"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 September 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Small Is Beautiful?


[conspiracy theory redux: so do you think tupac is really still alive?]

According to legend, the

scientists present at the

Trinity site 50-odd years ago

weren't really sure what would

happen. Would the bomb ignite

the entire atmosphere? Or maybe

even fission out of control and

consume the globe?


The latest spin in 20th-century

technology's game of global

Russian roulette is

nanotechnology, which physicist

Amory Lovins has classified

along with nuclear science and

genetic engineering as "fit only

for the incorruptible." The name

implies something about scale -

that nanotech can be measured in

nanometers - but this alone

would not sufficiently

differentiate it from other

sciences. Nanotech is a weird

hybrid of chemistry and

mechanics: putting atoms where

you want them, getting them to

stay there, and somehow

controlling them. Parts of this

can already be achieved using

gadgets like an atomic force

microscope, or certain types of

chemical synthesis. But since

nanotech promises an

unprecedented degree of control

over matter, much of its appeal

lies far less in what can be

achieved than in what can be



[perhaps he will return in an austin powersesque mission from the past? ]

Until recently, the chief

evangelist (and extrapolator) of

nanotech has been K. Eric

Drexler, founder of the

Institute for Molecular

Manufacturing and the Foresight

Institute, a group whose dubious

relevance to everyday life can

be judged by its naively

ridiculous ambition: "to guide

emerging technologies to improve

the human condition." Drexler

wrote two popular books -

Engines of Creation and Unbounding

the Future - that discuss both

the great benefits and drastic

horrors that might accrue from

nanotech. The upside, so he

declared, includes cures for

genetic diseases and an end to

poverty (indeed, some say the

emergence of the much vaunted

post-scarcity society is due to the

ability to manufacture whatever

out of waste). The downside is,

um, let's see, oh yes, the

destruction of the planet by

runaway nanomachines given

enough intelligence to

reproduce. These books provoked

a fair bit of controversy and

some ridicule from the

scientific community for what

seemed like both blind optimism

and blind alarmism. Then Drexler

published Nanosystems, a recap

of his PhD dissertation from MIT

and a detailed technical

treatise on nanotech. A few

grudgingly admitted that he

might know what he was talking

about, but not everyone.


Drexler's vision of nanotech

shows a peculiar adherence to

mechanical engineering. It

consists of actual tiny

machines, nanoscopic robots if

you will, built of "diamondoid"

materials. His Holy Grail is the

universal assembler, a

nanomachine that will be

programmed to build other

nanomachines or copies of

itself. This approach has

remained unconvincing to

experimental scientists familiar

with the extreme complexity of

things that resemble nanotech,

like biological cells. In any

case, Nanosystems serves as

something like, say, a bible for

nanotech hopefuls, occasionally

in the worst sense of the word.


[and if tupac is still alive somewhere, what about biggie small?]

Gary Stix, a writer for

Scientific American, pissed off

the Drexlerians last year when,

in his review of the biennial

Foresight meeting, he compared

their leader to Mr. Peabody, and

the culture as a whole to a

"cargo cult." The gatherings do

have a strange but thrilling

sociological aspect - sort of Mondo

2000 meets military-industrial

complex - that mainstream

scientific conventions

unfortunately lack. But even as

the rebuttals were appearing, a

change in the players was

occurring that would gain

respectability for the field at

the slightly sad cost of some of

its fascination. In 1996 Richard

Smalley won the Nobel Prize for

synthesizing a soccer

ball-shaped molecule of carbon

atoms, whimsically named

buckminsterfullerene because of

its resemblance to Fuller's

geodesic dome. These molecules

and derivatives, generically

called fullerenes (or, more

jocularly, "buckyballs"), are

the new nanotech. They don't

really do much, but in science's

new social contract, that

doesn't mean much. Fullerenes

are fundable, fundable, and sexy

enough to plant the Center for

Nanoscale Science and Technology

at Rice University, which

Smalley (insert joke here)



[perhaps planning an international revolution of sorts...]

Real nanotech is probably as far

off as real artificial

intelligence, but it could

consist of anything from carbon

nanotubes, to arbitrarily

complex but uncontrollable

chemical constructions, to

atomic-scale corporate logos.

(Talk about core branding.) Who

knows, maybe our time is one of

those "growing points" where

research on such esoterica as

self-assembling systems,

supramolecular chemistry, and

adaptive agents magically

converges. But the question of

whether nanotech will destroy us

or save us is still largely

rhetorical, since anyone can

point to things far more

dubious, deliberate, and real -

like selling 11 billion dollars'

worth of weapons, or the TV show

South Park. A somewhat more

interesting question is whether,

suspecting the consequences, we

should consider not applying the

electrodes to the monster's neck

this time, just in case.


History hints that some

scientist or engineer possessed

of sufficient funding and/or ego

will hook the sucker up like a

run-down Diehard anyway. In May,

Foresight announced the founding

of the world's first "molecular

nanotechnology development

company," Zyvex, and this month,

Zyvex's technological digging

"struck gold." Having taken the

initial steps towards building a

universal assembler ("This is

claimed by some to be

'impossible in this universe.'

Zyvex will eventually make one,

just to show how it's done!"),

should we be worried about what

Zyvex will do next? The

company's rallying cry - "Nature

does it, why can't we?" - offers

little comfort.


[and then there's the question of Di ... i'd bet she is the secret weapon in their posse]

For the scientist at the Trinity

site, in the fireball's light of

"a thousand suns," their worst

apprehensions gave way to

simple, mundane horror.

Oppenheimer would relate the

event to a line from the

Bhagavad-Gita: "I am become

Death, destroyer of worlds."

That time, Vishnu was bluffing.

courtesy of Dilettante

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