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Foresight Update 46

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 46 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3


IMM Responds to Articles in Scientific American

The September 2001 issue of Scientific American devoted six articles and a great deal of text to various perspectives on nanotechnology. The issue included various attacks on the feasibility of molecular assemblers and the work of K. Eric Drexler and his research associates.

Drexler's textbook Nanosystems was published in 1992. It is still being used as a technical reference all over the world, and to date no significant errors have been found. As the reader can well imagine, if there were any significant errors Scientific American would have pointed them out. They haven't. The technical claims and conclusions of Nanosystems have withstood almost a decade of serious public review.

Besides Nanosystems, there is now a very large body of technical articles, books, conferences, newsletters, and technical discussion groups supporting the feasibility of molecular machines in general and molecular assemblers in particular.

Two specific articles in the September Scientific American were attempts to cast doubt on the feasibility of nonbiological molecular assemblers. In "Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots" Nobelist Richard Smalley stated that: "Self-replicating, mechanical nanobots are simply not possible in our world". For an in depth analysis of where his technical argument falls short, see the article "On Physics, Fundamentals, and Nanorobots" on the IMM website.

George Whitesides, in "The Once and Future Nanomachine," expresses concerns about many issues that have been previously addressed in the literature. He stated: "Fabrication based on the assembler is not, in my opinion, a workable strategy and thus not a concern." For commentary and references, see the article "Many Future Nanomachines" on the IMM website.

While there are quite a few questionable statements in the rest of that issue, nowhere else is there a serious attempt to advance a technical argument against the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology.

How is it possible that an otherwise respectable publication would publish these attacks? None of their technical criticisms of molecular assemblers has withstood scrutiny — all have fallen by the wayside when it became obvious that they were incorrect. Some of the reasons are reviewed in "That's impossible! How good scientists reach bad conclusions" (see Foresight Update 43; also online at

Many of the articles in the a special issue of Scientific American on nanotechnology (September 2001) are available on the magazine's website. About half of the articles are available online, including one by Eric Drexler ("Machine Phase Nanotechnology").

While the article by Richard Smalley being responded to in this issue is not (as of this writing) available online, the article by George Whitesides is.

Additional articles about nanotechnology from past issues of Scientific American are also available online, including the 1996 article from Gary Stix that triggered an extensive online rebuttal from Foresight.

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Foresight Update 46 - Table of Contents


NSF Will Establish Six New Nanotech Centers

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced on 19 September 2001 awards estimated to total $65 million over five years to fund six major centers in nanoscale science and engineering. The awards are part of a series of NSF grants — totaling $150 million in fiscal year 2001 alone — for research in multiple disciplines.

The six centers will be located at Columbia and Cornell Universities and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Harvard University in Massachusetts, Northwestern University in Illinois, and Rice University in Texas.

"With its nanoscale science and engineering initiative, the National Science Foundation is enabling the coming wave of research," said Mihail Roco, head of the NSF initiative and chair of the National Science and Technology Council's subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology. "Each of the six centers has a bold vision for research at the frontiers of science and technology, and together they will provide coherence and a longer term outlook to U.S. nanotechnology research and education."

The centers will each focus on a specific area in nanoscale science and engineering, and include collaborations with industry and other institutions. The Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers will develop new areas of research and help establish a nanotechnology workforce. The centers are expected to significantly advance the information, medical, manufacturing and environmental technologies, while other NSF grants will fund small, interdisciplinary research teams and individuals doing exploratory research in a wide range of areas.

According to a NSF press release, the centers will address challenges and opportunities that are too complex and multi-faceted for individual researchers or small teams to tackle in shorter periods of time. The centers involve key partnerships with industry, national laboratories and other sectors. They will support education programs from the graduate to the pre-college level designed to develop a highly skilled workforce, to advance pre-college training, and to advance public understanding of science and engineering.

Here is the NSF summary of the new centers:

  • Columbia University will receive $10.8 million for the Center for Electronic Transport in Molecular Nanostructures. James Yardley will serve as director. The center will work with industry and national laboratories to understand the effect of charge in applications such as electronics, photonics and medicine. It will also provide programs for local high schools students. Yardley is a professor of chemical engineering.
  • Cornell University will receive $11.6 million for the Center for Nanoscale Systems in Information Technologies, with Robert Buhrman as director. The center will focus on nanoscale electronics, photonics and magnetics and their impact on various technologies. It will collaborate with industry on teacher development and mentoring. Buhrman is a professor of engineering and engineering physics.
  • Harvard University will receive $10.8 million for the Center for the Science of Nanoscale Systems and their Device Applications, headed by Robert Westervelt. The center will emphasize interdisciplinary research on the properties of nanostructures, and partner with the Boston Museum of Science on outreach programs for middle school students and educators. Westervelt is a physics professor.
  • Northwestern University will receive $11.1 million for the Center for Integrated Nanopatterning and Detection Technologies, headed by Chad Mirkin. The center will focus on patterning strategies for soft materials for applications such as chemical and biological sensors. It will provide outreach programs for high school teachers and help develop curriculum material, and will begin an entrepreneurial program. Mirkin is a chemistry professor.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) will receive $10 million for the Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures, with Richard Siegel as director. The center will partner with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on materials projects with applications as composites or in drug delivery devices and sensors. It will partner with several colleges in a minority mentoring program. Siegel is a professor of materials science and engineering.
  • Rice University will receive $10.5 million for the Center for Nanoscience in Biological and Environmental Engineering, led by Richard Smalley. The center will focus on bioengineering and environmental engineering with an emphasis on nanoscale biology and chemistry. It will concentrate on workforce training, recruiting underrepresented members, and entrepreneurship. Smalley is a winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, a professor of chemistry and physics.

Additional coverage is available in an article on the SmallTimes website, and in individual press releases from Northwestern University, Rice University and RPI.

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Foresight Update 46 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3

From Foresight Update 46, originally published 30 September 2001.


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