Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 28 May 03 08:24
We'd like to welcome Bill Atkinson, author of _Nanocosm_, an overview of the fascinating world of nanotechnology. As a science writer covering various topics from astrophysics to chemistry, Bill says he "has got to know less and less about more and more until today he knows nothing about everything." This puts him, he says, "in contrast to doctoral candidates, who have got to know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing." Bill's goal is (in his own modest way) to echo Jefferson, and make the people the repository of power. He does this by increasing his fellow citizens' understanding of the scientific and technical. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, science is too important to be left to the scientists and politicians. Leading the discussion is Betsy Schwartz, who describes herself as "a self-replicating organism of 75 to 100 trillion molecular machines known as cells, cells, 300 million of which are dying every minute, each cell containing something on the order of five billion proteins and six billion bits of programming information." As a collective, the molecules live near Boston, work as a Unix System Adminstrator and take a lively layperson's interest in Nanotechnology.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Wed 28 May 03 11:50
Betsy! Talk to me, babe! If in fact your N trillion cells can speak, unlike certain federal administrations, with one voice. I'm getting a vibe here, as we boomers used to say in the Woodstock Era - viz. that The Well is a very funky place, where oh-so-formal communications are the exception rather than the rule. In this spirit, I'm glad I wrote Nanocosm in an offbeat, irreverent style. I hope my readers will see behind the funk and realize my take on this science is actually very serious. Your homework: Ask me about Humphrey Cobbler.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Wed 28 May 03 11:53
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Wed 28 May 03 18:33
Bill! Welcome! I was going to start off by asking you to give a brief summary of "What is the nanocosm and why it is going to turn our real world into something stranger than fiction" but I'll bite: Please, Bill, tell us about Humphrey Cobbler!
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Thu 29 May 03 10:07
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Thu 29 May 03 13:27
Humphrey Cobbler is a character in Robertson Davies's first fiction trilogy. He's a wooly-haired, slovenly musician, a cathedral organist who's constantly outraging his straitlaced congregation. Finally the Dean talks to Cobbler: "You must be serious. You have a wife and children to support. That is serious, I suppose?" "Not really," Cobbler replies. "What is serious then?" says the Dean, exasperated. "Music, I suppose in a hilarious sort of way," Cobbler replies, ruffling his mop of hair and grinning. I always thought that was a perfect description of how to look at the world and, if you're a science writer, to report on it. All those earnest tomes ["Our Friend, the Minke Whale"] that are morally upstanding, deadly serious, and deadly dull; that put you to sleep in a couple of sentences; that's not for me. I write to keep my readers awake, even if it risks outraging them now and then. I want them to realize with a small shock, when they've finished all the fun at book's end, how much they've learned. If I had a patron saint, it would be Humphrey Cobbler. He's my ghost writer all through Nanocosm.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Thu 29 May 03 20:06
Ah, so Humphrey would be that fellow chanting "K. Eric Drex, K. Eric Drex, the man who dispensed with reality checks" Do you have another little alter ego, one who read Michael Crichton's "Prey" and who is quivering with fear in the back? One of the things that makes your book so readable is that you take us to what's here and near and don't spend much time envisioning scenarios of apocalyptic "grey goo" endings for the human race, or nano-utopias free of disease, death, and stinky manufacuring. There's so very much to explore in the middle...
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Thu 29 May 03 21:56
Ah! that "sophomoric couplet," as the Publisher's Weekly reviewer called it, fairly spluttering with wrath and indignation. An excellent description, however, as that nanobot stuff I was trying to skewer is indeed sophomoric - moros (unwisdom) posing as sophos (wisdom). You see, Betsy, all the nanoboosters' incredibly involved calculations really sum to one thing: their attempt to convince you, or me, or the U.S. Supreme Court, or themselves, that the molecular assembler is indeed possible. But their very use of rhetoric on this scale defeats their own purpose. They don't have to convince anyone but Mother Nature, and she's the sternest judge of all. The dialectic goes like this. Thesis (Drexler et al.): "Molecular assemblers are inevitable." Antithesis (WIA, Smalley and others): "Balls." Synthesis...What? Not more fulminations from the nanoboosters, "They are too inevitable! Here are the calcs!" No, indeed. The only viable synthesis, the single permissible response, is to SHOW US A WORKING MODEL OF THE MOLECULAR ASSEMBLER IN ACTION. Put up or shut up: Atkinson, he from Missouri: Deeds not words. Nothing else will do. Until that happens (and it never will), I will go on being skeptical. Nay, derisive.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Fri 30 May 03 11:54
OK, so, short of molecular assemblers, what do you think will be the first things that we will see actually hit the market? And , farther down, what do you think will be the first things that we will see that will start to create perceptible ripples of change in our lives? I mean, a 10-second pregnancy test and longer-lasting tires are nice, but I don't think they'll create the sort of ripple that, say, a 1cm-sized room air conditioner that runs on solar power would. What will be the first things that start to change our health, topple large corporations, build new pollution free industries... or....? What things are actually on the drawing board, as you put it, close to that very last CAD/CAM stage before manufacturing?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 30 May 03 12:08
(small aside: offsite readers can join the conversation by sending their questions or comments to email@example.com ) (another aside: To see an excerpt from Bill's book, check out this URL: http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/nanobd.htm )
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Fri 30 May 03 12:16
First, don't discount the power of the apparently trivial. I always think of Michael Faraday showing King George around his lab. "What use is it?" asked the king. Faraday answered: "Your Majesty, of what use is a baby?" So: consider Air-D-Fence, Harris Goldberg's air-impervious elastomer. Mere passive nanotech, interesting materials science but nuttin' more than longer-lasting tennis balls, right? But there's more. Same substance inside your car tires, they weigh no more but now they can run at 100 psi rather than 30 psi. They run cooler, they last longer, they deborm less, they use less fuel, they have lower life-cycle costs since a set can last you half again as long. Millions of gallons of gas saved every year in the continental USA. Or those medical tests. No false positives or negatives, much faster and simpler, more reliable, more affordable, insurance premiums (premia?) drop steadily, health insurance becomes more affordable, America's middle and lower-middle classes no longer have to live with the spectre of a single health problem instantly wiping out their savings, social unrest decreases...I tell you, it's a line of dominoes. Just as nanotech can do big things with very small units, so small nanotech-based inventions may have multiplying effects. We'll see. More later on the stuff I really think is going to make waves.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Fri 30 May 03 12:18
By "deborm" I of course mean "deform." Bor heaben's sake.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 30 May 03 12:27
It seems like any new tech starts out with boosters who say it can do anything (eventually), and it's a while before the limitations become known. What are fundamental limits on nanotech? (I'd guess maybe energy?) Also, what are the best news sources to find out what's happening in nanotech research?
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Fri 30 May 03 15:53
Hi Brian, You're right to be skeptical of any new discipline's initial claims. The computer will free us from paper (1965); automatic factories will end human work so that everyone can enjoy goods for free (1939); and so on. I myself am suspicious, nay cynical, of any sci-fi claim that nanotechnology will make us all immortal, illness-free, and able to raise the family dog from the dead. Show me, I say. My enthusiasm for nanotech comes from my redefinition of it: viz. it is, and must be, real. No highly embroidered visions (e.g. molecular assemblers or nanobots) need apply. i've based my book's projections on known research that I personally witnessed over the last year. If I anticipate new materials that are neither metals nor ceramics, for instance, I can cite the work of Dr Rizhi Wang (Princeton, UBC &c) who has characterized nacre, the natural material that makes up bivalve shell. Dr Wang has isolated the nanoscale design of nacre to the point where he feels he can duplicate it in artificial materials - leading to stuff as light and hard as ceramics, yet with metallic traits in plastic deformation. I like to think the projections in my book are, therefore, modest extrapolations rather than rory-eyed imaginings. Even my intro (Joe III in 2015) is based on slight extension of current scientific work. As for fundamental limits: I don't think we know enough yet to say what these may be. If they are energetic, so what? The energy requirements in nanotech are tiny. When you're dealing with nanovolts, you can produce all the power you need with one hand-squeeze of a piezoelectric substance. In fact nanotech's main contribution to our economy (you note this too, Becky) may well involve energy conservation. Use water in evaporative air conditioning today, and you waste water and energy both. Derive the water with a Sciperio nanoengineered system, and you evaporate only the water you've already culled out of the air at extremely low energy cost. To find out what's being done today, just Google any of my interviewees: not only Rizhi Wang but also Neil Branda, Masumi Asakawa, &c. That's an excellent start.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 30 May 03 16:02
Thanks! By limits, I also mean the sort of thing that prevents "gray goo" or other, more realistic disasters. Limits can be a good thing.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Fri 30 May 03 16:10
Probably the most effective limit against gray goo is the physical impossibility of legions of self-replicating, universally omnivorous molecular assemblers, or should we say molecular de-assemblers. Ain't gonna happen. Software encoding, service maintenance, the stickiness of atoms, Brownian motion, the sheer quantity of matter to be attacked -- any number of physical constraints make such inventions (and thus their threatened effects) effectively impossible.
Jeff Loomis (jal) Fri 30 May 03 21:20
Are you the same Bill Atkinson that worked with Dr Livingston at UCSD in the 70's?
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Sat 31 May 03 01:11
Bill, where do you see the "Silicon Valley" of nanotechnology occuring?
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sat 31 May 03 08:09
Jeff: No, I'm not Stanley to Dr Livingston. But there seem to be a lot of Bill Atkinsons around: nature photographer in Arizona, software designer in California, and a character in Kingsley Amis's novel Lucky Jim. Main reason I went to the full, portentous "William Illsey Atkinson." Google that and there's no false positives. Airman: Silicon valley of nanotech will be (heck, already is) Silicon Valley itself - at least in the states. It retains the personnel (goofy, inventive) and mindset (entrepreneurial) from its silicon days. Dallas and Boston/Cambridge are big, anchored by the big colleges, but NoCal has it all. Outside the States, it's Switzerland (bio-nano-pharmaceuticals, what a jawbreaking phrase) and Tsukuba, Japan.
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Sat 31 May 03 11:45
The title Nanocosm caught my eye since George Gilder published a similar named book called Microcosm about ten or so years ago. Gilder's book primarily looked at the silicon chip and it's effects which he defined as the quantum revolution in technology and economics. In Nanocosm most of the book spoke to the technology in a series of documented interviews along with some interesting explainations of how things work in the nanocosm. The Appendix is chalk full of a number of predictions of technology. But in the spirit of Microcosm, could you comment on the economic changes from the nanocosm?
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sat 31 May 03 17:45
Airman: As the preachers say in Appalachia, "It's in the book!" And there I touch on the commercial fallout from these new techniques. But here's a quick summary: Being an optimist (though I hope a realistic one) I'd see the primary economic changes as beneficial. They include: reducing the world's dependence on oil (and the First World's dependence on oil imports); creating new materials that first make known objects safer and better and then let us create wholly new products; and massively increasing medical accuracy while massively reducing medical costs. I haven't done even back-of-envelope calculations for benefit/cost analyses, but any one of these should work out in the hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, worldwide.
from an off-WELL reader (tnf) Sat 31 May 03 23:49
From ERIN, outside the WELL: Hello Mr Atkinson, I have some questions regarding nanotechnology and your book. In the speculation about nanotech in the 2015 period, I was most interested in the section you mentioned on "molding a capacitant device" into a material structure, and strengthening/reinforcing the inter-molecular bonds. Is that physically possible? If this could be done..then in theory...we could make materials even stronger than diamondoids..and fullerenes...correct? I was also very interested in the Nano Cellular Automata, I purchased and I read Stephen Wolfram's crowning book on cellular automata, a New Kind of Science, and it amazes me. This is a possible method to molecular assembly systems of a sort. Tell us more about this please. Erin
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 1 Jun 03 12:08
Hi Erin, I doubt we could engineer an interatomic bond stronger than what now occurs naturally, at least until nanotechnology gives way to 'picotechnology' [at 1000x finer scale than the nanocosm] or 'femtotechnology' [1000000x finer]. So for now at least, the covalent-carbon bond will remain one of the strongest we know. Interestingly, since the book went to press I came across another nanotech startup, this time in Toronto. They are using forced-crystal technology (cf. Sawatzky pp. 51-55) to induce metal atoms to self-assemble into crystals of finer scale than found in nature. So regular and perfect is this self-assembly that the normal inclusions, dislocations, and other flaws found in today's best alloys simply disappear. This yields metals far closer to theoretical strengths, opening the door to skate blades that never need sharpening and bulletproof armor no thicker than tinfoil. The device Joe III mentions on p.24 comes from my imagination, but is based on current research. It would give a bond no stronger than the strongest natural bond, but offer engineers the option of attenuating such a bond to a lower level. In aggregate, this would make a material containing many such bonds more or less stiff, according to one's whim. I agree with you on the power of cellular automata; I tried to make my enthusiasm for this approach evident in the book. CA is a major piece of a major puzzle: how we can best manage the nanocosm. The other pieces are self-assembly and biomimicry, which CA math fits hand-in-glove. Given this, the nanorobots imagined by Eric Drexler and his associates become unnecessary, inelegant, and absurd -- even if they are possible, which I strongly doubt. Conceptually, the beautiful thing about CA is that we can't entirely predict its outcome. The mechanistic imaginings of Mr Drexler, where all of nature is utterly under our command, give way to something far more beautiful and powerful. The triad of CA, self-assembly, and imitation of nature will lead us to structures, processes, and products of immense elegance. I consider Dr Wolfram to have appeared in precisely the right place and time.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 2 Jun 03 08:19
Is there a down side? Perhaps something like the situation described by Michael Crichton in his novel, _Prey_?
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Mon 2 Jun 03 09:14
"Prey" is interesting sci-fi, but as sober caution it's drivel -- just like "Jurassic Park." I mean, how many humans have recently died from velociraptor bites? In every aspect, from introduction to body copy to bibliography, "Prey" is predicated on the impossible: i.e. a world where Drexlerian nanobots exist, self-replicate, evolve intelligence, and feast on human beings. Ain't gonna happen. Certainly, legitimate nanotech may have dangers -- not terrorism so much as counter-terrorism: Big Brother hovering in a nearby dustmote, logging your every eyeblink,phone call, and sneeze. And if synthetic catalysis becomes a reality,then certain chemical reactions will be possible that are not in humanity's best interests to carry on indefinitely. In the book I suggest a nanocatalyst might steadily increase the prevalence of covalent bonds, making life impossible. Other, subtler reactions could include interdiction of specific enzymatic activity in the eukaryotic cell. This would simulate inherited, debilitative genetic diseases. But these more realistic scenarios do not differ greatly from the presence of any poison in our midst, from the prions (bollixed proteins) behind mad-cow disease to the nanoparticles of carbon that cause black lung in miners. Existing DOE and FDA laws, if enforced, are quite sufficient to address these. Note that the nanoboosters -- as I call the coterie of zealots who have an unshakeable faith in their wonky universe of nanobots, molecular assemblers, and other sci-fi devices -- are caught in a trap here. For years they have hinted darkly that Nanotech Will Give Us Awesome Powers For Good Or Ill. Now they've spooked legislators to the point that serious suggestions are being made to shut down nanotech research altogether. Oops! Victims of their own success! So now you have people like Eric Drexler saying out of the one side of his mouth, It's Real! It's Scary! and out of the other (New Scientist on-line interview, late April 2003) We Must Not Curtail This Important Research! Odd crew, these boosters. Don't look for consistency here.
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Mon 2 Jun 03 10:30
Drexler takes a real drubbing in your book along with Ralph Merkle, a respected scientist from Xerox. In Nanocosm it seems you took the safe way out by siding with Smalley's criticisms in the Scientific American counterpoint to Drexler's position However, it would seem that the researchers are approaching the same goals from different directions. Smalley is taking a top down approach using chemical methods and leaning toward biomimicry while Drexler took a bottoms up approach echoing the Feynman view. While Drexler may appear as a bottom feeding huckster, in strategic planning terms he is exploring the bottoms up methodology which is mostly a mind exercise. Notably, he also majored in biology and chemistry so he is well aware of the other methods. Drexler isn't someone you can invest in directly since his efforts are mostly associated with the Foresight Institute so the drubbing you give him seems ill suited to advising investors (except in Canada perhaps). Merkle on the other hand has joined Zyvex, a seriously funded effort that is focused on nanotechnology. While the Drexler-Merkle association has been a major attraction at the Foresight Institute, Merkle continues to publish with peer review as to the exhuberant promotion of Drexler. I found the ad hominem attacks on these individuals whether right or wrong distracting from the true purpose of the book. I expect that from a high school sophmore or gossip at a convention, or perhaps even a documented confrontation as you had in one case, but to continue to simple rant about Drexler's approach as being bad is tantamount to trying to prove a negative. In my opinion you would have been more effective if you documented the one incident and moved on. That leaves Zyvex...unless I missed something there was a major hole in not looking at Zyvex more closely. Merkle is there so perhaps it doesn't fit your investment criteria (what is your investment criteria?) but there are other respected sicentists and individuals there as well. One particular case worth noting is the Freitas multivolume series entitled Nanomedicine. Now there are a few other companies that might be worth investing in, but most of the companies associated with your list in the Appendix I have been aware for at least four years with the exception of Canadian companies. Was this book simply to make the VC community aware of a few Canadian companies?
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