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Smalley/Drexler debate MNT in C&E News cover story

Nobel Winner Smalley Responds to Drexler's Challenge
Fails to Defend National Nanotech Policy

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. Their four-part exchange sponsored by the American Chemical Society is the Dec. 1, 2003 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." This could mark a turning point in the development of the field.
Press release
Foresight comments and FAQ
Full text of the exchange
Technical commentary from CRN

9 Responses to “Smalley/Drexler debate MNT in C&E News cover story”

  1. Morgaine Says:

    It's time to ignore Smalley.

    This recurring preoccupation with Smalley is both unnecessary and counterproductive for progress in MNT, it seems to me. Ordinarily one feels bound to help fellow scientists understand a line of reasoning when they cannot do so on their own, but Smalley has willfully discarded his scientist hat and clearly has no intention of engaging Drexler or anyone else in a technical discussion on the topic. The horse-to-water metaphor is very appropriate here. In a very literal sense, why waste our time on him?

    I know that some feel that it is necessary to bring Smalley to accept the premises of MNT in order to refocus the goals of the NNI, but his refusal to talk science is merely unfortunate (especially for him) rather than important to everyone else. Remember that Einstein rejected quantum mechanics in exactly the same way, refusing to become involved in the field and merely issuing disparaging remarks about it. These things happen, but science goes on.

    Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that the NNI and its successors soon will start to focus strongly on mechanochemistry and higher-level MNT regardless of Smalley & Co's preocccupation with the more traditional nanoscale sciences. This stems from the key point that deserves restating at every opportunity, that MNT research is not being performed just in the US alone. It is entirely inevitable that the US detractors will become ever more irrelevant as the work of thousands of researchers across the world bears fruit and the US is seen to lag, so the current situation is self-correcting.

    Don't worry about Smalley; if he wants to become famous as the man who tried to make the US trail the field in nanotechnology, good for him. He won't succeed because, given evidence, most people will elect to believe their eyes rather than his non-scientific handwaving.

  2. Kadamose Says:

    MNT is inevitable.

    It doesn't matter what the pathetic US government decides to do – Nanotech is coming, whether anyone likes it or not.

    It also doesn't matter what Smalley says or does – he is an insignificant variable and, personally, I do not understand why Drexler is so adamant on trying to win him over to our side. It's a waste of time and energy. I also do not understand Drexler's bias on thinking that the US is the center of the universe and that it, and it alone, should develop MNT first. Not only is that completely stupid, it would turn the entire world into a police state. The RIAA, the MPAA, and many other organizations will take completely control and it is then we will all experience true hell. Nanotechnology is about disposing of these regimes…not helping them to obtain even more power and longevity.

    In spite of all this, I am really starting to doubt if Drexler truly is one of the 'good guys', especially since his mind seems to be changing so much, nowadays. Where is the Drexler who wrote Engines of Creation? The same Drexler who wrote that book back in 1986 would not support the US government (or any government for that matter) – especially in today's conditions.

    Nanotech development needs to be created by an 'educated public' and needs to be as open as possible – because if it's not, those who are currently in control will only gain an even bigger advantage over the populace and the status quo will never be disposed of like it should be, thus keeping mankind enslaved in stupidity and ignorance…forever.

  3. Morgaine Says:

    Smalley as a reaction to MNT fear-mongering?

    I've always considered Smalley's distinctly odd (for a scientist) statements on nanotechnology as stemming from a simple lack of interest in new approaches and the undoubted successes of his traditional bulk techniques in chemistry. His responses have always seemed odd to me because it is not rational nor productive to fight science with handwaving.

    However, in reading the headline paragraphs above, it occurred to me that maybe the situation is not that simple, and that maybe Smalley is fighting against something other than the scientific premises underlying future MNT. Let me quote a couple of abstracted lines, hopefully without taking anything important out of context:

    … Smalley has struggled for years to dispel public concerns by issuing false denials of the capabilities of advanced nanotechnologies.

    … 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.

    Oh dear. Is Smalley perhaps fighting not the scientific premise of MNT, but the fear-mongering that we occasionally witness? Certainly fear-mongering deserves nothing but contempt from a rational scientist or engineer, and not a technical response which would merely play into the hands of those that "promote" MNT under the banner of fear.

    Those of us who understand the power and promise of an advanced molecular technology also understand the need to develop it competently, using good designs that address numerous important requirements including those relating to safety. Fear contributes nothing to this process. It is an appalling strategy to use when more technically literate approaches are available, and many better ones are available to us.

    While we have no direct evidence that Smalley has consciously decided to combat fear-mongering with handwaving, it does at least suggest the rationality of symmetry in his responses, for what it's worth. Be that as it may, let's make sure that our house is in order first, before complaining about non-scientific argument. Let's stick to science and technology and be realistic and constructive in our outlook on the future, and not descend to agitprop laced with fear, concern and worry to attract attention, as some have done. Exactly the same issues can be addressed in a positive manner by focussing on constructive solutions founded on solid science and engineering.

    To quote a well-known book, film, and series, "Fear is the mind-killer." There is much truth in that.

  4. blakey Says:

    Re:Smalley as a reaction to MNT fear-mongering?

    I really hope there is some rational reason for Smally's behaviour. I feel, however, that this is beside the point. Smalley should step down. We don't need this sort of stupidity in the NNI leadership. It is downright suspicious that someone in his position with his background should publicly discount even the possibility of molecular nanotechnology working. Without getting into any specific "conspiracy theory", it is obvious that any group intent on dominating the US and therefore the world cannot afford to allow the general populace to have access to this sort of technology. There may be nothing to this and I sincerely hope there isn't. In that case, we still need people with open minds to be in these sorts of positions. This work is too important!

  5. Morgaine Says:

    Re:Smalley as a reaction to MNT fear-mongering?

    Without getting into any specific "conspiracy theory", it is obvious that any group intent on dominating the US and therefore the world cannot afford to allow the general populace to have access to this sort of technology.

    Fortunately, we don't need the help of conspiracy theories to see the effect of government and law being openly manipulated by big business, as it's all around us and is the accepted norm. Furthermore, there isn't even any vocal opposition to campaign contributions and promoting separation of business and government, so clearly that road is fixed in the US, and indeed in most first-world nations.

    This pretty much rules out any hope that national political lobbying will keep MNT development unencumbered, which is why I've never understood why the David of Foresight operates primarily on the national platform ruled by Goliath of USA — but note my emphasis. You see, Foresight's strength stems from its role as an international think tank and universally visible virtual organization, and on this platform it cannot be ignored or dismissed. This contrasts markedly with the near hopeless national corner it fights among the massively powerful vested interests of billion-dollar corporations.

    It's' not easy to shrug off one's small-town focus and work on a planetary scale, especially in the highly nationalistic US, but in MNT it just has to be done, for a whole range of pretty obvious reasons. For those who are keen to get the US heading down a sensible road as well, take note of the lobbying power that Foresight would wield if it were to oversee international cooperation in MNT research and development, totally outside of nationalistic US nonsense which merely hampers progress in an international setting. Yes, it actually hampers.

    There is so much to be done here, and all of it is a global issue. Focussing most of one's energies on a few problems in the US is hugely misguided.

  6. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Smalley as a reaction to MNT fear-mongering?

    I will note, just briefly, that the Nano@Home project is drawing a fair amount of interest and participation in Europe. Several of the primary participants are located in Europe.

    I will also note that at the Foresight Technical conference a couple of years ago I spoke directly with an NSF representative who played an important role in the NNI about why they were not working on robust MNT (e.g. nanoassembly). He responded to the effect that if it was possible it was so far in the future that it wasn't worth thinking about (my paraphrasing). It seemed clear at the time that the problem was a lack of knowledge (he probably had not read Nanosystems) as well as a lack of vision.


  7. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Whatever happend to Drexler's open letter?

    Eric's open letter to Smalley was originally posted here on Nanodot. It seems to me that some of Smalley's responses simialr to some of the comments posted here on Nanodot, but when I went to look they, and the original posting of Eric's open letter, seem to have disappeared. What gives? (Perhaps I'm just being dense and some kind soul will post the URL).

  8. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Whatever happend to Drexler's open letter?

    There is a copy at the Foresight Institute. See Drexler writes Smalley open letter on assemblers.

  9. mhh5 Says:

    neither is "correct"…

    Drexler is too optimistic; Smalley too pessimistic. That's it. Personally, I believe Smalley is the more rational scientist who is simply trying to temper the dreams of MNT. I think MNT is possible, but Drexler's vision of it is too omnipotent.

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