August 04, 2004

Stuck in the Future?

We mentioned Soft Machines by Richard Jones last week . Having had the chance to delve a little deeper into our copy, we find it refreshing to see a book about nanotechnology that is a) readable, b) covers all the issues, c) understandable to the layman and d) written by someone who knows what they are talking about. We can’t think of another example that punches all of these buttons.

If you want to judge for yourself PhysicsWeb has an article by Professor Jones based on the last chapter of the book. "The future of nanotechnology," which should be required reading for both the pro and anti- molecular nanotechnology communities.

The pro MNT lobby has had a difficult week, the main grievance being the lack of discussion of MNT in the Royal Society report. They shouldn’t be surprised. The Royal Society study is an excellent overview of the state of the art in nanotechnology, while the ideas that Dr. Drexler and his colleagues propose, after some twent years are still some way in the future (nuclear fusion springs to mind here).

Bringing some of the UK’s best minds together to debate the feasibility or ethics of yet to be invented devices was never the purpose of the study. If the MNT community wants to be taken seriously, it needs to start testing these theories. Claiming that the equations are correct or that our very existence is proof of concept is simply not science, and as such will merit little interest from the scientific community.

New Foresight Institute president Scott Mize has his work cut out. In the past four years Foresight has been progressively marginalised as science moves on, but the MNT community remains aloof, convinced of its own inevitability.

Arguing otherwise sometimes feels like banging your head against a brick wall, which is why many have simply given up trying to engage the MNT community in meaningful debate. They would be well advised to heed Profressor Jones’ words.

“I do not think that Drexler's alternative approach - based on mechanical devices made from rigid materials - fundamentally contradicts any physical laws, but I fear that its proponents underestimate the problems that certain features of the nanoworld will pose for it. The close tolerances that we take for granted in macroscopic engineering will be very difficult to achieve at the nano-scale because the machines will be shaken about so much by Brownian motion. Finding ways for surfaces to slide past each other without sticking together or feeling excessive friction is going to be difficult. Unlike the top-down route using silicon, we have no large base of experience and expertise to draw on, and no big economic pressures driving the research forward. And unlike the bionanotechnological and biomimetic approaches, it is working against the grain, rather than with the grain, of the special physics of the nanoworld. Drexler's approach to radical nanotechnology, in other words, is the least likely to deliver results.”

Many in the MNT community will disagree with this statement, but it is up to them to prove otherwise, and soon, otherwise MNT will wind up being just another footnote in the history of technology, as it already seems to be in the Royal Society report.

Posted by Cientifica at August 4, 2004 11:06 AM | TrackBack
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