Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Visit to the Foresight Institute

I'm in the midst of a "reconnaissance trip" to the Foresight Institute in Menlo Park, CA. My purpose here is two-fold: one is to begin a formal oral history interview with Christine Peterson. I started this today despite a tape recorder that wanted to add its own voice to the interview. Word of advice: always bring a spare recorder; in this case, I had my iPod with a microphone attachment and this seems to have worked fine.

Second, I wanted to survey any historically relevant materials that Foresight has. Christine and the Foresight staff have been very welcoming and I had a chance to look through some 30 odd boxes of papers, books, etc. in storage. Most of these were either books or financial materials. However, there are some very interesting materials pertaining to the Foresight conferences from 1989 onwards as well as copies of hard to find articles and lectures authored by Peterson, Eric Drexler, et al.. Many of these I never would have known about without taking this trip.

An added bonus to my visit is getting the chance to look through the extensive collection of media clippings that mention nano, Foresight, or Drexler. These go back to 1986 and fill two tightly packed file drawers. The sheer number of articles etc. point to two things. One is that the history of nano, with its connections to space exploration and so forth, are firmly rooted in the 1980s with Drexler's initial work in this area going back to the mid-1970s. Also, worth noting is the extreme level of interest the media had in nano, Foresight, and Drexler. Through a myriad array of articles, editorials and so forth, both specialized communities as well as the public in general had the opportunity to read about nano long before the federal government and the NNI moved into the picture.

This media coverage (and accompanying business/VC interest) created a fertile ground for the NNI to grow. Perhaps, more importantly, the role of public imagination and interest in supporting science/technology policy is not to be underestimated. For a historical analogy, think of the decades of "pump priming" on the part of Walt Disney, Hugo Gernsback, Chesley Bonestell, Werner von Braun, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, David Lasser, and many others in the years and decades before Sputnik. For another example that might appeal to chemists, check out Frederick Soddy's The Interpretation of Radium and consider the interplay of science and futurist speculation it contains.

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