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Nanotech: US ambition, UK pessimism

Richard Jones asks: “Why does the molecular manufacturing community seem to have many fewer members in the UK than it does in the USA? I don’t think it’s fair to say that the dramatic vision of molecular manufacturing is pursued in a contextual vacuum – I think there is quite a well-developed world view that underlies the molecular manufacturing vision. Is there something about that world-view that makes it more attractive in one country than another?…Is this really just a clash between the habitual rainsoaked pessimism of the British, and sunny American optimism and its associated can-do attitude?”

An excellent question, Richard. It’s hard to miss the difference between U.S. attitudes — not just toward molecular manufacturing, but toward nanotechnologies in general, and technology more broadly — and attitudes in Europe. Why is this? Well, for centuries now, risk-takers have paddled (now, flown) across the oceans to try their luck here. American culture is far more admiring of risk-takers. Perhaps this centuries-long process has led to a difference in national attitudes toward what timeframe is of interest when considering engineering goals.

I’ve visited Sweden and Norway. They’re very nice places, but I’m glad my forebears took the boat. I carry on the tradition, in a way, by betting my career on nanotechnology instead of, say, practicing medicine, which would have been a much safer career choice.

I’ll caricature the pro-vs-anti-MNT debate: The anti’s say “Man will never fly, unless it’s on the back of a very large, biological bird.” The pro’s say “The heck with that — let’s build an airplane.” This can-do, “let’s build it” attitude seems quite American to me. It has worked pretty well for us so far, though taking risks doesn’t always pay off, and can be…risky. –CP

10 Responses to “Nanotech: US ambition, UK pessimism”

  1. Dan Johnson Says:


    Excellent piece, especially your closing observations. I rarely respond but I read your NanoBlog daily.

    Your Minnesota Friends (via Alcor),
    Dan Johnson & Randee Laskewitz

  2. Richard Jones Says:

    Christine, I’ve clearly made my own bed here so I’ll not begrudge you the chance to rehearse your national mythology. But I can’t resist a couple of comments. While I think it’s true that the USA has more MNT enthusiasts than the UK (or indeed anywhere else), it also seems to me that opposition to MNT is much more virulent in the USA than here, particularly in the US scientific enterprise. How does that square with your thesis? I’d remind you that the context of my comment was a debate about MNT that took place with the sponsorship of our national science funding agency, with many establishment science figures present, which presented the issues to an audience of young scientists for them to make up their own minds. How often has that sort of event taken place in the USA?

    I think a ‘can-do, “let’s build it” attitude’ is great. What we see in MNT at the moment, though, is more ‘can-do, let’s computer simulate it’. This has its place; actually I think the Nanorex simulations of the sort we saw from Josh Hall are going to be very useful and instructive, and the DFT methods used by Allis and Drexler in their latest paper are a great advance on what has been used before. But, if we’re trading national stereotypes, we Brits (and our Irish cousins, to include Philip Moriarty) are empiricists to the core, and what will ultimately convince us isn’t theory or simulation, but some experiments.

  3. shamit Says:

    i feel its a new science and just like all new sciences must be explored.
    i am a software engineer by profession but would like to switch over to nanotechnology. Could anyone suggest some good places in the world to study nanotechnology

  4. Christine Peterson Says:

    Response to Richard Jones: Hi Richard, thanks for commenting. It’s good that your national science funding agency sponsored a formal debate on this. As for why this doesn’t happen over here, that would take a while to explore — a quick answer is that the people who would have to approve such funding don’t see the payoff in doing so. Either MNT is wrong, in which case debating it seems like a waste of time, or it’s correct, in which case its too disturbing in its implications and might affect research appropriations. For most, it’s just too controversial — safer to wait and focus on near-term goals. Or so I speculate.

    You’re right about my rehearsing our national mythology (even a regional mythology, since I live in Silicon Valley). I think the fundamental difference here is the difference in attitudes between science and engineering. In engineering, it’s understood that there has to be a stage — in this case, a long stage — between when one can make a design and when that design can be iterated in response to experiments in the physical world and ultimately built.

    I agree that it will take physical experiments to convince the empiricists. But then everyone will be convinced, so being convinced then — waiting that long — isn’t a very impressive thing to do. The process going on now is one where we are all placing our bets, and then having to wait to see what eventually happens when the physical experiments catch up with the computational ones. One can refuse to place a bet, but that’s not a particularly interesting or valuable stance to take. We could get the same answer from the average person the street. We should expect more judgment from those with the appropriate background.

    Not that I’m saying you are doing this — I’m not sure exactly what bet you’ve placed. In any case, thanks for joining the discussion. –Christine

  5. John Novak Says:

    Some comments to Richard and Christine.


    First, it’s not clear to me that either Europe or the United States has a lock on anti-technologists. Anti-technology movements are often political in nature, in my experience. It doesn’t surprise me, therefore, that European anti-technology movements often center around agriculture (for instance, the stubborn opposition to genetically engineered foods, no matter what evidence is presented– how convenient that this happens to benefit European growers!) while American anti-technology movements tend to center around energy production and pollution (and it’s surely a coincidence that these are often aimed against large corporations!)

    The anti-nanotech movements with the most press coverage here are– no surprise– the pollution oriented ones harping on nanoparticle toxicity. It’s no surprise to me, because it fits the larger national and international patterns.

    Second, I’m really not sure what is the point of organizing special panels for young scientists to hear about nanotechnology from respected elder scientists. I thought that’s what the scientific journals and literature were for.


    But in defense of Richard, and more importantly, speaking as a practicing engineer, I share his frustration. While I do believe that we will, by one path or another, get to something that we’ll all agree constitutes strong nanotechnology (which is to say, some sort of molecular assembly, even if it does not resemble that which is described in Nanosystems) there’s only so long you can promise Wondrous Things, but deliver only computer simulations.

    As a practicing engineering designer, I work with simulators on a weekly, if not daily basis. My current task, in fact, is to figure out a way to simulate a microwave circuit of only moderate complexity with existing top-notch commercial software. I expect it to be a painful process, and my professional experience leads me to look at simulations in about the same light as a machine shop with no safety precautions– potentially useful, but potentially lethal.

    So I regard as perfectly valid the opposite stance from yours: It’s easy to voice support for cutting edge technologies before they’re here. It’s even comparatively easy to bet your career on them– that’s what universities, think tanks, and Big Government Spending is for, after all. If NASA can spend money on Podkletnov’s antigravity theories, surely anyone can do this…! But it’s hard to go from concept to product.

    But I do, overall, like your “placing bets” metaphor. I think it’s more useful at the level of betting on which pathways are likely to yield the highest reward. Eager enthusiasts for a bio- path, or a mechano- path often advocate betting the farm on a narrow vision, on the assumption that they’re not just right, but self-evidently right and can’t be wrong. These people frustrate me. The big governmental agencies (US, European, or whatever) have to take the opposite view, this time of covering many bets as possible to make sure that some of them pay off.

    But you can bet that, in the absence of political pressures, readjusted funding is going to go to fields that are getting experimental results over fields that are still practicing their simulators. And so I say, one of the most valuable things Drexler, Merkle, Freitas, et al., could do for the field is sit down, figure out a set of experiments that would categorically refute, say, Smalley’s “fat fingers” argument, but which is easier to achieve than a full-blown self-replicating assembler. Then let Foresight or some other agency seed them with prizes and free publicity for the winner.

    Arguing and debating is healthy, but the best argument is a demonstration.

  6. Richard Jones Says:

    Christine, I don’t think that in systems with any kind of complexity one ever has a situation where the “physical experiments catch up with the computational ones”. If you are lucky, as your computational methods improve and your computers become more powerful, you can hope that your computational experiments begin to catch up with reality. In any field early simulation efforts will inevitably, with hindsight, seem crude and often misleading when they are confronted with reality, as revealed by experiments.

    Even in Silicon Valley, I can’t believe that there was ever a stage when a design just sat around being tinkered with theoretically for any significant time before someone went to a lab or workshop and made a prototype. Ask yourself what happened between the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959 and the first microprocessor in 1974. Did people just spend 15 years making drawings of what a microprocessor might look like? No, there was a constant stream of prototype devices and marketable products of increasing complexity, constantly moving the technology forward in a practical way. For MNT to become a reality, you are going to need people in the proverbial garages actually trying to bring some designs to physical life. The purpose of experiments and prototypes isn’t just to convince the sceptics, they’re central to developing any technology,

    I thought I’d made it fairly clear in my various writings what my bet is. We will see a radical nanotechnology involving complex functional machines and devices made with atomic or near atomic precision, but it won’t look like MNT. Its transformative impacts will mainly be in medicine, information and energy, much less so in materials and manufacturing. The development of MNT itself will prove to be, at best, very much more difficult than its supporters think, and its practical impact will be small on realistic timescales.

  7. da vinci Says:

    Dear Christine, please reply:

    Why focus any more resources in computational simulations?

    Don’t we have a good, rough and ready picture of what “could be”?

    Shouldn’t we be focusing on short term, revenue generating, greatly enabling, empirical steps to bring those scenarios to reality?

    Why not play by the rules and get your hands dirty?

    Thank you in advance, I admire your work.

  8. Christine Peterson Says:

    Thanks to all for your comments. Would like to respond at length but am pressed for time just now, hope to get back to this.

    Will just say, briefly, that I am all in favor of physical experimentation, prototypes, product development, revenue, etc. (Who isn’t?)

    There is work now on not just designing but also building new molecular machines. So we’ll see. Let’s all try to stick around long enough to see how advanced nanotech looks. –C

  9. walter lesure Says:

    Hi folks,

    I, for a lack of a better discription, am joe smo. that is to say, I am not a scienctist, engineer or big thinker. But, what I think it is people like me, that in the end, are the ones who decide who gets what dollar amount to research what. what people like me need to see is something. a single sheet of nano material that actually improves on the properties of steel (as an example), even if its just a small demostration of the technologies all ready present would affect the general population greatly as it is replayed on the news. I don’t know what kinds of things are possible, my point is if you want people to support nano development you got to be a bit of a showman (did I mention I work in TV). it’s like the first time people saw “Pong” the video game. Simple, useless “Pong”, gave the holders of the purse strings something they could hang their hat on and say; “that’s different and I can see it’s different.” I think “Pong” is probable as responsible for the tech dollars flowing as apple. I’m from new england and a sharper sceptic you will not find, but likewise, i will never doubt the obvious.

    keep up all the great work you guys do for all of us, oh, and get going on that space elevator. I want to go to the moon before I die.



    Well I guess I’m a bit late here, but I still like the post.


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