Society Annual Meeting, Oct 20-24, San Jose, CA. Includes nanoscale science & technology. tel 212-248-0200, fax 212-248-0245, email
Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, Nov. 5-8, Palo Alto, CA. Enabling science and technology, computational models. Contact Foresight, tel 415-917-1122, fax 415-917-1123, email
7th Int'l Symposium on Molecular Electronics and Biocomputing, Nov. 10-12, Nanjing, PR China. tel +86-25-361-9983, fax +86-25-771-2719, email
2nd Intl. Conference on Evolvable Systems: From Biology to Hardware, Sept. 24-26, 1998. Lausanne, Switzerland. Self-replicating hardware, self-repairing hardware, applications of nanotechnology. Email

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From Foresight Update 29, originally published 30 June 1997.