Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Paying Intellectual Debts

The latest edition of Scientific American Reports is entitled "The Rise of Nanotech." For those unfamiliar with the science and technology behind nano, this offers a good place to start reading. What follows are some comments from me about what is (and isn't) in the this special issue.

First, it bears noting that, since 1991, Scientific American has occasionally had an issue devoted to nanotech. For historical purposes, this present something of a "state of the nation" report on nano. Therefore, they are interesting and useful bellwethers as to what science popularizers think nano is about and how they wish to present the current status of nano-research.

The focus of this current issue is on, to a large degree, electronics. There is practically nothing at all on "faux nano" such as sunscreens, nanopants, and those other forms of quasi-nano which involve nothing more complex than nanosized particles. This is curious as the good deal of the handwringing inside the Beltway is about just this topic and how/who should regulate it.

This report from Sci Amer has articles on: nanofabrication; building nanostructures from proteins; nanofab using DNA; DNA-based computers; electronics using carbon nanotubes; plasmonics (more computers); and nanoelectronics. The final article is about the ubiquity of nano in science-fiction. This is the only place I have been able to find in the 88 page issue where Eric Drexler' s vision of nano is mentioned...and this was in connection to sci-fi. My, how the popularizers have been co-opted...

What I found most disappointing, though, was Michael Roukes' opening essay, in which the shibboleth of Richard Feynman is once again whispered, nay, shouted out. This serves the rhetorical purpose of tying current nano research to the "breadth of Feynman's vision" which Roukes calls "staggering," a product of the late Caltech physicist's "singular intellect." In other words - Ave Never mind that only a very few of today's active nanoscientists and engineers have any recollection at all of being inspired by Feynman. Forget the fact that the last nano-Nobelist, the late Richard Smalley, claimed (at least until 2003) that Engines of Creation was a major influence on him.

So...after more than a decade of real nanoscale research and some $8-10 billion of federal money, scientists and engineers still feel the need to tie their activities to an after-dinner speech Feynman made almost 50 years ago. Let it go, folks. And, for the sake of honesty, admit that a good deal of the initial popular and political interest in nano was stimulated by "visioneers, " people who promoted and popularized what nanotech might be able to do. Even if some of these dreams and thought experiments have not been realized or appear outlandish, own up to the fact that public policy and public imagination are closely linked.

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