Email from Scientific American, with Foresight responses
In responding to Round 2, Scientific American has
again sent email rather than a URL. Those wishing to see their response together with our remarks
can read the following; for those wishing to experience the full
intended impact of their response alone, with its rhetorical flow
unimpaired, we have provided space for the unannotated version.
To summarize the case made in the annotations below: Scientific
American's response displays a striking lack of scientific
substance; it substitutes an equally striking reliance on
repetition, appeals to unnamed authorities, and innuendo. We like
it because it's so easy and entertaining to explode, but they
should find it embarrassing.
In the following, the text of the Scientific American
response is indented, and the remarks from Foresight are full
From Scientific American, 10 May 1996
Dear Foresight Institute:
Ralph Merkle and you were kind enough to invite us to
respond to your comments concerning Gary Stix's
nanotechnology article, "Waiting for
Breakthroughs," in the April 1996 issue of
Scientific American. We have followed with interest the
considerable feverish discussion about it and would like
to answer as follows:
Scientific American characterizes the discussion
as "feverish", slipping a bit of name-calling into the
first paragraph. (Metaphorically, feverish "can refer to
haste and confusion"; S. I. Hayakawa, Modern Guide to
Synonyms). Scientific American is, however, now
quite new to the Web, having opened their site in April 1996.
They may find the speed and volume of exchange a bit unnerving.
[Note: numbers in square brackets in the following
paragraphs from Scientific American were added by Foresight to
facilitate specific reply.]
Dr. Merkle and other commentators make a number of
points, but none of them persuasive. Scientific American
stands by the article and by its major conclusion: that
although nanotechnology attracts ardent support among
bright, creative people , most researchers  working
in allied areas --including ones embraced by the
nanoists  themselves--think that the actual science in
nanotechnology has gaping holes , and that there are
few chances those holes will ever be filled . Drexler
and like-minded individuals engage in what many materials
scientists feel is wild speculation about the future of
 Nanotechnology attracts not only "ardent
support" from "bright, creative people" in
general, but reasoned approval from bright, creative scientists
and technologists in related fields. Scientific American
has obscured this.
 This would require polling data to support, but would still
be only statistics on opinions, not an analysis. We welcome
technical criticism from Scientific American.
Remarkably, given their thundering presentation, they have
neither offered nor cited any.
 Molecular manufacturing as a whole is more a problem of
software and systems engineering than it is a problem of
chemistry. Accordingly, major "allied areas" include
mechanical engineering and computer science, and chemists aren't
trained to pose the right system-level questions and find
answers. Scientific American, though, cites opinions
drawn almost exclusively from a handful of researchers involved
in laboratory work based on existing chemical and
microtechnological techniques. Their unease, as one might expect,
centers more on the mysteries of engineering systems than on any
obstacles they see in their own field. One might as well ask
1950's metallurgists and machinists about the prospects for a
moon landing, on the grounds that the proposed rockets were to be
built of machined aluminum, then report their unease about
guiding a projectile over so vast a gulf.
 Name-calling -- whatever a "nanoist" may be, it
presumably isn't a researcher.
 Technical professionals developing careers in this nascent
field are alert to holes and gaps in the science underlying these
proposals. Discovery of a damaging hole would spur at least some
of them to abandon the field. With the Internet, news of a hole
would spread to the ends of the Earth overnight. If such
"gaping holes" had been identified, Scientific
American might be expected to offer at least a brief
description (Are they chemical, physical, or computational?
Bigger than a breadbox?) and a citation or URL for a more
extensive discussion. Instead, it seems that they are either
cruelly toying with us and their public by feigning weakness
while holding a killer argument in reserve, or (more
straightforwardly) merely bluffing.
 It is hard to fill holes that no one can identify. Over the
last decade, Drexler and other researchers have worked with and
presented to cross-disciplinary groups of physicists, biologists,
chemists, computer scientists, and others capable of evaluating
the technical issues. Many researchers in a field A have
initially raised objections in their own fields and had them
answered, but then continued to suspect a big hole in some other
field B -- while researchers in B have had a similar experience
with reversed roles. As a thought experiment, one can easily see
that if everyone in every field had reacted this way, the
resulting pattern would constitute good evidence for an absence
of holes, despite everyone in every field expressing major (but
In the real world, some researchers have noticed a rough
approximation to this pattern and have drawn the obvious
conclusion. Others can describe genuine, fatal flaws, but the
flaws are in muddled proposals (e.g., nanomachines running
without an energy source) that no serious researcher ever
advanced. (This absurd "proposal" was duly attacked in Scientific
American's original article.) So long as none of these
researchers describes a gaping hole related both to their area of
expertise and to actual proposals, it is misleading to say that
they, as scientists, "think" there are gaping holes --
"feel" or "hope" or "assert to
The field's proponents do much more than calculate
thermal effects on little gears . The most prominent
scientists at the Foresight conference--Whitesides,
Smalley, Fraser Stoddart--have little faith that a
self-replicating assembler will ever be made . Yes,
they attended the conference, but ask them directly about
what they think about Drexler's vision  and you'll
hear another story . Smalley talked explicitly about
his doubts during a presentation at the conference .
 Yes, there is now a substantial literature on a wide range
 Judging the feasibility of a technological proposal is not a
matter of "faith." Such proposals can be analyzed based
on our current understanding of physical law. Whether a feasible
proposal will ever be implemented is a separate question,
involving many non-technical factors. Scientific American
has discussed neither the technical analysis nor the
 In contrast to his proposals and analyses, presumably.
 If such "stories" comprise technical objections to
any part of the proposal for nanotechnology, they should be
presented. Saying that researchers spin tales to journalists that
they (apparently) won't state before their colleagues is hardly
evidence of anything substantive.
 As Drexler's letter notes
(and as he pointed out at the conference), Smalley addressed an
outlandish proposal that no one has made, and is thus irrelevant
One of the article's central points is that these
laboratory researchers have reported a number of advances
in their field, many of which suggest real applications
. None of them , however, sees their work as moving
toward making assemblers .
 Which is why continued progress does not require that
laboratory researchers examine and judge long-term engineering
goals. They do excellent scientific work in the lab.
 None of them? The survey costs required to obtain this
(false) piece of knowledge would be staggering, unless this
refers merely to the few researchers Scientific American
chose to quote.
 James Burke's Connections series documents how disparate
developments are drawn together into inventions utterly
unforeseen by their originators. Point  (real, short-term
applications) explains why progress doesn't require anything
other than experimental progress from experimentalists. There is
no strong reason to expect (or even to desire) that most
experimentalists contemplate the long-term applications of their
work. Some do, of course, and have been very helpful as critics
and teachers in this interdisciplinary field.
Drexler's vision  of manipulating matter at the
molecular scale had a wonderful futuristic allure 
when Engines of Creation
first appeared in the mid-1980s . But it hasn't moved
very far beyond this original statement  (theory and
computer models are insufficient proof  of the
ultimate feasibility of these concepts).
 Mild name-calling.
 Stronger name-calling.
 It has inspired a new generation of researchers, having
steadily growing impact over the years, but this doesn't fit the
 The "original statement" (five years before Engines)
was a refereed article in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. On the
experimental side, this article is at the root of the citation
tree in the field of de novo protein design (of the first
two papers in Science and Nature, one
cites the other and both cite Drexler). A body of citations to
more recent work is developing in the proximal probe literature.
On the theoretical side, Nanosystems
presents an analysis that builds from fundamental principles and
atomistic modeling to systems design. Merkle's work goes beyond
Nanosystems in several directions, and others are entering the
 Proof is not a matter of degree, sufficient or
"insufficient," and proof isn't how science works
anyway (see Drexler's letter).
One should instead ask, "What is the weight of the
evidence?", or at this point perhaps, "Can Scientific
American actually produce any evidence?" Demanding
that an opponent give proof is useful chiefly as a rhetorical
tactic, though it tends to lose effectiveness after high school.
Because of this stagnation , there is a chance that
the Engines of Creation
version of nanotechnology will become increasingly
irrelevant--even though some other implementation of
nanotechnology may indeed take off .
 Experimental work on nanotechnologies has advanced. Design
and modeling work on longer-term proposals has advanced. Scientific
American acknowledges both. Is "this stagnation"
intended to describe something about the field?
[2a] This statement misrepresents the purpose of the book and of
exploratory engineering in general. Work of this sort aims not to
predict the future -- an impossible goal -- but to identify
technological possibilities. Unless a fatal or serious defect can
be found in the case for nanotechnology as proposed, it will
retain and solidify its status as a class of systems and
capabilities that can reasonably be presumed feasible. In that
event, it will remain relevant to future projections until either
(1) it is implemented, or (2) some other proposed (or
implemented) technology is shown to be equal (or superior) in all
respects -- that is, delivers (or credibly promises to deliver)
as much or more than the kind of nanotechnology described in Engines
of Creation. Either case leaves the consequences we have
[2b] Here we see Scientific American and
Editor-in-Chief Rennie beginning to "cover their
behinds," adjusting their position such that as
nanotechnology takes off, they can claim to have expected it. And
since future systems will differ from anything we can design
today, they will be able to say that current researchers failed
to offer impossibly accurate foresight.
Perhaps the best way to rebut the accusations of
incompetent journalism is to go through general
categories of them one by one.
* 1) The article lacked technical depth: As should be
unnecessary to explain, an overview article in a printed
magazine for the general reading public is not the same
as a literature review in a journal . To fault it for
lack of technical depth is like faulting a swimming pool
for lack of trout .
 Yes, but this is no excuse for misleading the public by
implying that technical objections exist in the journals or
 The problem isn't lack of technical depth, but bias and lack
of genuine technical content in a purported review of a
technology. As Foresight's publications (and many Scientific
American articles) demonstrate, it is possible to describe
science accurately without plunging into the depths of a
specialist journal, and without washing away fact in a flood of
opinion. Regarding trout, our analogy would be that Scientific
American has presented a picture of a pond labeled
"Great big trout here!" when the picture actually is a
retouched image of a chlorinated swimming pool. The article
pictures a scientific community swimming with big, juicy
refutations of our position; yet despite all its fish stories, it
seems they all got away.
A more telling criticism would be that the technical
summaries in the article are factually wrong , which
brings us to....
* 2) The article is riddled with errors.
The Foresight Institute and Merkle certainly have the
right to disagree with the article's conclusions. But
they have set forth few specifics of how facts went awry.
 Nonexistent technical summaries can't be factually wrong.
Speaking of technical summaries when they don't exist is another
The rebuttal does claim  that Edward Reifman, the
dentist who appears in the article's lead paragraph, was
quoted out of context, that he made the remark in jest
. But  when Reifman was contacted during a routine
fact-checking call prior to publication, he did not deny
the quote , nor did he say that it was made in jest
. In fact, he acknowledged what he had said before 
and even went on to remark that Drexler now has amassed a
significant group of followers .
Oh my. This looks bad.
 What they term a "claim" by us is supported by Dr.
Reifman's letter, which Scientific American
should have received long before they wrote this.
 Yes, he states these points in his letter: "I was quite
upset that a reference made in jest to their reporter,
Gary Stix, was used out of context to ridicule nanotechnology and
the conference that we both attended."
 "But" is generally used to introduce a contrast,
but here is used to produce the appearance of a contrast. Better
uses of "But" follow --
 -- But no one said he denied the words. We cited his letter
 -- But no one claimed that he both anticipated and denied Mr.
Stix's misuse of his words.
 -- But why is Scientific American again saying that he said
the words he said, when what Dr. Reifman objects to is the
misrepresentation of their meaning?
 -- But this adds further insult by implying that Dr. Reifman
supports their view of the matter, after he has presented a
written objection. An apology to him would seem more fitting than
twisting his remarks yet again. Followers? Since
"followers" appears above without attributive quotes
and has negative connotations here, we can presumably chalk it up
as a form of name-calling. The substantial support among
researchers for the goal of molecular manufacturing was visible
at the conference, though invisible in the report on it. Perhaps
Dr. Reifman was attempting to bring this to the writer's
attention. If so, it had no noticeable effect.
In the conclusion of his commentary, Merkle writes,
"A few people were quoted in a way which suggested
they had a technical criticism of the feasibility of
nanotechnology. The quotes were rebutted." Actually,
Merkle has only disagreed with them . Given that the
people in question are the likes of George Whitesides,
Julius Rebek, Jane Alexander and others, they can muster
technical arguments in support of their position ,
much as Merkle has. To imply otherwise , in Merkle's
words again, "is not only insulting, it's... very...
very... dumb! " 
 He noted that the quotes contained no technical
criticisms, a statement which Scientific American,
wisely, has not disputed. We regard this as an adequate rebuttal.
 As pointed out in Drexler's
letter, this is but a hope. We have been fishing for a
telling technical criticism of these technical proposals for
almost twenty years, from a world-wide pool of researchers at the
highest level in many disciplines. No such criticism has
surfaced. If Scientific American thinks that a
particular researcher has such a criticism, they should get it
written up and published. If they can offer only appeals to
nameless, imaginary, inarticulate, or mistargeted authority, then
perhaps they should fold their tent and sneak off.
 We aren't implying, but stating, that Scientific
American has repeatedly failed to present a credible
technical objection to molecular nanotechnology, and that at this
late date the odds of their succeeding appear vanishingly small.
But we urge them to try; their public failure is informative and
 Boomerang name-calling -- what can we say? At least it's a
direct assertion of incompetence, rather than innuendo.
* 3) The article sets forth an erroneous definition of
nanotechnology. Many definitions of nanotechnology were
put forth at the Foresight conference in November. The
article makes the point that people define it in
different ways. Neither Drexler nor Merkle had much of a
problem with the definition of nanotechnology in the
article when the text was fact-checked with them before
 Definitional arguments can continue indefinitely. Those
interested can pursue it elsewhere.
By the way, having fact-checking done by the author, as Scientific
American did with Gary Stix's article omits a safeguard
for objectivity that is widespread in the press (even OMNI had
fact-checking done by someone not immersed in the project).
* 4) The article is a personal attack on Drexler.
Where do we suggest that the man's personal traits
invalidate his technical arguments?  Scientists are
real people with both strengths and weaknesses ; good
science journalism depicts them as such. In recent years,
Scientific American has profiled dozens of major
scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, while
describing their opinions, prejudices, personal foibles
and mannerisms . Drexler received no different
treatment . (For better or worse, even if the
foundation of nanotechnology seemed impeccable, Drexler
would still sound like Mr. Peabody to Gary Stix .)
 This is disingenuous. Numerous literary techniques are
used for precisely this purpose in the story, and they are indeed
suggestions, not statements. For an analysis, see Will Ware's essay.
 Scientific American did a thorough and
imaginative job on the weaknesses, but the strengths seem
missing. For example, the article describes Drexler's Nanosystems
as an "attempt" to provide scientific grounding (merely
an attempt, implying a weakness), and as a "plea for
respectability" (very weak), from someone who is, basically,
regarded as a "flake" (practically dead). A genuinely
balanced article might have mentioned one of the following
strengths: The flake was awarded the first doctoral degree in
molecular nanotechnology, from MIT, and his plea is not only an
extension of his doctoral thesis, but was named by the
Association of American Publishers as the Outstanding Computer
Science Book of 1992. Instead, the steep slant continues.
Drexler's "ruminations" elsewhere provoke
"guffaws"; Nanosystems is a mere
"object of curiosity," and the whole body of research
is just "show business."
Scientific American has announced its negative view
of his work, and readers with any knowledge of the field
generally perceive the article as an attack. Why pretend that it
 Yes, but aside from making a buck, why?
 "We're OK -- we do shameful things like this habitually,
 And this perception is important news about science.
Also, though Merkle asserts that the article "is
not about nanotechnology so much as it is about
Drexler," that is wishful thinking on his part. Any
fair-minded reading of the article shows that the many
technical criticisms  leveled against nanotechnology
by various scientists are not merely ad hominem .
 But if there are many, then it follows logically that
there must be at least one. Where is it? Is it worth repeating,
or has it been withdrawn or disappeared, as has their claim that David Jones made
a substantive criticism in Nature? Merely chanting
"many technical criticisms" won't draw down bales of
thoughtful analysis from the sky. Expecting that these empty,
decoy criticisms will draw down real ones amounts to "cargo
 Some are ad hominem, none are substantive.
* 5) The article is tabloid journalism, dwelling on
gossip rather than science . Were we wrong to point
out the hype rampant in nanotechnology?  What
continues to attract most people to the field is not the
technical challenge, but rather the promise of rectifying
the most basic social ills, such as death and poverty
. At the Foresight conference in November, Drexler
talked about how a nation's capital stock might be
doubled in an hour using nanotechnology . An hour? 
 Yes, relative to anything that could pass for responsible
 Quickly wrapping the rags of tabloid gossip in the mantle of
honest skepticism: very smooth.
[2b] If the story had been balanced -- covering the actual
progress in the field, not pretending to see stagnation -- then
describing the healthy skepticism and enthusiasm of both
technical and non-technical observers, along with the problems of
over-enthusiasm and know-nothing-skepticism, would have been
entirely appropriate. A focus on hype piled on top of assertions
of no substance is another matter.
 Altruistic motives bring many into science, especially
medical research. Some researchers maintain these goals
throughout their careers. Surely Scientific American
isn't suggesting that only "technical challenge" is a
legitimate motivation for research?
 This is somewhat sloppy reporting. Drexler described advanced
molecular manufacturing systems as a form of flexible capital,
able to produce almost any product that fits in a box (as
distinct from, say, a nation's road system). He stated that this
form of capital stock could, with appropriate inputs of energy
and raw materials, be made to double in an hour.
 Yes, "an hour" was accurately reported. Is the
skeptical query "An hour?" a compressed description of
a problem someone has identified in Drexler's analysis? Scientific
American's Editor-in-Chief, John Rennie, is said to have a
background in biology, and presumably understands how fast
molecular machinery can work. Bacteria can double their
"capital stock" in a quarter of an hour, which makes
"an hour" at least unastonishing. Drexler has offered a
number backed by a detailed, quantitative analysis; Scientific
American offers a raised eyebrow, apparently with nothing
In an interview with Scientific American, Ralph Merkle
said he didn't want to be a member of the last generation
to die , a reference to how he believes nanotechnology
might one day allow his head to be thawed so he could
live on forever .
 Presumably, we are expected to dismiss this as silly. To
actually address the issue behind this comment, we would need to
explore the prospects for significant advances in life extension
techniques, first within the next forty years, then afterward.
This might be interesting and valuable; a better understanding
could save lives. We invite Scientific American to
notify us when they are ready to undertake a serious exploration
of this topic, weighing the evidence for various views of the
future of medicine. They could prepare by reading Dr. Merkle's publications.
 Cryonics has received a staggering amount of name-calling and
misrepresentation. "Surgeons plan to cut the beating hearts
out of two people, declare one dead, and make the other immortal
by stitching it into his chest," would be a roughly
equivalent description of a routine heart transplant. In short, Scientific
American presents a crude misrepresentation of Dr.
Merkle's views on the future of medicine. Genuine criticism is
more careful; misrepresentations occur, but they tend to be
milder, less frequent, and are always accidental. With genuine
fact-checking, the residuum can be quite small.
These remarks go beyond a mere assessment of technical
feasibility . Rather they seem indicative of the chief
reason that people are attracted to the vision of
nanotechnology put forward by Drexler and Merkle .
Everyone wants to be rich and live forever . Given
these factors, covering nanotechnology as a
techno-sociological phenomenon is wholly appropriate .
 There would be little point in discussing projected
technical advances that lacked potential practical applications.
The point of such discussions is precisely to go beyond an
assessment of basic technical feasibility. Scientific
American seems to be arguing, in effect, that the case for
technical feasibility should be doubted because the magnitude of
the alleged human consequences is so large. But feasibility
depends, ultimately, on physics; the perceived magnitude of human
consequences depends, ultimately, on human judgment. Reasoning
from a (visceral?) rejection of consequences back to a rejection
of causes gets causality backward. (Unless, of course, molecular
manufacturing actually entailed a known impossibility -- but
"impossible" doesn't mean "susceptible to
 Scientific American here suggests that any
support for these ideas can be attributed chiefly to wishful
thinking. Dismissing arguments on the basis of motivations is a
classic ad hominem attack.
 This misrepresents Drexler's and Merkle's views. Connecting
Drexler with "living forever" is again disingenuous: Scientific
American has shown a familiarity with Drexler's book Engines
of Creation. In the index, they will find an entry
"Immortality, impossibility of," referencing the
statement: "To speak of 'immortality' when the prospect is
only long life would be to ignore the facts or misuse
words." And it is, of course, false that "Everyone
wants to be rich and live forever."
 Discussing nanotechnology as a "techno-sociological
phenomenon" would be fine idea, after presenting it as a
* 6) The article misuses the name of Richard Feynman
Molecular nanotechnologists tend to use Feynman's name
as evidence  for their claims only when it suits them.
In his book Unbounding
the Future, Drexler quotes Feynman as saying that
the ability to move atoms one by one would ultimately be
"useless" because chemists would come up with
traditional methods of making new substances . Would
Richard Feynman have bought into a technological vision
that purports to solve the problems of death and poverty,
with little experimental evidence to support these
assertions?  Would he have called it cargo cult
science?  Interesting questions--but also irrelevant
: Feynman's ideas have lasting value , but his
opinions would not change the technical shortcomings of
the field an iota .
 We do not "use Feynman's name as evidence" for
anything. We occasionally cite his actual statements and his
scientific work, properly, as evidence of the insights of a
remarkably knowledgeable and foresighted scientist. As Scientific
American's response to Carl Feynman's letter makes clear,
tactics based on the misuse of Feynman's name can force quick
 Yes, Richard Feynman said that in his first talk on the
subject in 1959 -- but surely he was joking. Fortunately for all
of us, he lived decades longer, and his views evolved and
 No, presumably he wouldn't buy Scientific American's
version of a vision. It's hard to imagine that he had much use
for straw men.
 His son gave a clear answer: No, he wouldn't. But that's
inconvenient, so let's ignore it.
 Let's get this straight: (1) The speculation that Richard
Feynman would have regarded the goal of molecular manufacturing
as cargo cult science (false, says his son) was important for Scientific
American to "report," or whatever this sort of
activity is called. (2) Now that his son has made it quite clear
that Feynman should be counted on our side of the basic,
scientific debate, his views are declared irrelevant. How
 As a biologist turned editor, Mr. Rennie is kind to
acknowledge that some of Feynman's ideas have lasting value, but
perhaps not wise in broadcasting his own, contrary intuitions
regarding what physics says about the limits of technology. If
one weighs Feynman's reputation and his clear, positive,
published statements against the chemical knowledge and vague,
negative, offhand remarks of Mr. Rennie's much-mentioned quotees,
it seems that we would win a game of appeal to authority.
 But in the end, evidence and substantive arguments outweigh
any number of grey heads and Nobel prizes. Scientific
American's reference to "the [still nameless]
technical shortcomings of the field," highlights again their
failure to articulate one, despite having been challenged to do
* 7) The article was biased .
Scientific American is, if anything, biased in favor of
new technologies and scientific concepts. Nanotechnology
is an exciting idea. We entirely understand why so many
people are drawn to it -- when Engines of Creation
came out, some of us were very enthusiastic about the
promise of nanotechnology . And who would not like to
live in a world where technology makes it possible for
virtually any dream to come true?  But one of the jobs
of good journalism is to determine whether some dreams
are simply that .
 Biased? If Mr. Rennie is sincere in thinking it wasn't,
then many readers can assure him that his editorial judgment of
tone and content is seriously out of adjustment.
 Rumors leaking out of the Scientific American
offices over the years, however, suggest that the atmosphere has
long been poisonous (we protect our sources). A short, nasty
piece on our 1989 conference managed to associate it with rock
stars, as an aid to ridicule. How? Well, a cosponsor of the
conference was the Global Business
Network, which consults to huge corporations regarding both
technology and society; GBN, as one might expect, follows
cultural trends; they do this in part by having advisory members
in the entertainment industry, some of whom -- Yes! Are rock
stars! This certainly sheds light on that silly nanotechnology
stuff, and working in both a rock-music theme and a nanosex theme
in such a short piece was ingenious. Our belated compliments to
author (and current Scientific American editor) Tim
 Who wouldn't want such a future? Most of us at Foresight
would answer, "Anyone who begins to think through what
'virtually any dream' really means." The notion that
unleashing unlimited technological power would be an obvious net
benefit is naive to the point of being ludicrous; we've met a few
people who would endorse it, but it's hard to believe that many
members of the Scientific American staff ever held
such views. From where we sit, the idea that technology won't
turn the world inside-out seems quite comforting, a homey,
familiar sort of wishful thinking not supported by any evidence.
Countering arguments by citing motives is a dubious practice, but
Scientific American hasn't actually made an
argument, so perhaps we can be excused for a glance at their
 Yes, and a serious effort along these lines would be a real
contribution. A balanced sketch of the demographics of supporters
and opponents, examining field, age, and institution, would tell
an interesting story while placing no significant strain on
actual scientific reasoning or judgment.
The article contains extensive passages in which
Drexler and other proponents make their case for
nanotechnology . The fact remains, however: many of
the leading researchers in materials science and
chemistry do not place much store in it . None of the
chemists who gave presentations at the Foresight
conference wrote to protest the portrayal of their views
in the article . In fact, responses to the article
from chemists and other professionals have been positive,
congratulating us on pointing out shortcomings that more
congratulatory articles about nanotechnology generally
 Most proponents are ignored; the passages are brief; no
decent explanation of the field is presented.
 Opinions of materials scientists and chemists regarding the
prospects for systems engineering based on atomically precise
fabrication can at best be expected to shed light on the basic
constraints of materials properties and chemical reactions. One
might as well ask a practitioner of semiconductor physics, circa
1940, about the prospects for word-processing software -- better
(somewhat) to ask von Neumann or Turing. What is important is not
a tally of laboratory scientist's opinions about the future, but
their progress in the laboratory. This has been impressive.
 Selected chemists didn't protest the article, and may
actually have the views attributed to them. Good work.
 Uh-oh. We are here confronted with another report of
important but nameless shortcomings described somewhere in the
original Scientific American article, this time
found to be giving pleasure to nameless chemists (and other
professionals of some sort) whose implied independent recognition
of these shortcomings -- and further implied triumph in actually
finding them in the article -- adds immeasurable credibility to
something or other (possibly trout).
* 8) The article fails to show that nanotechnology is
The article is not trying to show that nanotechnology is
impossible . Showing that any speculative technology
is impossible is itself impossible--we can't prove a
negative proposition .
 Actually, we'd say: "The article gives no real hint
that an effective argument against the feasibility of
nanotechnology has been or can be made."
 Indeed, that seems to have been assumed. Otherwise, why try
to show that the whole field is a misleading pile of rubbish to
be hauled off to the dump and (as Scientific American
suggests below) buried with the Star Trek warp drives? If their
staff had asked why it found itself forced to deal in ridicule to
pursue their goal -- if they had wondered why they could find
nothing that even a decent instructor of rhetoric would accept as
an argument supporting their side -- then they might have noticed
that their basic assumption is wrong. Instead, they marched off
to launch a war of extermination, believing so deeply in their
cause that they felt justified in engaging in flagrant violations
of the General Convention on Intellectual Warfare, not excepting
attempted dastardly attacks with asphyxiating repetition gases
and cerebral blister agents, which turned out mostly to smell
like old cabbage. Proposed excuse for the record: "We had to
stink up science to save it."
 At last, a clear-cut statement, not about the topic directly,
but about reasoning about the topic. Aside from the cheat of
declaring proof as a standard, it is a nice try at finding an
excuse from the burden of actually saying something. But in fact,
both scientists and engineers accept many negative propositions
regarding technology (no perpetual motion machines, no
faster-than-light starships, etc.), and use them as a basis for
reasoning and as weapons in argumentation. More generally, the
familiar process of evaluating proposals before doing designs,
and designs before building hardware is imperfect, but hardly
exotic. The present instance has unusual features, but is the
same in principle. Sorry, but effective criticism is possible.
Indeed, many proposals in the field have already been shot down
-- usually by their originators, during the design process --
which is why the survivors are so tough.
As for proofs of impossibility, at this point in the exchange our
expectations are quite modest. We'd be relatively impressed if Scientific
American could find someone who could point out a
necessary part of the proposal that is not, by design, both
obviously and completely in accord with physical principles.
On the other hand, it is entirely incumbent on
nanotech's proponents to show that what they hope to
achieve is possible.  Stix's article reports that they
have not yet done this , and that many technical
experts doubt they ever will .
 Since Scientific American appears to reject as evidence
not only theoretical analyses and computational experiments, but
laboratory demonstrations of molecular machines and atomic
manipulation, what can they want? Their notion of showing
possibility seems to require completing the research and
development program and delivering working molecular
manufacturing systems -- but then it will be too late to make
effective preparations. Do they oppose all attempts to prepare
for future technologies, or is this one special?
 Done what?
 Yes, and we've made our case to the satisfaction of many
other technical experts. But only our side publishes refereed
articles on the subject and backs opinions with careers.
Does the fact that Drexler's goal may not be
impossible mean that it should be pursued?  A recent
book, The Physics of Star Trek, claims that the
laws of physics do not preclude something resembling a
warp drive, which the Enterprise uses to travel faster
than the speed of light. Is that a technological problem
to which we should therefore devote significant financial
and intellectual resources? 
 A moot question; appropriate steps are being pursued with
vigor, regardless of the number or percentage of researchers who
think seriously about the long-term results of their work.
 The White House Science
Advisor has called explicitly for the development of
molecular manufacturing, and many students and researchers are
aiming their careers at it. In contrast, textbooks explain why
faster-than-light spaceflight is inconsistent with physical law,
and no serious effort is being spent on it. If they wish to end
the small but serious efforts directed toward molecular
manufacturing, Scientific American might try to find
a less absurd and insulting comparison.
As proof of the validity of nanotechnology, some
advocates (including Merkle) like to point out that our
world is thoroughly populated with self-replicating,
molecule-manipulating entities . True, but none of
them is based on Drexler's notion of an assembler, a
molecular construction mimicking the mechanics of factory
equipment . The molecular technology of cells is sui
generis : a ribosome is nothing like a robot. 
 Yes, this is called an existence proof.
 And this is called repeating the observation that
nanotechnology has not yet been developed.
 "Sui generis: without a counterpart or equal;
unique." Scientific American here is either
repeating the observation that nanotechnology has not yet been
developed (enough: mercy, please...), or saying that biological
molecular machines are fundamentally and in principle unique.
This smacks of vitalism -- at heart, a religious argument. We'll
count this one as an attempt at persuasion by repeated
 Let's see. A ribosome is a precisely formed three-dimensional
system that works together with other devices to read digital
instruction sequences that direct the assembly of parts to form
other precise, three-dimensional devices. Right -- nothing at all
like a robot. How silly of biologists to call it a molecular
Some definitions of nanotechnology may embrace such
solutions, but if so, how do they differentiate
nanotechnology from more advanced biotechnology?  Why
does there not seem to be more interest among nanoists
 in modifying cell organelles rather than reinventing
the wheel at the submicron scale? 
 We could draw some useful distinctions here, but matters
of definition aren't the issue. Much of the theoretical work on
pathway technologies looks to molecular biology for inspirations
on how to build and use self-assembling molecular systems;
long-range goals are another matter. (We would count the majority
of contributing experimentalists as working on self-assembly.)
 A term invented by ink-oriented paperists of ill repute.
 At last, a substantive question, not about feasibility, but
about competing approaches. If Scientific American
were genuinely interested, they could request an article from
Drexler or Merkle. A few hints: human beings didn't reinvent the
macroscopic wheel, because biology hadn't done it -- the
horseless carriage looks nothing like a horse. Jet aircraft have
wings and fly, but don't have muscles or feathers, and weren't
made by modifying birds. To an engineer, cells above the
molecular level look suspiciously like jellied crud reengineered
from bags of seawater. Strong materials like diamond and graphite
look much better on the nanoscale for the same reasons they do on
* 9) Scientific American is trying to repress debate on
the article .
This is not a criticism of the article, but it is a
charge leveled at the magazine by some participants in
this discussion, and it deserves to be addressed. In a
letter to the Foresight Institute, the magazine pointed
out that Dr. Merkle's quotation of our entire
article--even with his own commentary interspersed
throughout it--is frankly a violation of our copyright
, and asked that the article's text be removed from
the Web site . In its reply, the institute has argued
that this republication of the article is allowed under
the "Fair Use" provisions of the copyright law.
 Well, yes. Scientific American sent email to Foresight stating that our
use of quotations from Scientific American requires
 We responded that a
balanced consideration of the facts indicated that our Web
article falls under fair use provisions. If we had offered Scientific
American's article to the public as something of value,
they might have had a case.
 We offered to transfer the Scientific American
article's text to their own Web site, including anchors on each
paragraph to facilitate fine-grained criticism from our site.
This drew no response.
Some people who have learned of Scientific American's
request apparently equate it with the Church of
Scientology's efforts to curb the Web publication of its
secret writings. 
 The analogy is obvious, but inappropriate, and we neither
suggest nor endorse it. These complaints would likely vanish,
however, if Scientific American were to move more
briskly toward open, Web-based publication on matters of science
and public policy. We urge them to do this, rather than hiding
(relatively speaking) in the current cellulose-based medium,
telling critics that the "proper way" to respond is to
send a letter in the faint hope that the offending editors
themselves will choose to revise some portion of it for
distribution months later in linkless bundles of paper.
How are we squelching debate?  We're not trying to
stop anyone from criticizing the article--frankly , we
appreciate the extra attention . We only asked that no
one infringe on our copyrighted text in the process by
posting the entire thing online . Scholars don't need
to reprint War and Peace to comment on it, after
all . But in making that request, we're not drawing a
veil of secrecy around anything. We've published the
article, for heaven's sake .
 Explicit frankness -- excellent.
 In the short term, the discovery of an axe-murderer on their
staff would probably boost circulation.
 Agreed. We urge all Web-based publishers be sure of their
ground, both legally and ethically, before reviewing a whole news
 But when a work is genuinely rich in nonsense, both subtle
and blatant, the astonished commentary can easily grow far larger
than the document. It is surely a courtesy to readers to let them
see the actual text under dissection. Better yet, having the text
immediately accessible to readers helps to discipline the critic,
removing the temptation to abuse straw men.
 Pretending that anyone charged secrecy sends the straw
flying. Bias, bluff, content-free but verbally slick responses,
even the sin of evading criticism, yes. Secrecy, of course not --
it's the act of publishing the article that was offensive, for
Anyone who wants to read it in its entirety  can
buy the magazine, look at it in a library, or read it on
America Online. As to whether we are entitled to make
that request : Fair use, as defined in section 107 of
the Copyright Act of 1976, does allow critics and
scholars to quote from published works. Yet nothing in
the law automatically entitles anyone to quote a text in
its entirety . In fact the law says that the amount of
quoted material and the degree to which the republication
of the work may interfere with the author's ability to
derive income from it both bear on the question of
infringement . Merkle quoted the entire article and
put it on the Web at the same time the magazine was
selling on the stands, thus creating a disincentive for
people interested in his criticisms to check them against
Stix's original .
 With no distracting shrieks or belly-laughs from the
 A request which, if "entitled," would be an
 Automatic entitlement to quote a text in its entirety? Mind
the flying straw.
 Among other factors to be weighed, such as the nature of the
 Their earlier statements suggest that the criticisms boosted
circulation; this is probably true, in the short term. Many
readers were awed and fascinated by Scientific American's
willingness to publish such an article. Subscription renewals are
Our lawyers and the institute's lawyers  could
fight out the merits of our respective arguments, but
they are not going to. Why? Because we in Editorial have
asked our business colleagues not to press the case,
though they would surely win it . We've decided that
the ongoing discussion of Stix's article is more to the
magazine's benefit than to its detriment .
 Gee, do we look that big? We've spent substantially over
$100 on legal expenses so far, but we look to our membership to
make good the loss.
 A pre-retracted bluff? Innovative, and cheap for everyone.
 But this suggests that the income-interference legal argument
they propose above is, in their own stated judgment, false. Odd.
Do they believe that they "would surely win" their case
through yet another secret-but-powerful argument, or did they
anticipate success based on driving home an admittedly false
argument? But perhaps there is another interpretation -- that the
benefit is not a matter of controversy boosting circulation and
short-term income, falsifying their legal argument, but is
instead a matter of painful external pressures raising editorial
standards, to the long-run benefit of Scientific American
as an institution in world society. Yes, it would be grand to
have the old Scientific American back again.
So where does this leave us? In his conclusion, Merkle
writes, "Scientific American should stop evading the
fundamental technical question: given the currently
accepted understanding of natural law, is nanotechnology
feasible or is it not?" It's hard for us to believe
anyone who has read the article would think we have
sidestepped that question, but we don't mind answering it
again: sorry, but far too many serious scientists say it
Their article evaded the question. Their response runs from it
at a gallop, leaving an extraordinary smokescreen of unstated
statements by nameless authorities. Perhaps the Web is not suited
to a style of argumentation employed by editors grown soft
through years of answering only those criticisms they approve in
Editor in Chief
We suspect that most readers with the strong stomach and taste
for grim humor required to wade through to this point will agree
that, unless and until Scientific American can
muster a response of genuine substance -- a criticism that, for
example, refers both to actual proposals and to physical laws --
they can reasonably be scored as having lost the debate. Next
Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit
for Foresight Institute
(with Eric Drexler)