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December 1, 2003: Nobel Winner Smalley Responds to Drexler's Challenge

Fails To Defend National Nanotech Policy

Palo Alto, CA December 1, 2003 Rice University Professor Richard Smalley has responded to a longstanding challenge by Dr. Eric Drexler to defend the controversial direction of U.S. policy in nanotechnology. Drexler, Chairman of the Foresight Institute, authored the books that defined the original goals for nanotechnology. Drexler fears that national policy which currently rejects those goals is hampering dialogue, increasing security risks, and failing to deliver on revolutionary expectations. Smalley, a specialist in carbon nanotubes and the leading advocate of national efforts in nanoscale science and technology, has been the most vocal detractor of the original goals. Their four-part exchange, sponsored by the American Chemical Society, is today's Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) cover story. As described by Deputy Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum, the controversy centers on "a fundamental question that will dramatically affect the future development of this field."

The controversy over the Feynman vision

In his famous 1959 speech, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," physicist Richard Feynman articulated a vision later called 'nanotechnology'. Feynman proposed that mechanical systems (now termed molecular assemblers) could direct chemical reactions, building atomically precise products. This molecular manufacturing process will enable digital control of the structure of matter, revolutionizing areas ranging from medical to military, from environmental to economic. This vision of nanotechnology helped launch the current global surge in research and spending, including the multi-billion dollar U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Molecular manufacturing has been the focus of Drexler's work. However, as Baum points out, "Smalley has a dramatically different conception of nanotechnology from Drexler, one that doesn't include the concept of molecular assemblers."

Molecular manufacturing misrepresented

Contrary to Feynman, in a 2001 Scientific American article Smalley claimed to prove the impossibility of molecular assemblers a claim used to defend the U.S. NNI leadership's rejection of the goal. Smalley had incorrectly argued that molecular assembly requires tools that will forever be impossible: "'There's plenty of room at the bottom'," he wrote, "But there's not that much room," because "To put every atom in its place... would require magic fingers."

In the current C&E News exchange, Smalley now agrees that assemblers (without impossible "magic fingers") could use something like enzymes or ribosomes as tools for doing precise chemistry. Yet Smalley continues his vehement rejection. He now says that molecular manufacturing will forever be severely limited alleging that it must use tools that closely resemble enzymes, and that enzymes can work solely in water, making only materials like "the meat and bone of biology." Besides misrepresenting molecular manufacturing, these assertions reveal an understanding of enzymatic chemistry that is 19 years out of date: Scientific experiments since 1984 (A. Klibanov, MIT) have proven that many enzymes function effectively in non-aqueous environments. Smalley's alleged limits on molecular manufacturing clearly do not apply.

Metaphors and empty arguments

Ralph Merkle, nanotechnology pioneer and Distinguished Professor of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, identifies additional failings: "Smalley hasn't acknowledged the extensive scientific and technical literature on mechanosynthesis a literature which includes designs for molecular tools, ab initio quantum chemistry calculations of specific tool-surface interactions, and implementation strategies. My research colleagues and I have published many papers in this new and exciting area, and this work sharply contradicts Smalley's sweeping dismissal of the field. Smalley is just not addressing the issues. Instead, he veers off into metaphors about boys and girls in love. He describes mechanosynthesis as simply 'mushing two molecular objects together' in 'a pretend world where atoms go where you want.'"

"Actually," Merkle says, "Ab initio quantum chemistry calculations don't involve love, or mushing, or pretending. For example, a carbon-deposition reaction which a colleague and I studied using standard quantum chemistry methods moves a carbene tool along a barrier-free path to insert a reactive carbon atom into a dimer on a diamond (100) surface. The tool is then twisted 90 degrees, breaking an internal pi bond, and pulled away to break the remaining sigma bond, leaving a single carbon atom bonded to the dimer on the surface." Merkle adds, "Further computational chemistry research into fundamental mechanosynthetic reactions should be an integral component of any national nanotechnology program. Smalley's metaphors merely cloud the issues."

Baum further observes, "Smalley's objections to molecular assemblers go beyond the scientific. He believes that speculation about the potential dangers of nanotechnology threatens public support for it." Indeed, in his closing remarks, Smalley laments danger scenarios that he says have "scared our children." He urges others in the chemical community to join him in dismissing these dangers by embracing his chain of reasoning.

Restoring the vision

Drexler concludes, "We now have publicly available, after months of preparation, Smalley's defense of the U.S. NNI position on molecular manufacturing. He offers vehement opinions and colorful metaphors but no relevant, defensible scientific arguments, hence no basis for crucial policy. Smalley has struggled for years to dispel public concerns by issuing false denials of the capabilities of advanced nanotechnologies. That campaign has failed. It should be abandoned."

Commenting on Smalley's position, Ray Kurzweil, recipient of the 1999 U.S. National Medal of Technology, states "Denying the feasibility of both the promise and the peril of molecular assembly will ultimately backfire, and will also fail to guide research in the constructive direction that is needed."

Regarding U.S. policy, Drexler warns, "In the global race toward advanced nanotechnology, the U.S. NNI leadership has its eyes closed, refusing to see where the race is headed. This creates growing risks of a technological surprise by a strategic adversary, while delaying medical, economic, and environmental benefits. It's time to remove the blinders and move forward with public dialogue and vigorous research, embracing the opportunities identified by Richard Feynman."

Why the general public should care

Last week, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act passed through Congress and is awaiting signature from President Bush. The act authorizes $3.7 billion for research and development programs coordinated among several federal agencies. The legislation further provides funding for public hearings, expert advisory panels and established an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, which will study nanotechnology's potential societal and ethical effects. This Act and the accompanying funds should be applied to long-term research that will ensure that the U.S. is not left behind, and that our society can enjoy the benefits more quickly. It is crucial that molecular manufacturing be an integral component of these nationally funded programs.

About Foresight Institute

Foresight Institute is the leading public interest organization involved in nanotechnology and emerging technologies. Formed in 1986 by K. Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson, Foresight dedicates itself to providing education, information, and networking support on the topic of molecular nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. The organization's goal is to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition and enhance critical discussion, thus improving public and private policy decisions.

Foresight Institute's summary and supplementary materials: Point-Counterpoint in Chemical & Engineering News:

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