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Foresight Update 10

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Kantrowitz: Solutions, not Sacrifice

Advisor Profile by Dan Shafer

Prof. Arthur Kantrowitz of Dartmouth is at it again. A man whose life has been filled with and, perhaps, characterized by the building of bridges and the creation of transitions, has made another grand leap. If the past is any indicator, we'd all be well-advised to pay attention to where he's landing.

His career has moved from a starting point in atomic science into fluid mechanics, where he applied the ideas of modern physics and thereby made direct contributions to the space program, particularly in re-entry from space. From there, he bridged disciplines once again as he applied the principles of fluid dynamics to blood flow and hematology. As a result, he has played a major role in research and development of cardiac assist devices and has made contributions to the understanding of blood clotting processes. From physics to hematology is two giant steps, but Kantrowitz has made them seem natural, almost inevitable.

Kantrowitz, a member of the Foresight Institute Board of Advisors, is focusing most of his energies these days advocating a philosophy of optimism. More than a philosophy, his approach to the great scientific questions of our time is a hard-boiled, policy-oriented method for dealing with the problems being created by our technologies. When such an idea emanates from the mind that conjured up the Science Court of the mid-1970s and called attention to "The Weapon of Openness" available to America in the 1980s (see Foresight Background, No. 4), it ought to carry more than the usual weight of authority.

The greenhouse effect? If it turns out to be real--and Kantrowitz leaves little doubt he believes the jury is still out on the issue--it ought, he says, to serve as a trigger to solution, not a call to sacrifice. "If the ozone layer is depleted and is being consistently further depleted, we have to figure out something to do about it. Rather than using such phenomena as instruments to force us to sacrifice, we should see them as a call to find solutions. There must be some creative way of fixing it. For example, maybe some chemistry grad student is sitting right now with a chemical solution that would create ozone where it's needed. I don't suggest that this is a real solution, only that we ought to be thinking about solving the problem rather than sacrificing. Religious movements, rather than technological breakthroughs, are built on sacrifice. If--without considering how to solve the problem--we go into a program of sacrifices whose costs are measured in trillions of dollars, this is a creature of the deepest pessimism. Maybe it's time we took climate control seriously instead of simply succumbing to the problem."

Space colonization? Again, only pessimism has kept it from a success that we would already be enjoying. "If we had a really adventuresome space program, we'd already have people living in space. If we had a space transportation system designed by some competitive process rather than by some version of a centrally planned economy--which works no better for such tasks than it did for Eastern Europe--we'd have solved the problems years ago."

In general, Kantrowitz tells us, "Pessimism leads us to minimize risks and therefore reduces the rate of change by making innovation difficult." He points out that, "An optimistic society realizes that mistakes will be in proportion to our technology. Furthermore, we must remember that the problems we bequeath our successors will be solved by their technologies, which will inevitably be well beyond ours." As a result, Kantrowitz finds himself largely unworried by some of the technological issues that cause hand-wringing by many other scientists and the general public.

Although he advocates an open and optimistic approach to science and technology, he does not believe such development should be completely unbridled. "In a pessimistic society such as the one we have created, regulation is good. We place paramount importance on being safe. If anyone wants to innovate, we must see that he takes all responsibility for any harm. As a result, our young people are turning away from science and medicine and towards law. Although it is clear that we need some method for correcting malpractice of various sorts, we can't survive if the only such system is one designed of, by, and for the lawyers."

It is at this point that Kantrowitz echoes some of the highly original thinking that characterized his mid-1970s proposal to create something called a Science Court. This body would resolve factual disputes between scientists by means of an adversary proceeding. Kantrowitz proposed the idea as a result of his 1975-76 work with the Presidential Advisory Group on Anticipated Advances in Science and Technology. Among other things, Kantrowitz saw this approach as a way of avoiding the "trial by public opinion" in which he sees too many such disagreements being resolved today. "This process," he explains, "would be conducted as an academic function. Instead of addressing themselves to the public, scientists with legitimate opposing views would address themselves to each other as expert adversaries." In fact, Kantrowitz called for a new norm in scientific behavior which would insist that, "Any scientist who addresses himself to the public must then be willing to answer questions from expert adversaries."

Besides the inherent problems in public opinion holding sway over scientific evaluation, Kantrowitz sees another evil in the current system. "The present pernicious practice of advertising factual information in all kinds of media is aggravated by the fact that someone decides which scientists and facts will receive even that kind of a hearing." He points out that when politicians and media representatives have questions, they call people they view as experts, generally people who appear on their call lists or on the call lists of their colleagues. "This practice means that the new thinkers, the innovative idea people, are the least likely to receive an objective hearing, or even to get access at all," Kantrowitz points out.

Dan Shafer is an author and consultant in computation and emerging technologies.


Foresight Update 10 - Table of Contents

 

Molecular Artworks

Under the title "Nanotechnology and the Miniature Arts," the journal Leonardo has issued a call for papers dealing with artworks created on very small scales. The journal focuses on the interface between art, science, and technology. Specific topics of interest include: history of miniature art, genetically engineered artworks, artworks invisible to the naked eye, theoretical aspects of scale, and scientific visualization of microscopic phenomena.

Anyone who has seen high-quality molecular modeling programs running on a color monitor may agree that molecular artwork is already being routinely created. Interested authors should send manuscript proposals to Pamela Grant-Ryan, Managing Editor, Leonardo, 2030 Addison St., Suite 400, Berkeley, CA 94704, USA. Electronic mail can be sent to the following e-mail address: isast@garnet.berkeley.edu.


Foresight Update 10 - Table of Contents

 

Letters

The Foresight Institute receives hundreds of letters requesting information and sending ideas. Herewith excerpts:

I am writing to represent the academic debate team of Henry Ford II High School, Sterling Heights, Michigan. We have studied and researched the topic of nanotechnology for some time now, and have developed a debate case to increase space exploration via nanotechnology which won first place at a recent tournament. On behalf of my team, I extend our thanks to Eric Drexler and the Foresight Institute for developing this captivating and important field. If possible, I would like you to send us any available information on the subject of nanotechnology. Anything you send will be greatly appreciated.

Brian Wassom
Sterling Heights, Michigan

We have prepared a package of materials for high school debaters. Due to the large number of debaters, we ask that a $4 donation accompany each request.


Do proceedings exist for the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology? How may I obtain or purchase them?

Also, I am very interested in the idea of simulating nanotechnological concepts in order to examine problems or potential designs of simplified molecular machines, mainly for educational or instructional purposes. By this I do not mean complex protein folding computations. Are you aware of work being done in this area? I am thinking of a demonstration program more like Richard Dawkins's BIOMORPH, a program based on simplified physical laws. Please let me know if you know of anything along these lines, and whether writing a program like this would be a waste of time at this point.

Robert L. Virkus
Dallas, TX

A proceedings volume is in progress, edited by James Lewis of Oncogen in Seattle. We'll let you know when it's available.

[Editor's note: Articles about this book appear in Update 12 and in Update 15. The Book Order Form may be used to order this book from the Foresight Institute.]


There has been and continues to be a great deal of work being done on computer modeling of molecular systems, both simple and complex. The simplest programs are used to draw molecules: they may know how many bonds each atom can make and at what angles. Molecular mechanics programs can take a designed structure and minimize its energy, i.e. find the most stable configuration. The most computation-intensive programs use quantum mechanical methods to calculate the properties of molecules and of chemical reactions. In our next issue we plan to review a new molecular mechanics package for the Mac II. Before you write you own software, we'd advise a thorough inspection of programs already available.--Editor


I'm passing along another tidbit related to Internet computer access, which may interest the Chicago/Midwest readers of Foresight Update. In the Chicago area there is a public-access UNIX bulletin board system; the modem number is 312-714-6568. The first two weeks of full Internet access are free. A donation of $40 per year is asked to continue Internet access. All the Internet goodies are available as far as I know, including sci.nanotech...

John Papiewski
Palatine, IL

Foresight encourages those with online capability to join in the nanotechnology discussion taking place in the sci.nanotech USENET newsgroup.


Foresight Update 10 - Table of Contents

 

Books of Note

Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome. And remember, if a book's price looks too high, your library should be able to get it through interlibrary loans.--Editor

Intellectual Compromise: The Bottom Line, by Michael T. Ghiselin, Paragon House, 1989, cloth, $24.95. A critique of academia, explaining how and why it strays from its own ideals. Explains why a large portion of intellectual work is now going on outside academia in, e.g., think tanks. Warning: may frighten students away from academic careers.

A Handbook of Computational Chemistry, by Tim Clark, Wiley-Interscience, 1985, cloth, $38.50. A practical guide to molecular mechanics and molecular orbital calculations. Includes information on MM2, a molecular mechanics program well-suited to the design or molecular machinery. For working chemists and molecular systems engineers.

Intermolecular and Surface Forces, by Jacob Israelachvili, Academic Press, 1985, cloth, $107. Densely-packed information for the serious molecular systems engineer; a modern classic.


Foresight Update 10 - Table of Contents

 

JBIS on Nanotechnology

In honor of its 60th anniversary, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society is dedicating the opening issue of its Celebration Series to the topic "Nanotechnology in Space." JBIS is known for publishing exploratory engineering work on space development and exploration.

The issue is scheduled for October 1992 and will be edited by Salvatore Santoli. Dr. Santoli reports that he plans to interpret the term nanotechnology as Foresight does, i.e. molecular manufacturing, or thorough control of the structure of matter. He is actively soliciting papers for the issue.

For further information on this special issue, or to propose a paper topic, contact the issue's editor at the following address: Salvatore Santoli FBIS, via A. Zotti 86, I-00121, Rome, Italy. To submit completed papers, enclose a note indicating that they are meant for this issue and mail to: Executive Secretary, British Interplanetary Society, 27/29 South Lambeth Road, London SW8 1SZ, England. Decimal paragraphing and SI units must be used; contact BIS for their "Guidelines for Authors."


Foresight Update 10 - Table of Contents

 

Federal Comments on Nanotechnology

Views on nanotechnology from three U.S. government research agencies were expressed recently in response to inquiries by Congressman Bill Green.

The most detailed response was received from the head of a laboratory at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Excerpts follow:

"I share the view that these [Drexler's] calculations and reasonings are interesting and promising and should be considered seriously...Stunning examples from biomedical research, chemistry, and physics demonstrate the potential of engineering at the molecular level. All this has been accomplished by scientists from these disciplines cooperatively applying the traditional scientific principles of experimentation and theory. Recently, a third discipline has been added: computational science, or computational simulation. The latter approach depends on powerful, scientific computers; it permits simulations of such realism (even at the atomic level) that it is possible to explore the boundary between the feasible and the infeasible. This is certainly relevant to the nanotechnology we are discussing.
"Much of the current revolution in biology arose from the study of viruses; they were treated as prototypical organisms and, at the same time, research showed that, indeed, they are precise, engineerable assemblages of molecules...
"Strong, long-term public support, and to a lesser extent, private support, have paid off mightily. However, we must be certain of continued support in such new directions as nanotechnology. Predictions of the future can be unreliable, but there is clearly justification for optimism and committed effort to further study and research on nanoscale, self-replicating molecular machines in return for the expectation of long-term practical developments."

A Division Director at the National Science Foundation wrote "With the exception of medical applications, nanotechnology is a research area that would be appropriate for support by the National Science Foundation. Aspects of this research area are already supported by several research programs at the Foundation."

A spokesman for the R&D at the Environmental Protection Agency was less informed--"a direct relationship to work being done at the EPA was not readily apparent"--but requested further information on environmental applications.

Both of the positive responses were obtained from government scientist/administrators who were already acquainted with the nanotechnology concept through traditional sources of technical information. One of the Foresight Institute's goals is to maximize the number of scientists introduced to the idea in this way, rather than in the media or from nontechnical sources. Foresight members who wish to introduce the concept of nanotechnology to scientists or government leaders are urged to call our office (415-324-2490) for advice before proceeding.

Thanks to Congressman Bill Green and Foresight member Alvin Steinberg for stimulating the above correspondence.


Foresight Update 10 - Table of Contents

 

Media Watch

The Summer 1990 issue of Caltech's magazine Engineering & Science mentioned nanotechnology in an article reviewing various nanometer-scale efforts at that institution. Included was coverage of STM work by Prof. John Baldeschwieler, an participant of the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology.

The June 3 issue of The Sunday Correspondent (London) explained nanotechnology as part of a review of the book Engines of Creation, now available in Britain from Fourth Estate. The June/July High Technology Careers magazine covered nanotechnology as an approach to building exotic materials. The July 1990 Computer Shopper (London) described the bottom-up approach to nanotechnology in an article by Adrian Owen. The August 1990 issue of Self magazine briefly covered the prospects for advanced medicine using nanotechnology, including "molecular surgery."


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From Foresight Update 10, originally published 30 October 1990.


Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 10 to html for this web page.



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