Out of the memory-hole:
A historian speaks out on nanotechnology

by Eric Drexler on 2010/09/24

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.

Patrick McCray
NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society
Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara

[Nature, 16 Sept 2010]

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.

See also:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Vasilii Artyukhov September 24, 2010 at 10:47 am UTC

The link to the letter actually points to the original article. The correct link seems to be: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v467/n7313/full/467271c.html

Hope there’s going to be some response from Lok…

Thanks, Vasilii — I fixed the links. I dropped a friendly note to Lok when I posted my initial comments, and she replied to suggest that a letter to the editor with further information on the history would be a good idea. I thought that Patrick’s letter stated the important points, and because of the source, he delivered them in way that I couldn’t.
— Eric

Dave Lindbergh September 24, 2010 at 12:47 pm UTC

Sorry Eric, you’re stuck with it. Any time ideas get associated with personalities lots of permutations the original author never endorsed get associated with the name. Look at all the things Darwin, Keynes, or Milton Friedman are accused of saying that they never said. (Look at the bright side – unlike them, at least you’re not dead.)

It’s appropriate that you object once in a while, just to keep the record straight, but don’t expect that anyone will actually pay attention. You can’t have it both ways – either you get credit for both what you contributed and what you didn’t, or you’re forgotten.



Thanks, Dave. Yes, I don’t expect to see the “D” label disappear (even partial absences of things are hard to see) but as you say, there’s some value to objecting from time to time.

About credit, though, I think it is possible to dial back misattribution in serious venues, and this can be important. How could Smalley have any success among scientists with a tactic that other creationists* use with the public — misrepresent the scientific concept, then refute the bogus version? This tactic works only if the misrepresentation is credible to the audience. It got some traction in this instance because I’d gotten so much “credit” for ideas even more bogus than the ones that he invented and blamed on me.

* Not a typo!

By the way, what have you been up to lately?

— Eric

MJK September 24, 2010 at 9:19 pm UTC

You know, just between you and me, I think “Drexlerian” is a good word.

You know what was Drexlerian? Kennedy telling Congress in 1961 that we were going to the moon, using rockets not yet designed, alloys not yet conceived, navigation/docking schemes not yet divised, to send a man to a world not yet known, mapped or explored — even by robots — and bring him safely back and with a solid deadline. He said that before any American had achieved earth orbit. It was Drexlerian and it really happened. I think the same thing could happen with nano tech and it’s a future that we could achieve.

I won’t use the word again out of respect, though, but secretly to me, it means great optimisim about technology and hope for the future, not just for science or nano tech but for humanity as well.

“…just between you and me…” Too late! (BTW, the way that you are tempted to use use the “D” label is also a problem, for yet another reason…but thanks.)
— Eric

Brian September 26, 2010 at 8:11 pm UTC

Wow, Smalley was a creationist? I find that quite shocking. I suppose that denying evolution doesn’t necessarily make you a bad scientist if your field is not biology, but it seems like it would require an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance.

Valkyrie Ice September 30, 2010 at 3:53 am UTC

I have to agree that you’re stuck with it, and I don’t think it will ever go away.

When I use the term it is in specific reference to the diamonoid based structures you described in EoC, so I do at least try to keep it limited to the original meaning as opposed to the “Pop Nano” vision.

John Baez November 22, 2010 at 11:54 am UTC

Some story in Nature writes:

… strong excitement about nanotechnology “began at the birth of the NNI [established in 2000] and peaked in the middle of the decade”.

What a bunch of hooey! Not only the idea that the excitement began at the birth of the NNI, but that it has “peaked”.

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