May 08, 2004

Knock! Knock! It’s the Thought Police!

We’re puzzled.

Very puzzled in fact by the reaction to our item criticizing CiRN for advocating the use of ‘Nanomedicine’ as a physics reference book which has somehow led to accusations that we “vigorously -- and irresponsibly -- oppose the more advanced kinds of nanotechnology.” We have had similar reactions from the other side of the debate, praising us for separating real science from the views of “a bunch of head freezing weirdoes.”.

Both interpretations are fortunately wrong, as a trawl though the archives will show, and we are left scratching our heads at the apparent inability of many people to parse a simple English sentence when the phrase ‘molecular nanotechnology’ (MNT) appears in it. Let’s not confuse science with dogma.

The reaction from the MNT community has come in two forms, demands to point out any errors in the formulae used in ‘Nanosystems’ and further demands to explain what is wrong with using ‘Nanomedicine’ for checking formulae. What surprises us is that some senior and well known names in the community have taken such umbrage.

This echoes a common criticism we hear from the MNT community is that they have written to Richard Smalley / George Whitesides / Mark Welland about MNT and haven’t received a reply. It is not that these scientific luminaries are being rude, its just pressure of work. Most senior academics find that running a lab, applying for grants, supervising PhD. students, sitting on government comittees, dealing with the media and occasionally managing to get some research done is quite enough to juggle with. Debating the feasibility of diamondoid flying nanobots, or checking works such as ‘Nanomedicine’ for errors in basic formulae simply isn’t their job, while checking formulae in papers submitted to the peer reviewed scientific journals is. It’s a question of priorities.

A second claim that we often hear is that if the basic formulae in Nanosystems and Nanomedicine are correct then MNT must be taken seriously as science. Wrong. TNT Weekly is based on the same grammatical and linguistic rules as the works of Shakespeare, but that doesn’t make it great literature. Richard Feynman may have been one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists, but it doesn’t logically follow that everything that he utters must be taken as proven. Science works by observation, followed by the formulation and testing of a hypothesis. No one is immune to making mistakes, and the scientific system is designed to highlight, understand and correct those errors. By and large, the system works pretty well.

Only Popes and Messiahs claim to be infallible, and apart from Rael we haven’t seen too many of those sniffing around nanotech. The MNT community could better direct its efforts towards testing their hypotheses rather than claiming scientific credibility. It's not about scientific elitism here, it’s simply the way science works.

So what is wrong with using ‘Nanosystems’ or ‘Nanomedicine’ for checking formulae? Simple, they are not physics text books. If you don’t believe us, then just pop along to your local university and ask the nearest physicist, chemist, professor of nanotechnology or librarian.

‘Nanosystems’ is a wonderful book if you want to know about molecular nanotechnology, but it was not designed as a physics or chemistry reference book. The same is true of ‘Nanomedicine;’ food for thought perhaps, but science it most certainly is not, no matter how many references it has.

Nanotechnology, in all its forms, is exciting potential technologists in a way we haven’t seen since the Apollo program, and works such as ‘Nanosystems’ has played a large part of this. Whether it is acceptable to the scientific establishment or not is immaterial. If children see images of nanobots and that sets them on the path to become a scientist or engineer rather than a lawyer then that is good for the whole of science. However, getting bogged down in the minutiae of whether MNT is feasible or not simply detracts from the real issue; if we have enough scientists and engineers looking at the field we'll find out soon enough.

TNT Weekly has played part in maintaining a fair and balanced attitude to MNT, and will continue to do so. In the meantime, vilifying anyone who voices the mildest criticism of MNT is immature, unproductive and unscientific. This type of behavior has already alienated much of the scientific community, and turning their fire on some of MNTs closest supporters on the TNT Weekly team (a Brit, an American, a Spaniard, a Norwegian, a Finn and a Frenchman are all regular contributors) is as pointless as previous attempts to dismiss MNT out of hand, and will only propagate the schism.

Of course, you are free to disagree, at least with us.

Posted by Cientifica at May 8, 2004 03:02 PM | TrackBack

I do think you're being a bit precious and self-righteous about Nanosystems not being a textbook. Of course its not, and where it quotes physics results it's being entirely derivative. But actually the same is true of almost all textbooks (I know, having written two quite well-received ones myself). And the exceptions - like the Feynman lectures - are usually greatly admired by practitioners, but pretty much useless in practise to learn or teach the subject from. So if Chris knows his way round Nanosystems or Nanomedicine and finds it convenient to look stuff up in them, I don't see the problem.

What is a problem, though, is the way in which these books do tend to be treated as sacred texts. I'm sure all the basic formulae in Nanosystems are pretty much right, but in the development of the argument there are many assumptions, guesses that were plausible at the time but may be shakier now, and occasional leaps of faith. Maybe it would be good if scientists occasionally spent a bit of time looking for these and discussing them in the light of the most recent experimental and theoretical results (as I have with Chris, over the last few months in various fora). I'd see this less in the spirit of trying to prove them right or wrong, and more as part of a process of trying to bring them into the normal scientific process of conjecture and refutation.

Personally, I don't think MNT is going to happen in the form envisaged in Nanosystems, but I think the process of thinking through why MNT probably won't work will be very valuable in pointing us into a direction for radical nanotechnology that will deliver results.

Posted by: Richard Jones at May 8, 2004 10:48 PM

You're not puzzled, you're guilty. Let's not forget what actually happened here.

1) You attacked me, calling me "irresponsible."

2) You attacked Freitas, calling his work "a hobby pursuit" and using phrases like "books of this ilk," "idle speculation," and "Martian nanobots."

3) I defended Freitas. I did not defend myself.

4) You wrote this article, attacking me on the grounds that I defended myself.

Where do you get off, saying I "vilified" you for voicing "the mildest criticism"?


Posted by: Chris Phoenix, CRN at May 8, 2004 11:58 PM

Let's talk about these busy scientists. I have complained about them myself. Specifically, I complain about the ones who have plenty of time to publish assertions that MNT can't possibly work, but no time at all to defend those assertions.

For example, Mark Ratner wrote a book, Nanotechnology and Homeland Security, in which he made several statements that look questionble to me. For example, the assertion that MNT concepts haven't appeared in the peer-reviewed literature--which appears to be contradicted by Drexler's 1981 PNAS paper among many others. And his echoing of Smalley's "fingers" arguments--which Smalley himself appears to have abandoned.

So I emailed Ratner to ask him whether there were any peer-reviewed studies demonstrating any limits to scanning-probe chemistry. He answered, saying that scanning-probe chemistry doesn't scale to a manufacturing method. This is incorrect, and wasn't what I'd asked about anyway. But he also offered to talk further, so I pointed these things out in very gentle and open-minded terms, and asked my question again. He promised an answer. He gave me his phone number, but with a typo. He set up a time to call me, and did not call. After several months of being "too busy" he stopped answering my email.

So the inaccuracies in his book remain undefended and unretracted. This is the kind of thing I object to. When a scientist claims publicly to have found a showstopper problem, and then has not even a single literature citation to back it up, that scientist should expect to be challenged, and should be prepared to defend his position.

Ratner received pre-publication reviews alerting him to these problems in his book. He did not noticeably change his position. Do you seriously think that "busy" is a sufficient reason for him to avoid further discussion?

As to Smalley, I'm not surprised that he didn't answer the one email I sent him. But Smalley is in a special position: he advises the President of the United States on nanotechnology. His words have some impact on billions of dollars of funding, and world-class economic opportunities, and crucial policy discussions. Surely Smalley has some extra responsibility to demonstrate the defensibility of any recommendation or assertion he makes.

I hope that both scientists and journalists will test the scientific basis of his statements. For example, he says enzymes require water. The literature says that in many cases they don't. Nobel or not, Smalley can be wrong; and if he's wrong about mechanosynthesis, we need to know it ASAP. If he's not too busy to disparage a promising field of research, he should not be too busy to defend his thinking.


Posted by: Chris Phoenix, CRN at May 9, 2004 01:40 AM

Chris, I wouldn't want to defend Mark Ratner as he's the author of one of the worst books I've ever paid my own money for. But scientists do need to feel that they entering a dialogue which is worth pursuing, in which their interlocutor, as well as vigorously stating their own point of view, will listen and respect the scientist's expertise. You are good at doing this but you're in a minority. See the discussion on your blog entry "interdisciplinary triumph" for a case where I've made a reasoned and moderate criticism of Nanomedicine (with literature citations) and then wondered why I bothered.

Posted by: Richard Jones at May 9, 2004 09:59 AM

Robert Freitas has now answered Richard Jones's comment. It's worth reading... demonstrates how thorough the guy's research is.


Posted by: Chris Phoenix, CRN at May 11, 2004 07:33 AM

stop fighting with each other. get along. MNT is too important to fight about. ... please send any and all info about MNT to my email. thank you.


Posted by: WAMPUM - Pharaoh WampuMannaz at May 20, 2004 09:40 AM
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