A recent retrospective on the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (Nature, 1 Sept 2010) repeats the story that strong excitement about nanotechnology “began at the birth of the NNI [established in 2000] and peaked in the middle of the decade”.
This paints a strange and false picture. Excitement launched the bureaucracy, not vice versa, and it began over a decade before.
To erase this formative decade — and with it, the role of the promise that won public support for the field — isn’t a minor mistake: Like the sticky-fat-fingers propaganda, it’s a residue of the science-funding politics of the late-1990s, and it continues to distort understanding of the potential nanotechnology itself.
Correcting this sort of thing is a job for professional historians, and one has stepped forward in a letter to the Nature:
How nanotechnology captured the public imagination
I would like to offer some crucial background about the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (Nature 467, 18–21; 2010).
A decade or so before the initiative was founded, advocates such as K. Eric Drexler and other exploratory engineers helped to develop nanotechnology as a concept and to bring it to a wider audience….
Although Drexlerian ideas were unpopular with some science managers and researchers, they influenced the thinking of people like Richard Smalley from the early 1990s — the Nobel laureate even sent copies of Drexler’s books to potential patrons. Without them, nanotechnology could not have secured the traction it did in 2000…
Recognizing the role of unexpected ideas and assorted actors in forming policy initiatives is important at a time when major programmes are being launched in new fields, including in synthetic biology, sustainable energy, stem-cell therapy, geoengineering and fusion research.
NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society
Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara
I’ve said more about this, most recently here:
“Which came first, the Nano or the NNI?”
And about the “D” label in the letter…
By the way, I really loathe the term “Drexlerian”. It has no clear meaning, and the two main meanings it does have are obnoxious:
- The “D” label gets applied to the basic concepts of atomically precise manufacturing, but personalizing basic concepts this way tends to trivialize and ossify what the National Research Council views as a wide-open field of scientific inquiry.
- The “D” label also gets applied to a raft of wild ideas about advanced nanomachines and magical nanobots. Calling this stuff “Drexlerian” loads the “D” labeled field of scientific inquiry — and my reputation — with baggage that has been stuffed full of rubbish by a generation of reporters and internet chatters. Can we instead call the fantasies something like “pop nano”? The ideas in popular culture took on a strange, mutant life of their own over 20 years ago.
In short, if something isn’t mine, please omit my name. If I said it, please cite the source. If it’s a basic concept, please just use it. And whatever it is, please give the “D” label a rest.