Locklin on science

Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry

Posted in nanotech, physics by Scott Locklin on August 24, 2010

I used to work next to the center for nanotechnology. The first indication I had that there was something wrong with the discipline of “nanotechnology” is I noticed that the people who worked there were the same people who used to do chemistry and material science. It appeared to be a more fashionable label for these subjects. Really “material science” was a sort of fancy label for the chemistry of things we use to build other things. OK, new name for “chemist.” Hopefully it ups the funding. Good for you guys.

Later on, I actually read Drexler’s Ph.D. thesis which invented the subject. I can sum it up thusly:

  • Behold, the Schroedinger equation!

  • With this mighty equation we may go forth and invent an entirely new form of chemistry, with which we may create new and superior forms of life which are mechanical in their form, rather than squishy inefficient biological looking things. We shall use the mighty powers of the computer to do these things! It shall bring forth many great marvels!

    “And there was heavenly music”

That’s it. That’s what the whole book is. Oh yes, there are a few collections of intimidating tables and graphs purporting to indicate that such a thing might be possible, and Drexler does sketch out some impressive looking mechanical designs of what he supposes a nanobot might look like, but, without more than a passing justification. He seems to lack the imagination, and of course, the physics to figure out what a real nanosized doodad might look like. Much of his thesis seems to be hand wavey arguments that his “looking rather a lot like a meter scale object” designs would work on a nano or small microscale. I know for a fact that they will not. You can wave your hands around all you want; when you stick an atomic force microscope down on nanosized thingees, you know what forces they produce. They don’t act like macro-objects, at all. Drexler would also occasionally notice that his perfect little robots would probably, you know, oxidize, like most reactive things do, and consign them to Ultra High Vacuum chambers in a fit of embarrassment. Then sometimes he would forget about the chemical properties of oxygen, and enthusiastically stick them everywhere. None of the chemistry you’d need to figure out to even begin to do this was done in his book. Little real thought was given to thermodynamics or where the energy was coming from for all these cool Maxwell-Demon like “perpetual motion” reactions. It was never noticed that computational chemistry (aka figuring out molecular properties from the Schroedinger equation) is basically useless. Experimental results were rarely mentioned, or explained away with the glorious equation of Schroedinger, with which, all things seemed possible. Self assembly was deemed routine, despite the fact that nobody knows how to engineer such thing using macroscopic objects.

There is modern and even ancient nano sized tech; lithographic electronic chip features are down to this size now, and of course, materials like asbestos were always nano sized. As far as nano objects for manipulating things on nanoscales; such things don’t exist. Imagining self replicating nanobots or nano machines is ridiculous. We don’t even have micromachines. Mechanical objects on microscales do not exist. On milliscales, everything that I have seen is lithographically etched, or made on a watchmakers lathe. Is it cool? Yep; it’s kind of cool. I have already worked for a “millitech” company which was going to use tiny accelerometers to do sensing stuff in your cell phone. Will it change the universe? Nope. Millitech miniaturization has been available for probably 300 years now (assuming the Greeks didn’t have it); lithography just allows us to mass produce such things out of different materials.

This is an honest summary of Drexler’s Ph.D. thesis/book, and with that, a modest act of imagination, accompanied by a tremendous act of chutzpah, and a considerable talent for self promotion, he created what must be the most successful example of “vaporware” of the late 20th and early 21st century. The “molecular foundry” or “center for nanotechnology” or whatever nonsense name they’re calling the new chemistry building at LBL is but the tip of the iceberg. There are government organizations designed to keep up America’s leadership in this imaginary field. There are zillionaire worryworts who are afraid this mighty product of Drexler’s imagination will some day turn us all into grey goo. There are news aggregators for this nonexistent technology. There are even charlatans with foundations promoting, get this, “responsible nanotech.” All this, for a technology which can’t even remotely be thought of as existing in even pre-pre-prototype form. It is as if someone read Isaac Asimov’s books on Robots of the future (written in the 1950s) and thought to found government labs and foundations and centers to responsibly deal with the implications of artificial intelligence from “positronic brains.”

You’d think such an endeavor would have gone on for, I don’t know, a few years, before everyone realized Drexler was a science fiction author who doesn’t do plot or characterization. Nope; this insanity has gone on for 25 years now. Generations of academics have spent their entire careers on this subject, yet not a single goal or fundamental technology which would make this fantasy a remote possibility has yet been developed. Must we work on it for another 25 years before we realize that we can’t even do the “take the Schroedinger equation, figure out how simple molecules stick together” prerequisites which are a fundamental requirement for so called molecular engineering? How many more decades or centuries of research before we can even create a macroscopic object which is capable of the feat of “self replication,” let alone a self replicator which works at length scales which we have only a rudimentary understanding of? How many more cases of nincompoops selling “nanotech sunscreen” or “nanotech water filters” using the “nanotechnology” of activated carbon; must I endure? How many more CIA reports on the dangers of immanent nanoterrorism must my tax dollar pay for, when such technologies are, at best, centuries away? How many more vast coffers of government largesse shall we shower on these clowns before we realize they’re selling snake oil?

Drexler’s answer to all this is, since nobody can disprove the necessary things to develop nanotech, they will be developed. Well, that depends what you mean by the words “can” and “disprove.” It also depends on what your time scale is. I’m willing to bet, at some nebulous point in the future, long after Drexler and I are dead, someone may eventually develop a technology sort of vaguely like what he imagines. At least the parts that don’t totally violate the laws of thermodynamics and materials physics (probably, most of the details do). As an argument, “you can’t disprove my crazy idea” doesn’t hold much water with me. Doubtless there are many denizens of the booby hatch who claim to be Jesus, and I can’t really disprove any of them, but I don’t really see why I should be required to.

I have nothing against there being a few people who want to achieve some of the scientific milestones needed to accomplish “nanotech.” I have a great deal against charlatans who claim that we should actually invest significant resources into this crazy idea. If you’re an investor, and somebody’s prospectus talks about “nano” anything, assuming they’re not selling you a semiconductor fab, you can bet that they are selling you snake oil. There is no nanotech. Stop talking about it. Start laughing at it.

As Nobel prize winning chemist Richard Smalley put it to Drexler:
“No, you don’t get it. You are still in a pretend world where atoms go where you want because your computer program directs them to go there.”


Edit add: definition of vaporware technology: any “technology” which claims miraculous benefits on a timescale longer than it takes to achieve tenure and retire is vaporware, and should not be taken seriously.

205 Responses

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  1. LB said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:28 am

    Please don’t tell me that Remote Viewing is BS too……

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:45 am

      What are they teaching you in Amherst anyway?

      • LB said, on August 24, 2010 at 4:45 am

        The post reminded me of the movie “Men Who Stare at Goats.” Military spending on vaporware (Remote Viewing etc) was authorized on the ‘information’ the CCCP was already advanced in their capabilities.

        You don’t want to miss the boat–a common enough investment strategy

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 5:12 am

          Ah, so: I watched Sherlock Holmes instead on that planeride.

          There was a military project involved in that sort of thing, of course. The military is amazing in their willingness to fund what amounts to complete insanity. Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, they didn’t fund my random field Ising model of middle eastern rumor propagation.

          • LB said, on August 25, 2010 at 4:17 pm

            Given the reactions, maybe I shouldn’t have been so flippant. Years ago I made an early stage lp investment in a Nanotech company. But that was dumb money, which might be well modeled by a random field Ising model. The reality of Nanotech doesn’t interest me much. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I am interested in the phenomenon of perceptions and speculations.

            Microfinance is another idea not always metered by market forces. It, too, is frequently funded by people who do little research, relying on the assumption that his neighbor who invested did.

            I like the idea of the Government funding zero/low return technology. I like the Space Program. But when ideas aren’t subject to market forces you typically get some sort of establishment that bristles at criticism. Long term that’s bad– like books about runaway swarms of self-replicating killer nano-agents (no doubt angry that they can never be monetized).

            • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 5:59 pm

              Well, the main reactions are from dudes who work in government think tanks dealing with nonsense like this, and generating gorp like the CIA report worrying about immanent nanoterrorism. Imagine what would happen if I started making fun of the “green” adjective.

              I’m a cautious fan of government funded science. It can accomplish great things. It can also foster idiocy which only exists to perpetuate a bureaucracy. I think we’re seeing a lot of Byzantine-empire type self-perpetuating bureaucracy stuff now. Applying the prefix “nano” to simple ideas from physics, chemistry and tribology in order to bump up the funding on the government chuckwagon is an obvious way this is happening. While “nano” implies some sort of magical super technology, “green” implies virtue and cleanliness. Neither word actually means anything, other than, “gee I wish I had something with these impossible properties; please give me more money for my research!”

              Sornette’s work on the physics of trend following should be required reading for all of humanity. Bubbles, suck, dudes.

  2. Brennan said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:29 am

    Well, to be fair, artificial enzymes will happen rather soon, and the difference between an artificial cell and a nanobot isn’t very significant. ATP is very mechanical in action.

    It will be a very long time until we do more than reuse biological features, but it will happen. Led by biologists and biochemists, not nanotechnologists. Computational chemistry will play a role, it will take a very long time to get there, and it may turn out to be simpler to compute via experimentation.

    Couldn’t agree more on the general annoyance in nanotechnology.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:46 am

      Show me the money; I keep hearing all kinds of stuff is “real close now.” I’ve been hearing it for too long.

      • Akshay Bhat said, on August 24, 2010 at 4:35 pm

        you seem to be same guy who asked Charles Babbage, Whats taking so long?


        your post is completely flawed

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:20 pm

          Bitch, please! Charles Babbage designed something which could have been made with the technology of the time. If Britain had dedicated a significant portion of its GDP and thousands of workers to creating an analytical engine for the next 25 years, and failed to even build a gear for the damn thing, well, then we might have suspected that Mr. Babbage was full of baked beans.
          25 years! Do you know how long 25 years is? In 25 years, we went from Von Neumann writing a paper on how to make a digital computer to having freaking Unix and GUI’s. In 25 years, we went from biplanes made out of cloth to the SR-71. 25 years is a working lifetime for many people. And there have been hundreds or thousands of people who have dedicated their lives to this “nano” idiocy. Yet, we are not one whit closer to having anything remotely resembling a nanotechnology now than we were 25 years ago.
          If Drexler and his propellor heads wish to comfort themselves with the idea that they are visionaries ahead of their time; well, I deny it. I maintain that they have picked a delivery date so far into the future that the day of judgement will never come. They’ll all be comfortably retired by then. How convenient.

          • Stewart said, on October 18, 2010 at 7:21 pm

            Maybe you need to pick this fight with Ray Kurzweil and not Eric Drexler.

            • Scott Locklin said, on October 19, 2010 at 2:59 am

              Maybe some day. Drexler’s ideas are more of a menace than folk religion for computer nerds: nobody is asking for money to immanentize the Kurzweil Eschaton.

              • Mark Plus said, on October 19, 2010 at 4:29 am

                It embarrasses me now that Kurzweil credits me with coining the word “singularitarian.”

                • Scott Locklin said, on October 19, 2010 at 5:04 am

                  Well, that’s fame of a sort. I don’t know if you were into this idea at one time or not, but one of the ways people persuade you to believe in their crazy ideas is to give you credit for them. It’s a really fundamental and fairly effective sales tactic for all kinds of stuff. Works on your boss too; “hey, good idea boss!”

      • coldequation said, on August 27, 2010 at 12:32 am

        Here’s something – not the coolest thing in the world, but a protein designed from scratch that does something.


        • Scott Locklin said, on August 27, 2010 at 4:43 am

          I don’t know enough biology to know if that is impressive or not. One of the citations looks like they did something very similar in ’94. Anyway, it hardly qualifies as “nanotech.” More like, “organic chemistry.”

          • coldequation said, on August 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm

            I don’t think it’s all that impressive because all it does is bind oxygen, but it’s a neat proof of concept that you can rationally design a protein that does something instead of borrowing from nature, and it doesn’t have to be as complicated as nature made it.

            Yes, it’s organic chemistry. Most nanotech probably would be organic chemistry, since carbon is the obvious material of choice (nature made our bodies, which are aggregates of nanomachines, out of carbon for a reason). Something could be organic chemistry and nanotech at the same time. If that doesn’t qualify, why not, and what would make it qualify?

            Anyway, you wanted an example of an artificial enzyme, and there you have it, lame as it may be.

            Here’s another one that actually does something:

            Unlike the other one, it’s mostly plagiarized from nature, but it has a novel function (reducing nitrate) that the natural version doesn’t have.

            • Scott Locklin said, on August 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm

              Well, to be “nanotech,” it should, for one thing, have more than one “part” to be distinguishable from chemistry. I mean, if you’re just going to point at nano-chemicals and say, “look, nanotech,” you could point to all the chemicals made before Drexler’s book as working nanotech. For another thing, it shouldn’t steal its chemistry from biological nature; that’s biotech, not nanotech. Nanotech implies a new sort of chemistry; hopefully “diamond like” as described in Drexler’s book. For another thing, it should be designed on a CAD machine like Drexler says. Finally, it should be mechanical in nature, not wet and squishy. I suppose I can waive the latter; you can have wet and squishy nanotech if you want, but it has to be designed, like they’re trying to do in various “centers for nanotechnology.” Mostly, though, I would want a presumed nanotech to be made by some nanotechnologists, such as are being funded to the tune of billions of dollars. You don’t get to steal the thunder of a bunch of biologists by publishing their results in your nano journal.

      • Sabre Bayonet said, on December 9, 2011 at 5:37 am

        Why are you so ignorant, Scott? I hereby challenge you to show me one PHYSICAL-CHEMICAL-SCIENTIFIC reason why molecular nano assembly that Drexler states is not possible. You cannot and will not.

        • Scott Locklin said, on December 9, 2011 at 5:48 am

          You can’t prove that Jesus didn’t die for your sins either, dipshit.

    • Klavs Jensen said, on November 28, 2011 at 6:42 pm

      Artificial enzymes are far away.

      I dislike nanotechnology as a broad term, but being a lot of things “nanosized” in nature, anyone studying something of legitimate interest in that size-scale will use the prefix.

      It is good to have criticism to what is mostly a “fad”, but “Materials Science” is not quite what you described. Materials Science departments are usually close to engineering departments and came from the now defunct metallurgy or mining engineering departments and not really from chemistry. It is not supposed to be a basic science, it was an engineering field, that did “microtechnology” for a long time: by that I mean, metallurgists (materials scientists) learned to recognize how microstructure correlated with properties and this allowed us to optimize out steels for the bridges we love, for the cars we drive and a lot of other engineered materials.
      The “nano-fad” in materials science is only a natural thing: characterization tools allow to look at nano-scale structure and pursue property-nanostructure relationships. A simple example is nanosized grains in metal alloys: it’s not “nanotechnology” but the people investigating these legitimate research goals use the prefix. I see no big deal.

      I think you described materials science poorly….it was usually born from civil engineering departments that needed people looking at metals (civil engineers dominate most concrete characterization) and polymers, ceramics and semi-conductors fell under the umbrella of the metallurgic approach giving rise to mat sci…chemistry and mat sci meet sporadically at applications, never at basic science.

      • Petr said, on September 18, 2018 at 5:41 pm

        This is a time-travel exercise: to reply to 7 year old comment. But if you are Prof. Jensen, it’s not everyday we get to make ourselves heard, so I’ll do it.

        You are correct in everything you wrote. But Mining and Metallurgy departments are only defunct in research universities that shape their departments to follow research trends (or whatever it is they follow). The demand for mining engineers and metallurgists still exist, and the top schools opt out of training people for these fields, at least formally, for reasons someone like yourself could clarify. A somewhat recent example that has nothing to do with “nano” was the incorporation of “course 13” (Naval Engineering) into “course 2” (MechE) that happened at MIT when I was an undergraduate there. Did the demand for innovations in Naval Engineering or the need for professionals in the field decrease? Were students not choosing the department? Or was the field no longer attracting the research funds it once did? I imagine it’s a combination of all these, and maybe other issues. Less prestigious universities are still educating fine naval and mining engineers for these fields that aren’t “defunct” at all.

        All that aside, thank you for giving a pragmatic perspective to the “nano-fad” and “nanotechnology” from an active professor on the field. But mostly, thank you for correcting what a Materials Science and Engineering department is actually (or should be) concerned with. But may I say: as the curriculum is transformed to “catch up to current research”, questionable courses can be created and omissions of important “classic” topics occur: this can hurt the students greatly. It’s no joke for such an expensive product that is upper education in the USA.

        note- Your points on AFM were dead on and can be expanded. AFM allows the study of proteins that can’t be crystallised, of difficult systems to study in bulk – the line of utility is completely subjective.

  3. M_M said, on August 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    “As far as nano objects for manipulating things on nanoscales; such things don’t exist.”


    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:04 pm

      I guess that’s a start, but no more impressive than using an atomic force microscope/AFM to do the same sorts of things. AFM’s been around since they invented the record player needle.

      • Klavs Jensen said, on November 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm

        The AFM as it is currently used was created after the development of the STM in the zurich IBM lab in the 80’s.

        For characterization and manipulation, AFM work started in 1986 (just check the wikipedia for the machine).

        It has helped biologists and physicists determine the mechanical properties of proteins for example (titin and actin). It has many other applications, all useful or useless depeding on where one chooses to draw the line of utility.

    • Andrew B said, on August 25, 2010 at 7:32 am

      Can I vote this comment up? Maybe from someone working with the things instead of sitting in an ivory tower talking about them?

      • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

        No, sorry, you’re living in a dictatorship, and in any case, those are not nano objects manipulating things on nanoscales; those are macroscopic objects manipulating things on a nanoscale, which is nothing new.

        • Mackay said, on August 25, 2010 at 1:13 pm

          Hence, Locklin’s Law: Since Drexler’s thesis is bunk, nanotechnology as a whole is a mirage. http://j.mp/ayl0sE See also, the Locklin Corollary: If it’s not a self-assembling nanobot, it’s still macroscale technology.

          Also, FWIW, people are not usually free to leave a dictatorship and never return.

          • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 5:21 pm

            People left East Germany all the time, Sparky. I guess you can add history and political systems to the list of things you haven’t got a clue about.

            I said nothing of the sort; Drexler’s thesis is merely the source of the disease. What I’m really sick of are ding dongs trying to tell me toothpaste or golf balls is nanotech.

            • Mackay said, on August 25, 2010 at 6:03 pm

              You’re right. This site is like East Germany.

              • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 6:06 pm

                Your tax dollars at work; ladies and gentlemen. This fellow is actually being paid by the United States Government to leave sarky comments on my blog, apparently. Seriously man: go read a physics book. Your job is to kill dumb ideas, not to perpetuate them.

                • Mackay said, on August 25, 2010 at 6:52 pm

                  For what it’s worth, I’m on (unpaid) paternity leave. No pension either.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 7:17 pm

                    But … you’re posting from your work computer, dude! Anyway, don’t worry about it; my dictatorship is a benign one, and I spent plenty of government dollars arguing on the internets back when I worked next to the center for Nano-forgery or whatever it’s called now.

                    Try to look at some of these ideas with a jaundiced eye. The word “nano” is a marketing word, not a promise of a glorious human future. Same with “green.” The word “technology” implies something human beings can use, like, right now. What passes as “nanotechnology” now is generally not “nano” and is certainly nothing resembling “technology.” At best you can call it “study of stuff which is small.”
                    The real question for your profession is, do these ideas lead anywhere, or are they a massive circle jerk where people get to jet around and act like smart, important monkeys, when they should be sitting at home and having useful ideas? I think it’s a handjob. Nobody has thus far pointed me to any sort of technology, or even stepping stones to a useful technology, which is at all “nano.” That should really give enthusiasts pause. Don’t just regurgitate someone’s paper because Nature thought it was important enough to publish; that doesn’t make it important. I read a paper in Nature which studied scrotal asymmetry in greek sculpture with a regression model. Do you think that was important? Think about the content of the paper.

  4. PJ said, on August 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    The RepRap project is a first pass at macroscale replicators. They’re getting closer; increasing the ‘replicated parts’ percentage is a goal of theirs, though I doubt they’ll get to 100% anytime soon due to the current inclusion of microchips if nothing else. I expect board-level fabrication to show up in the next couple years though.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm

      Well, that’s a great example of how goddamned science fictiony all this is. Beyond the fact that this gizmo can hardly turn everyday objects found in its environment into copies of itself, and never will be able to. Remember; that’s why we’re supposed to be afraid of/want nanobots. They’ll give us godlike powers of creation, right?

  5. Tony said, on August 24, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Riduculous and narrowminded post. The exact same bollox was belched out of a hundred experts’ mouths before the advent every major scientific breakthrough urching in a new “technology” in mankind’s history. Yeah, great idea – let’s not put any significant funding into this, because “there is no nanotech”. Jackass.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:00 pm

      Oh yeah? Well, for all the billions of dollars we’ve thrown at this imaginary “technology,” why hasn’t there been a single identifiable goal of nano-anything made yet? Or if there has been; what is it?

      • Mackay said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:15 pm

        If you maintain that the only *true* nanotechnology is the self-replicating Drexlerian nanobot, then you will win your argument. If you accept the broader (and mainstream) definition, then your argument goes away. (Writing this reply as Layla plays on a nanotube speaker http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htpCovoRtn0)

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 9:22 pm

          Well, if you think that anything nano can be nanotech, then the use of the wonder nano material of asbestos predated Drexler (and the concurrent popularity of this idiotic term) by, oh I don’t know, at least 2500 years.

      • gk said, on September 6, 2010 at 10:09 pm

        You are right that the term “nanotechnology” is just sexed up chemistry, but it is not Drexler that is responsible for this. Conventional chemists like Smalley bad talk Drexler but then go on and on about the marvels of “nanotechnology” to get prestige and funding for their chemistry research.

        Drexler coined the term “molecular nanotechnology” to distinguish universal constructors from routine chemistry. Billions have been spent on routine chemistry (called “nanotechnology”), not specifically on Drexler’s research. Industry groups that label their products “nanotechnology” (the NanoBusiness Alliance) lobbied to specifically excluded the law from funding a feasibility study of “assemblers”. The National Nanotechnology Institue did the study anyway and found nothing impossible about universal assemblers and called for more research.

        Your views on physics are peculiar. If physical law suggests something is possible, and that something is valuable, then it is appropriate to dedicate further resources to research this subject. You have, with a straight face, compared computational models of molecules with a guy claiming to be a resurrection of Jesus. If you claim both are “not impossible”, I have some real estate to sell you at bubble prices.

        Drexler’s thesis is, in summary, that:
        1. We will gain the ability to design biomolecular systems at will and arbitrarily construct systems composed of amino acids, nucleic acids, lipids and the like.
        2. We will expand these abilities to broader systems than biomolecules, perhaps including any stable molecular structure that is permitted by physical law.

        1. is called biotechnology and is happening. Look for example at the work of Angela Belcher and Craig Venter.
        2. Is also happening to some degree: look at systems that combine biomolecules with fullerenes. It is an open question exactly how large the class of objects that can be designed with atomic precision is.

        What exactly do people that say “Drexlerian nanotechnology is impossible” mean? Do you mean that it is impossible to:

        1. Build novel enzymes not found in nature?
        2. Arbitrarily reprogram biology to construct novel objects out of aminno and nucleic acids?
        3. Build enzyme-like molecules that have multiple covalent bonds (like diamond or fullerenes) as opposed to a chain of single covalent (peptide) bonds found in proteins.
        4. Build systems that can arbitrarily construct any configuration of atoms permitted by physical law.

        Achieving any of the above is a revolution, whether you use the term “nanotechnology” for it or not.

  6. Alan Bostick said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Some fifteen years ago some nanobeliever posted on the Cypherpunks mailing list a paranooid warning about observation by nanoscale cameras. I posted a reply saying, “don’t be silly, the laws of optics constrain cameras in the visible with reasonable resolution to be no smaller than a grain of rice.”

    That post resulted in my getting cruised by a San Francisco nanotech think tank. At an interview they handed me a copy of Drexler’s book, and I went home to read it.

    Oh, what glorious nonsense! All this talk of nanoscale Analytical Engines doing high-speed computing. Wait a minute: nanoscale Analytical Engines are going to use nanoscale gears, and those gears in turn will be subject to quantum effects…. I did some figuring, and wrote a post to Usenet’s sci.nanotech that came to the conclusion that gears in nanomachines are going to function in counterintuitive ways if they are to function at all. (Search Google Groups for “Quantum-mechanical constraints on tiny gear mechanisms” to see the fun yourself.)

    The nanotech think tank was rather less interested in me after that.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:43 pm

      Indeed; the gear thing really boggles my mind, You could pretty much disprove them on a piece of paper using arguments from QM. You can also disprove the idea of nano-gears immediately with an atomic force microscope. Small stuff is sticky, dammit!

      It might be an interesting envelope exercise to see how small you could build a pinhole camera. I swore a mighty oath to give up diffraction theory for all times, so I won’t be able to do it. My big old guess though, is that as long as your paranoid pals keep their floor swept clean of “grain of rice” sized things, they can look at all the weird porn they want without fear of big brother knowing about it.

    • afu said, on August 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      “don’t be silly, the laws of optics constrain cameras in the visible with reasonable resolution to be no smaller than a grain of rice.”

      This makes no sense at all.

      • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm

        I guess it makes no sense if you never thought through the consequences of light being a wave. It’s not like an amoeba’s eye spot can do imaging.

    • William O. B'Livion said, on August 26, 2010 at 6:10 pm

      Oh Gawd.

      I REMEMBER that post.


  7. Ali said, on August 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I knew it, I always asked these people who claim they are doing nanotech what they do and never got a convincing answer!
    I knew it!

  8. David Adams said, on August 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    There are so Micro Machines:


    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm

      Favorite reply yet! Win!

  9. Mackay said, on August 24, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    This article is flamebait written to get hits. So Drexler’s book is crap…big deal. The big fallacy of the article: Drexler’s visions define the field, and by debunking him you cause the field to disappear. Just because the author thinks nanotech ==self-organizing nanobots doesn’t mean you should. Cruise by http://www.nature.com/nnano and decide for yourself if nanotechnology is charlatanry.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm

      I could laugh at each and every article on the front page of Nature’s nano, and tell you why it either isn’t nano-anything, or why it’s a bullshit paper. Micrisupercapacitors from carbon nanoparticles, oh me, oh my!

      Nobody gives a shit about nano-sized anything unless the self organizing god-like nanobots and the associated superpowers which come along with them. The entire field is based on a science fiction fairy story, and should not be taken seriously as a subject of serious enquiry. Sure, you should research putting chalk in your toothpaste to see if it makes people’s teeth better. Should you call that “nano” -evoking science fictiony goodness? Not if you’re a serious person, you shouldn’t. Obviously, putting chalk in toothpaste is not nano anything, but saying that it is gets you into Nature … That sort of comical rebranding of trivial research into what amounts to tribology is what makes me see red. It’s dumb!

  10. Troy McConaghy said, on August 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    There are lots of great comments on this post at Hacker News:


  11. Rod Carvalho said, on August 24, 2010 at 5:55 pm


    Your LISP-y proclivities, your aversion to “spiritual” and new-age-y BS, and your criticism of Drexler / Lee Smolin / Doyne Farmer (among others) make it quite easy to figure out who your NucPhyn persona is 😉 I remember reading this blog for the 1st time in July 2009 or so and thinking to myself: “this guy really sounds like ****** from NP!!!”. Then I figured you were most likely the very same person!! Cheers!

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:21 pm

      A couple of people have figured it out by now. Keep your hat on it if you can. 😉

      • Rod Carvalho said, on August 24, 2010 at 6:31 pm

        Sure! Please delete my comment above, so that no one can go on NP and search for posts containing the word “Drexel” and then find your NP persona 😉

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm

          No worries; any NP google stalker could figure out who I am.

  12. […] Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry « Locklin on science. […]

  13. EdorFaus said, on August 24, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    While we do not – as far as I’m aware anyway – currently have any such machines, we certainly do have the technology to build macro-scale self-replicating machines (at least as long as you assume the right types of raw materials are coming in from somewhere).

    The problem is that this would be /really/ macro-scale – the size of at least one factory, plus connected mobile parts (trucks, cranes, etc).

    We currently have no practical reason to build such a thing here on Earth, and it would be quite expensive, so noone has done it – and that’s really the only reason we don’t have one, I believe.

    RepRap and similar machines are attempts at small-scale versions of this, that (to simplify) somewhat redefine the concept of raw materials (they consider logic chips and various other components to be “raw materials”).

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 1:50 am

      I think one should be able to do something like this, where a mekkano arm makes itself out of a pile of parts. It would be a really stupid, but arguably necessary demonstration of mechanical reproduction. The fact that it hasn’t been done yet indicates to me that … well, we ain’t gonna do it with individual atoms either.

      • Newerspeak said, on August 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm

        Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle,
        Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines,
        Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 2004;


        • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 5:24 pm

          Are you actually citing this as some kind of evidence that there are “self replicating machines?” Because if you are, my scorn and laughter is redoubled. Merkle: the source of the disease.

  14. Top Posts — WordPress.com said, on August 25, 2010 at 12:05 am

    […] Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry I used to work next to the center for nanotechnology. The first indication I had that there was something wrong with […] […]

  15. […] Enraged? Singularity believer? Read first, then […]

  16. […] Enraged? Singularity believer? Read first, then […]

  17. Pieter Deurloo said, on August 25, 2010 at 11:06 am

    You’ve made some very good points here, to be honest the rationalist in me was saying that the singularitarian in me was full of shit for quite some time now, thanks for helping me finally be able to take a solid position on the issue.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm

      Oh man, don’t even get me started on the “singularity.” How can we have a singularity when the Nadaraya-Watson gizmo (invented in the 1964) is still better than 99.9% of machine learning algorithms?

  18. Newerspeak said, on August 25, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    No nano yet, but progress is being made. You probably won’t agree that it’s progress. After posturing in front of your readership for 1300 words, the hueristics and biases literature suggests that nothing, short pulling an atomically-precise replica of yourself out of the nano-assembly chamber, would convince you that you’re wrong.

    At least then you could join the rest of us in appreciating what a douchebag you sound like.

    Here are some papers. Should you read any of them, I hereby pre-commit to revising my estimate of your douchbaggery.

    Origami with DNA:

    Click to access origami.pdf

    DNA Origami box with controllable lid:

    Self-assembly of DNA into nanoscale three-dimensional shapes:

    Design and engineering of an O2 transport protein

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 25, 2010 at 5:30 pm

      You actually expect me to think DNA origami is some kind of technology which can be used by human beings to do things? You do know what the word “technology” means, right? Also: saying DNA is “nanotech” is a lot like saying asbestos is nanotech, which is why all the authors in that paper are … in biology departments. Ain’t no assembled or engineered doodads there; just some crap someone got from nature. I notice you haven’t managed to say anything clever about the most excellent nanotech awesomeness of chalky toothpaste in the hallowed pages of Nature’s Nano page.

  19. An Average Reader said, on August 26, 2010 at 12:12 am

    I have often wondered why there has been so little progress made in the likes of carbon nanotubes, buckeyballs, and the rest. These seem like legitimate areas of inquiry undertaken by serious people. In fact, Richard Smalley, who you cite approvingly, won his Novel for this sort of stuff. Yet they don’t seem to have evolved much past laboratory curiosities, and the occasional reports of breakthroughs usually turn out to be ho-hum incremental advances. Why do you think that is? I understand why we don’t have self-replicating nano robots; the idea is daft to begin with. But even relatively non-daft ideas aren’t much further along. I’d love to hear your theory.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 26, 2010 at 5:20 am

      My second thesis advisor did a little work on the IR spectrum of buckyballs. A legit thing to study. Unfortunately, as you say, nothing much came of it. I suspect a lot of the excitement of these sorts of things originated not so much from “nanotech” fantasies, but reasonable extensions of things we know about in materials science. Now, “nano” is the sexy word though, so I have to listen to a lot of hype about stuff which … is really not so exciting. Using the word kind of confounds the world devouring nanobots with … what amounts to materials science. Materials science in general has really failed to deliver. In the 1960s, this bold new kind of science was supposed to tell us all how, for example, catalysis works. it has so far utterly failed to do so.
      The teacher who influenced me the most (he taught me stats), who now runs N-division at LLNL, once said, if they fail to build the superconducting supercollider, the science would still get done; they’d just have to be smarter about it. That made a huge impression on the young me. Unfortunately, he was wrong: the scientific bureaucracy just looked for money elsewhere. I really wish people would think smarter and different-er, rather than barking up the same fashionable trees.

  20. maggette said, on August 26, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I have outed myself on these blog comments as a “tree huggin” eco-techno hippy that is easy to excite….may it be Bouchaud/Farmer/Sornette and the Econophysic bogus, the idea of a smart grid, or other fields of “applied science” that actually are more science fiction than reality. In my young days “Nano” Technology seemed so promising. I can recall a bunch of “Bild der Wissenschaft” (really pop science…I mean much mor pop than science) about “nano factories” and the like. It is somehow sad that there are a lot of visions that end as inspiration for really whack hollywood movies but never add any real value.

    I ask myself, is there a way to “predict” the “next big science bubble”? What do you think will be the next field that is gonna be hyped to a point of no return?

    edit: did you read Stanislaw Lem : The Invincible? IMHO an awesom SciFi novel on Nano machines.


    • Scott Locklin said, on August 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm

      Nope, never read that Lem book; I think I have only read one of his, and it was long ago. I out myself as a goose stepping traditionalist by noticing that Ernst Juenger’s “Glass Bees” anticipated nanotech also. 😉

      I think green is already the “last big science bubble.” A year ago, we seemed to be heading to climate-o-geddon in our hybrid vehicles, with sack cloth and ashes on. Various silly secular saints were being touted as “the future,” like the idiots in NYC who went without electricity for a year. Now a days, all that is laughably retrograde. The wikileak on the climate researchers, plus the economic downturn seem to have taken all the wind out of those sails.

      I’d say bubbles can be characterized by how many people are in a trade, versus how much dividends (not appreciation) does the trade actually pay. For example: string theory; obvious bubble. Tons of trend followers jumping on the bandwagon, with, thus far, no output which could be considered science. Plenty of good math, but no science; so, this is a science bubble. Nanotech: plenty of nano-noodling; no technology. Bubble. Biotech: lots of people jumped on the bandwagon, and it’s producing real dividends: not a bubble. Some of the ideas touted as biotech future are bubbley, but mostly, this is a legit field to invest your time and money into.
      This is roughly how Sornette’s work functions: you look at how many people are trading on, essentially, what other people are doing, rather than some real information on dividends. He has some numeric way of doing this with price series, but we can use the same concepts for other fields.

  21. William O. B'Livion said, on August 27, 2010 at 3:42 am

    While, like Mr. Locklin, my primary degree involves manipulating light, I was doing it the old fashioned way, with paint or ink on medium (or photoshop, Illustrator and Quark, whatever) rather than with Cool Toys.

    Which is to say that I can’t follow Schrodinger’s Equation, I don’t build rockets in my spare time, and while I get the bits about the cat, the whole wave/particle thing is kinda sketchy.

    Thing is I’ve been reading Science Fiction since…since I was old enough to pick my own reading material.

    I’ve been hearing the joke “We’ll have nanotech in 50 years if we’re lucky, 10 years if we’re not” since the 70s.

    Time’s up.

    Stain and wrinkle resistant coatings applied to cotton to make it look, feel and act more like polyester is NOT nanotech. Especially when you put it on in a fancy washing machine.

    Durable Water Resistent coatings applied to Wool to make it more like Polyester is not Nanotech. Especially when you put it on in a fancy washing machine.

    IBM had some nifty demo-tech (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo) about storing bits on a metal platter using a single molecule rod to move a single molecule “bit” up and down. The paper came out in…2003? 2004?

    We can do really cool shit with tiny molecules. Ok. Some of the “nano-particle” cancer stuff, if it works out, is great.

    But Nano-tech was ALWAYS about the self-replication of REALLY small scale tools that would do interesting things. It was about building computational machines that could float around like dust. See Verner Venge’s “A Deepness in the Sky” and look at the localizers (IIRC). Computational modules including short range radio etc.

    If you ain’t doing that, you just hijacked the name because it sounded cool.

  22. Chris Portman said, on August 27, 2010 at 10:46 am

    “As far as nano objects for manipulating things on nanoscales; such things don’t exist. Imagining self replicating nanobots or nano machines is ridiculous”
    What would you call an enzyme then? Ridiculous is mistaking your own ill-informed opinion for fact. Ü

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm

      What would I call an enzyme? An organic catalytic chemical, generally designed by nature. I wouldn’t call it “nanotech” any more than I’d call platinum in a car’s catalytic converter “nanotech.”

      “what’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.”

      • Kyle Rybski said, on December 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm

        And, what, this Nature entity is supernatural? I don’t follow.

  23. Mark Plus said, on August 30, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Mr. Locklin, what do you make of organ printing?

  24. David Gerard said, on September 1, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Heartwarming article! I’ve tacked a comment you made above on the front of http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nanotechnology , which was largely written by a materials scientist who actually works on nano-scale stuff. I would most welcome your shredding of the article.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 1, 2010 at 6:37 pm

      I am Scott Locklin, and I approve this message. This rational wiki idea seems like a good one. Like encyclopedia dramatica with more sense and less jew-hate.

      • David Gerard said, on September 1, 2010 at 7:14 pm

        LOL. Best review I’ve ever heard of us 😉 It’s more “ShoutyDrunkScepticsWiki” in practice, but whatever entertains 😉

  25. Eric Drexler said, on September 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Hi Scott,

    In my view, molecular and biomolecular design and self-assembly are the most promising directions for lab research in atomically precise nanotechnology. There’s been enormous progress — complex, million-atom atomically-precise frameworks, etc. — but much of the work isn’t called “nanotechnology”, and this leaves many observers of the field confused about where it stands. I follow this topic in my blog, Metamodern.com.

    Regarding the longer-term prospects for this branch of nanotechnology, there’s a publication that offers good starting point for serious discussion.

    The technical analysis that I presented in my book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, (it’s based on my MIT dissertation) was examined in a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences, on “The Technical Feasibility of Site-Specific Chemistry for Large-Scale Manufacturing”. The report finds no show-stoppers. It notes uncertainties regarding potential system performance and “optimum research paths”, however, and closes with a call for funding experimental research.

    This report was prepared by a scientific committee convened by the U.S. National Research Council in response to a request from Congress. It is based on the scientific literature, and on an NRC committee workshop with a range of invited experts and extensive follow-on discussion and evaluation.

    I think that this report (and the Battelle/National Labs technology roadmap) deserves more attention from serious thinkers. It deflates a lot of mythology about a topic that just might be real and important.

    If either of these publications has been mentioned above, I missed it.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 2, 2010 at 7:23 am

      I think some of those things you link to were mentioned above, along with a fat CIA report worrying about the teeth chattering possibility of immanent “nano terrorism,” several cases of nanotech sunscreen, nanotech toothpaste as featured in a letter to Nature and other such silly things. I think serious thinkers have paid way too much attention to this sort of thing, and need to get their head out of the nano clouds, and start telling us about important stuff like, I dunno, how water or catalysis works. People need to grow up and attempt to achieve real things, rather than imagining how cool it would be if we had nanotech factories which would give us genie-like superpowers.

      I give you full credit for the mighty hype machine you have created: your talents for self promotion are outstanding. You get no credit for honesty if you allow people to run off with these ideas and hawk golf balls and toothpaste as nanotech, or allow the spooks and Bill Joy to tell people that your world devouring nanoterrorist robots are “coming real soon now.” I actually considered writing a book taking you down point by point on your bad physics and everything, and making a career out of blowing over this house of cards you have created. Fortunately for the both of us, markets are more interesting than making fun of you, so I content myself with the occasional harumph at your impostures.

      I also encourage people to look at your dissertation linked below to see if I’m really misrepresenting the actual scientific content of your work. How’s that “steric-repulsion bearing” coming along? Don’t feel bad, Eric: my dissertation sucked too. Of course, I had the good graces to realize it and develop a new career which actually adds something to the GDP.

      Finally, in the interests of saying something nice, I enjoyed your post on whale oil, one of the reasons why modern science research sucks and you don’t even know how right you are that modern education is complete garbage compared to what it used to be. This is something I’ve studied in some detail. If you can find some old high school textbooks -well, it’s hard to read them without noticing that didactics (and by induction, Western Civilization) is regressing. This is a very serious interest of mine.

      • gk said, on September 6, 2010 at 10:19 pm


        How is Eric Drexler suppossed to stop scientists from relabelling their trivial research as “nanotechnology”. Incidentally these are some of the same scientists who bad talk the Drexler-Feynman definiiton of nanotechnology.

        Drexler has addressed the phenomenon in great detail here:

        Click to access FeynmanToFunding.pdf

        • Scott Locklin said, on September 6, 2010 at 10:50 pm

          Well, he could call out a few who have absconded with the name; he has the motivation with the dudes who don’t like his ideas, and of course, it is his word and his idea, and he should guard it jealously. Really, it’s Peter Rodgers (editor of nature nanotech) who should be held responsible for the fact that someone published an article on toothpaste in his journal, but Drexler shares in some of the blame for not, to my knowledge, ever saying, “yo man, them nanotech golfballs are just made out of rubber.”
          Drexler could also do the very obvious thing of pointing out the most promising researchers for the direction he’d like this to go in. It’s his idea, after all. The paper you pointed me to talks about assemblers and little arms. So, which researcher out there today is taking the first steps towards this, hmmmm?
          If it’s any consolation, I think those absconders are equally worthy of my scorn. But I’m also of the opinion that, “kill the head, the body will die.”

  26. Eric Drexler said, on September 1, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    By the way, I think that you misquote me a few times, and oversimplify my views just a bit. There’s been a lot of that over the years, and it adds up to a lot of misinformation.

    Regarding the Schroedinger equation, I haven’t checked, but “F = ma” may also be mentioned somewhere in my dissertation. Anyone who wants to see else is there can find it here: http://e-drexler.com/d/09/00/Drexler_MIT_dissertation.pdf

    • kesler12 said, on July 20, 2011 at 9:47 am

      There is a crude attempt by a layman to discredit molecular assemblers [‘capable of working outside a vacuum sealed, cooling plate equiped chamber’] you might find amusing. It can be found here at: http://youtu.be/ZFxuqxsnAdg

      If nothing else, it at least shows that kids these days are a little more involved in the cutting edge of science. Terrible scenery and prose, though.

      • Scott Locklin said, on July 21, 2011 at 8:05 am

        Looks like he posted from Burning Man or something.

  27. David Gerard said, on September 2, 2010 at 12:52 am

    I believe the problem is solved! “Nanotechnology” now means material science and/or synthetic biology. Dr Drexler’s preferred term is now “zettatechnology.”


    So that’s all right, then.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 2, 2010 at 6:22 am

      Well, he just posted above you: perhaps he cares to comment on his latest neologism.

    • Mark Plus said, on September 3, 2010 at 2:50 am

      This reminds me of how Peter Boettke, a professor of Austrian economics at George Mason University, wants to change his field’s name — rebranding it, in effect — because the Austrian economics label attracts too many kooks. Boettke doesn’t consider himself one of those kooks because of his attraction to Austrian economics, mind you.

  28. Mark Plus said, on September 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    These debates about Drexler’s ideas keep going around in circles, because Drexler created the circle. It wouldn’t surprise me if the arguments about them in 2020 will resemble the ones going on today. Drexlerology makes an essentially theological sort of argument which can always find excuses for not producing tangible results.

    • Mitchell Porter said, on September 6, 2010 at 6:12 am

      As a critique of the specific idea of mechanosynthetic chemistry and diamondlike nanomachines, this leaves me thoroughly unmoved. Show me the money, Scott! Pick some quantitative assertion from Drexler’s thesis and tell us why it’s wrong.

      • Scott Locklin said, on September 6, 2010 at 6:27 am

        OK, page 15, “steric-repulsion bearing” -where is it? It’s been 25 years, and that looks like a pretty specific and useful design. Yet … it don’t exist. I wonder why?

        • Mitchell Porter said, on September 6, 2010 at 8:14 am

          Synthesizing that bearing looks to be very difficult because it is a strained covalent structure, and the very first experiments to test ideas about mechanosynthesis of diamond began in late 2008, in the UK. This particular brand of nanotechnology has not exactly been awash with funding, either for theoretical work or for experiment. It’s mostly just been Merkle and Freitas, for many years, and finally there was enough of a convergence between their ideas and the state of the art in AFM single-molecule positioning (etc) that someone from that field (Philip Moriarty) took an interest and obtained some funding. That it was four years from Moriarty’s debate with CRN to the beginning of experiment tells you how slowly things move.

          If I may use an example from another field you don’t like, string theory… The first string formula (the Veneziano amplitude) was discovered in 1968. The mainstream interest in superstring theory began in 1984. Maldacena’s AdS/CFT duality was first conjectured in 1997. It was used to derive a quantity in QCD (shear viscosity) in 2004. Some things just take decades to come to fruition.

          • David Gerard said, on September 6, 2010 at 8:19 am

            Somehow, I don’t find myself convinced by the argument that nanomachines are as valid as string theory. (And never mind comparing incomplete theoretical physics to mechanical proposals that contradict known physics.)

            • Mitchell Porter said, on September 6, 2010 at 9:25 am

              “mechanical proposals that contradict known physics”

              Please exhibit the contradiction. Don’t just assert it, demonstrate it. I asked Scott to find a quantitative statement in Drexler’s thesis that is demonstrably wrong. You are welcome to join the quest.

              • David Gerard said, on September 6, 2010 at 2:01 pm

                http://spectrum.ieee.org/semiconductors/nanotechnology/rupturing-the-nanotech-rapture/2 is a start.

                But I actually don’t have to, given that after 25 years of nothing, the burden of proof is quite definitely on the advocates. The simple and obvious objections in that article have not been refuted, even in theory – let alone practice, of which there is of course zero.

                Burden of proof! Null hypothesis! Do you speak it?

                • Mitchell Porter said, on September 8, 2010 at 7:56 am

                  Richard Jones is sensibly cautious in stating his doubts. His real message is that cells offer a different paradigm of nanomachine – a “soft nanomachine” – and we should be thinking much more about that. I am totally in agreement with him there. But there remain the questions of fact about “hard nanomachines”: would they function and can they be made. Drexler’s thesis is about how they would function, Merkle and Freitas have focused on how they could be made. Even if we add up all the criticisms that have been made – Moriarty regarding surface reconstruction and steric hindrance, Jones regarding friction and oxidation, Bostick (elsewhere on this page) on the quantization of angular momentum – they sound more like constraints than falsifications. And these constraints are well-known to the very small number of people who design and model “hard” nanomachines. The dialogue with the critics is ultimately telling us how to do it, not telling us that it can’t be done.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm

                    I’m telling you it defacto can’t be done because there is no technological path, clear or unclear, towards it being done. Same as tokomak fusion and “curing cancer.”

              • David Gerard said, on September 6, 2010 at 2:18 pm

                To be less snappy, and for the interested reader:

                If someone has presented you with an idea and says that the burden of proof is on you to disprove the idea, work out what the null hypothesis is and then put their evidence for the idea against it.

                Example null hypotheses:

                * Homeopathy: that water prepared by dilution and succussion is indistinguishable in its medical effects from water that has not.
                * Nanobots: that machines at nanoscale do not behave as hypothesised by Drexler.
                * Cryonics: that information in the brain is not sufficiently preserved by the freezing process.
                * Climate change: that human influence has not changed Earth’s climate.
                * Evolution: that species are not changed by natural selection to fit an ecological niche.

                The person claiming something is possible or has happened needs to produce evidence to refute the null hypothesis.

                If they have considerable and well-tested evidence, the burden of proof *may* reasonably be considered to be on the person claiming that the evidence does not hold. Drexler’s hypotheses do not, however, have considerable and well-tested evidence of holding.

                • gk said, on September 6, 2010 at 10:30 pm

                  You have an interesting view of science. There are no “burdens of proof” in science as there are law.

                  1. If there is an unexplained phenomenon, different hypotheses are thought up.
                  2. Researchers ask, if the hypothesis is true, what empirical observations should we see?
                  3. Experimenters run experiments to test these hypotheses.
                  4. This is repeated until we have a single hypothesis which matures into an established theory.

                  Throwing around “burdens” is merely a rhetorical trick. To follow up on your rhetorical trick. There are no buildings 140 stories tall. I am agnostic whether the laws of physics allow buildings 140 stories tall to exist. The burden is on people who believe this is possible to furnish evidence that 140 story buildings are possible. The “null hypothesis” is that 140 story buildings are impossible. I won’t accept computer or mathematical models or any theoretical arguments to support the possiblity of 140 story buildings. Only when someone has built a 140 story building will I accept that they have met their “burden”. Until then, I’ll treat the possiblity of a 140 story building the same as homeopathy, religion, faster than light travel, and the like.

                  • David Gerard said, on September 6, 2010 at 10:40 pm

                    No, this is about bullshit heuristics: how to tell when someone is feeding you a line, irrespective of whether they believe it themselves.

                    Nanotechnology, or zettatechnology or whatever, just does not have the substantiation to be able to say “can you PROVE it ISN’T true?” That’s just not now it works.

                    You argue like a Slashdot commenter who’s read something negative about an obscure BSD they work on.

                    • gk said, on September 7, 2010 at 10:23 pm


                      Everybody has a bullshit hueristic. But only fools stop at that hueristic.
                      If I was alive 80 years ago and someone told me that they could take a non-flamable non-explosive heavy metal (called uranium) and turn it into a bomb millions of time more powerful than any in existence, it would fire up my bullshit hueristic.

                      But I would actually have to follow the equations to give you an educated opinion as to whether nuclear fission is possible.

                      Follow the equations and arguments in Nanosystems. If they are not fundamentally wrong, then there is a possiblility (though not a certainty) that this is permitted by natural law.

                      I am both an engineer and a lawyer and “argue” the way rational people argue in all fields of intellectual endeavor. You are throwing around legal terms like “burden of proof” that you don’t really understand instead of addressing the core scientific issues.

                      Your system of thinking seems to consist of:
                      1. The bullshit heuristic: If it sounds like bullshit, it probably is. I won’t address it further.
                      2. If people won’t stop talking about it, I’ll just use legal worlds like”burdens of proof” and make ad homenein attacks on the other person’s thinking.

                      I find it telling that at every opportunity, Drexler has asked for panels of independent physicists to listen to both sides of the argument and make findings of fact for policy makers. In Engines of Creation (1986) he called for “science courts” where both sides could present arguments and cross examine each other. Critics have at every point objected to independent panels investigating this.

                      If Drexler’s ideas are in fact so infeasible, critics should welcome a review by an independent panel of physicists. After a few days of work, the independent panel could write a long report debunking it the way the NAS has reports debunking creationism (intelligent design), homeopathy, etc. This has not happenned. Everytime an independent scientific panel has looked at this, they have made findings that nothing proposed violates physical law and that more research is called for.

                      Stack-overflow: pray, can you tell me of one of these independent panels?

          • Scott Locklin said, on September 6, 2010 at 7:15 pm

            “Some things just take decades to come to fruition.”

            Can you name one which succeeded without making visible progress, despite billions in funding over the course of 25 or 40 years? How long did it take between Faraday’s experiments and Maxwell’s equations again? We won’t even get into how much it cost; E&M was basically free compared to either Strings or Nano. How long between the invention of thermodynamics and the invention of the steam engine? Oh, I forgot; the technology part actually came first.

            Diamond-like nanotech wasn’t funded because there is nothing to fund. It’s a work of speculative fiction, not a work of science or technology. Science involves, you know, falsifiability and experiment rather than making neat looking imaginative gizmos in a book. Technology: you need to be able to build something for it to be a technology.
            And, I just picked that bearing because it was pretty and didn’t require me to page down too much. You can scroll down at any given page and it’s just silliness which doesn’t help you develop any real technology. Chapter 3, for example: a catalogue of various of the hand wavey equations we have (which we know ain’t true) for “nano” scale mechanical and chemical interactions. LEPS model, Morse potential, blah blity blah. Has anyone taken these gizmos (which, of course, anybody could copy out of a book on Materials science; they hardly represent original research) and, you know, done anything technological with them? Or are they just filler in a lame Ph.D. thesis?

            • Mark Plus said, on September 7, 2010 at 3:36 pm

              I can’t think of a stronger contrast with Drexler’s nanotechnology mirage than Craig Venter’s new venture:

              His Corporate Strategy: The Scientific Method


              Venter has illustrated Locklin’s advice of growing up and attempting to achieve real things.

              • Scott Locklin said, on September 7, 2010 at 3:42 pm

                Amen and halleluia; Venter exemplifies American ingenuity and can-do excellence.

            • Mark Plus said, on September 7, 2010 at 3:50 pm

              Drexlerologists’ touchiness about these criticisms says a lot. They know they lack status because they can’t produce the goods. If their fundamental idea incorporated correct physical principles from the beginning, like, say, laser technology, rapid progress probably would have happened even with modest funding.

              • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 4:12 am

                There just isn’t any “technology” there. The physics hasn’t even been invented yet, if it is ever invented. The kinds of things which need to be invented to begin thinking about doing this need several layers of science and technology invented first before even they can be done. It’s exactly like someone in the 1950s saying AI will be easy: all we have to do is build a copy of the human brain, and we’re done. In fact, some schmucks did say that. They’re saying it even today, and it’s still a silly idea, as we don’t even have a whit of a clue as to how brains work.

            • gk said, on September 7, 2010 at 10:39 pm

              Bernouli’s principle of lift was discovered in 1738. The Wright brother’s first flight was in 1903.

              Newton predicted the orbital trajectories in the 17th century. Tsiolkovsky published the rocket equation in 1903. Sputnik was launced in 1957.

              Satyndra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein predicted Bose condensate in 1924. It was finally created in 1995.

              Anti-cancer research and nuclear fusion have been aggressivel investigated for 60 years, we have made substantial progress but do not yet have fusion reactors that exceed the Lawson criterion or cures for all forms of cancer. Do you classify fusion and cancer research as the same kind of “bullshit” as Drexlerian nanotechnology?

              I could go on…..

              • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 4:07 am

                Your examples are vacuous. Drexler’s thesis is on nanotechnology, not nanophysics. The nanophysics hasn’t been invented yet, and it may never be invented, and may never be what he wants it to be.
                Anti cancer research and nuclear fusion, on the other hand, are great things to compare to Drexler’s work: they are similarly without merit and should not be funded the way they are. Fusion in particular is a ridiculous white elephant, and probably always will be, unless Farnsworth’s fusor ends up working.

                • GK said, on September 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm


                  Let’s see how vacuous they are.

                  Bernouli showed that differential air flows could cause a force to push in a certain direction. He did not figure out the engineering details how to use this to make an actual airplane. This was discovered, after much trial and error, two centuries later.

                  Newton showed that a projectile could achieve orbital velocity. He imagined a cannon firing off of a mountain. He had no idea of the engineering details of how to actually do this. Tsiakolvsky improved the engineering details by showing that a rocket with its own fuel supply could acheive orbital velocity if certain performance criteria were met. Goddard imporved the engineering details by developing a liquid fuel and oxidizer chamber that pumps fuel into the reaction chamber. He ran numerous experiments and was widely ridiculed, including by the NY Times, for not understanding why fundamental physics forbids space travel.

                  Bose and Einstein showed that if quantum mechanics is true, Bose condensate will form near absolute zero. They had no idea of the engineering details of how to make this happen. Later, someone invented laser cooling and was able to bring samples near 0K; but not near enough. In 1995, Cornel & Weiman laser cooled a sample and used a rotating magnetic trap to let higher velocity atoms escape, allowing the cooler atoms to form BEC.

                  Nanotechnology: In the 1950’s, John von Neumann proved that a physical system could replicate itself and serve as a “universal” constructor. He believed that biology was a type of universal constructor but that universal constructors beyond biology could exist. He worked on actual designs for artificial universal constructors before he died. A few years later, Watson, Crick and Franklin discovered DNA replication and showed that biological universal constructors work exactly as von Neumann predicted: with the code being executed twice: first as instructions and second as data to be copied.

                  Also in the 1950s, Feynman predicted that mechanical manipulation could control chemical synthesis. He didn’t know the engineering details of how it could happen. In the early 80’s Eric Drexler, without explicitly knowing about this prior work, essentially combined von Neumann’s idea of a universal constructor with Feynman’s idea of mechanosythesis. He created computer/mathematical models as proof of concept demonstrations and argued for a design path where biotechnology would lead to protein engineering and then to molecular components beyond proteins.

                  You argue that “Drexler’s thesis is on nanotechnology, not nanophysics. The nanophysics hasn’t been invented yet.” This is an interesting position. Unifying the standard model with gen relat. is an active field of fundamental research where the physics is not known. Physics at the level of atoms and molecules is something which, as your original post states, is understood and described by the Schroedinger equation. Of course we can’t solve the Shroedinger equation for anything as complicated as a helium atom, but you know very well that there are good approximations and experimentally derived rules of thumb that give a good idea of how atoms and molecules will behave. Von Neumann and Feynman felt that relevant physics was understood well enough to make reasonable statements about universal constructors and mechanosynthesis; even though they didn’t yet understand the engineering details of how such systems would be built.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 3:11 pm

                    They’re vacuous as examples, ding dong, because Drexler has discovered no new physical laws which can be turned into a technology at any future date. What am I supposed to clap like a trained seal because you got some history right? I guess I’m supposed to, otherwise you wouldn’t think Drexler’s books are great.

                    “Physics at the level of atoms and molecules is something which, as your original post states, is understood and described by the Schroedinger equation. “

                    Bwahahahahah, and double hahahas, with knobs on at you. I guess we can do away with that Nobel they give out every year in Chemistry, and nobody need bother studying biology. It’s all just the Schroedinger equation, after all.

                    • GK said, on September 8, 2010 at 7:54 pm

                      You made a statement that technology that cannot be created within 25 years after the discovery of first principles is bullshit. I showed you numberous examples where that is not true. You called them vacuous. I showed you in great detail that they are not. You then stated that I “got some history right”.

                      There are 2 ways to concede an argument.
                      1. to acknowledge, like a gentleman, that the other person was correct on that point, and perhaps argue other relevant points.
                      2. to say nothing further on the point, and make buffoonish sounds: “Bwahahahahah, and double hahahas”.

                      It reflects poorly on you that you’ve chosed #2, rather than #1.

                      No one is going to discover “new physical laws” at the mesoscopic level. As I said above, the Shroedinger equation describes everything at that level but cannot be exactly solved for anything more complicated than a hydrogen atom. So we have approximations, and lots of empirically derived rules of thumb. These empirically derived rules of thumb are valuable research and is the substance of serious research in biology and chemistry. It is stil possible to have meaningful conversations about systems that we do not yet have tools to build, using both approximations to the Shroedinger equation as well as rules of thumb from chemistry and biology.

                      Or we could use your methodology:

                      Bose & Einstein: “We think the Shroedinger equation predicts that BEC will form near absolute zero. Let’s work out some theory and run experiments. We may not have the tools to run these experiments for a long time (the laser hasn’t been invented yet) but theory say’s its possible, so lets try.”

                      Scott: “I heard you guys know somethings about QM but you don’t understand the physics of systems of hundreds of atoms. If you think everything is governed by the Shroedinger equation I guess we can do away with that Nobel they give out every year in Chemistry, and nobody need bother studying biology. It’s all just the Schroedinger equation, after all. Stop talking about this”

                      Bose & Einstein: “No lets keep doing theory and experiments on this”.

                      Scott: “Bwahahahahah, and double hahahas, with knobs on at you.”

                    • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 10:29 pm

                      You are sorely trying my patience here, ding dong. To take one of your examples and beat it to death: where is Drexlers Bernouli principle? Where is his Newton’s laws? Where is his Tsiakolvsky like contribution to the future? He has no such thing, not in his thesis or any of his subsequent books. He has nothing but empty headed copy notes from physics books: stuff which already exists and which any fool could take notes on. If he wants his “nanotechnology” he needs new physics to make it. And yes, mesoscopic physics and the type of chemical determinism he posits are extremely necessary before anything remotely resembling nanotech will be even a twinkle in the mind’s eye. Drexler does none of this; like you, just waving the Schroedinger equation around and saying that this glorious equation completely describes all of non relativistic physics. The Schroedinger equation is about as useful in developing a nanotechnology as Newton’s laws are in designing a goddamned moon rocket, dope.
                      Yes, yes, by all means, let’s find out how matter works at nano length scales and everywhere else. But don’t come ’round here telling me you need a zillion dollars to develop your preposterous magic god robots which are just around the corner, just because they don’t obviously violate, for example the Schroedinger equation.
                      Also, Bose condensates are not a technology, dipshit: they are a phenomenon of physics. I know this, because I actually worked for the first guy to demonstrate one in the lab. Nobody ever doubted the phenomenon would eventually be seen, in part because Bose and Einstein made very specific testable predictions about where they’d be seen and how they’d be found, rather than telling the world that BEC’s would give us magical superpowers and cause us all to be immortal.

              • Mark Plus said, on September 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm

                Sorry to disabuse you, but the war on cancer has little to show for all the money spent:

                The War on Cancer A Progress Report for Skeptics

                By contrast, medical research has gotten results in postponing cardiovascular diseases, as people who, for example, have responded well to ACE inhibitors to lower their blood pressuire (I take Lisinopril) can testify.

                • GK said, on September 8, 2010 at 8:05 pm

                  Thanks for the cite. Then, I’ll substitute cardiovascular diseases for cancer in my argument. Despite this, there will eventually be a cure for cancer, and it will have come many decades after Nixon anounced the War on Cancer circa 1970.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 10:31 pm

                    No, actually, there will no more be a “cure for cancer” than there will be a “cure for blindness.” There may be new treatments for individual kinds of cancer, but so far, after many decades and hundreds of billions flushed down the toilet bowl, people pretty much die of cancer at the same rates they used to. Spending the money making everyone eat a fucking salad would have had a bigger effect on “curing cancer.”

            • Mitchell Porter said, on September 8, 2010 at 3:41 am

              “Can you name one which succeeded without making visible progress, despite billions in funding over the course of 25 or 40 years?”

              As I pointed out, there has not been billions in funding for diamond-like nanotech. It’s an open question as to whether direct funding would have got us there faster, or whether the indirect path was necessary, because there were too many essential intermediate capabilities and changes of perspective which could not be figured out in advance.

              Drexler’s thesis is like some visionary work written before the space age that talks about travel to the outer solar system. The idea of a camera in orbit around Saturn, sending photos back to Earth, is already thinkable just given classical mechanics and optics, but it took a lot of other developments before we actually got some robot probes out there. If someone had dismissed the idea, not just as difficult, but as nonsense, they would have been wrong. Your attitude, expressed in this post, is fundamentally that there is a physical error behind these conceptions (though you leave yourself an escape route by saying that maybe a long time from now, someone will make something like them). That is the main thing I am disputing.

              • Scott Locklin said, on September 8, 2010 at 4:02 am

                The absolute most generous thing you could say about Drexler is he is a Jules Verne type visionary science fiction author, minus the interesting plot. His physics is more or less all wrong (like Verne’s cannon would have flattened the occupants of the capsule, Drexler’s conveyer belts probably violate the laws of thermodynamics), but he does, in fact, make some vague hand wavey motions towards physical law.
                Nobody took Verne seriously enough to dump billions of dollars towards developing a giant cannon, and nobody should dump dumb money towards nebulous Drexlerian goals, or rebranded chemistry with “nano” goodness. Verne, in fact, told us more about how his fantasies could get built than Drexler has. I mean, go read his freaking thesis! It’s chock filled to the nostrils with imaginary things like that dumb bearing, which are being touted as something potentially real.
                Well, I’m here to tell you: those things are not potentially real, any more than Star Trek’s Warp Drive is potentially real. Oh sure, it sounds like there’s some science behind “warp technology,” and I could even make reference to General relativity and string a ding theory which look convincing to the uneducated: but there is no fucking warp drive. There are no intermediate steps to be taken towards building a warp drive, just like with nanotechnology or quantum computers, because nobody knows how to build such a thing.

                • GK said, on September 9, 2010 at 12:07 am

                  To reply to your above post:
                  “Bose condensates [and lasers] are not a technology, dipshit: they are a phenomenon of physics”.
                  True, but the means to create coherent in-phase photons [lasers] or atoms [Bose condensates]are a technology; and not a trivial one at that. Nobels were granted to both the inventors of the technology to make lasers as well as to make BEC.

                  “Nobody ever doubted the [BEC] phenomenon would eventually be seen”.
                  Then take back the Nobel prize for this trivial piece of lab work.
                  This is an interesting view of the scientific process.

                  “where is Drexlers Bernouli principle? Where is his Newton’s laws? Where is his Tsiakolvsky like contribution to the future?”
                  Bernouli never predicted that his principle could be used for heavier than air travel. Someone else (probably before the Wright brothers) first thought of applying lift to heavier than air travel. Newton actually predicted, based on his theories, that an object could go into orbit, but this is just an accident of history. If Newton hadn’t thought of this and someone else had just taken “empty headed copy notes from physics books [such as Newton’s Principia Mathematic]: stuff which already exists and which any fool could take notes on” and realized that Newtonian mechanics allows orbital velocities it would still be true that an object can enter an orbital trajectory.

                  Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Drexler is no great scientist or engineer and focus instead on the issue of whether these ideas can actually work.

                  “Nobody ever doubted the [BEC] phenomenon would eventually be seen, in part because Bose and Einstein made very specific testable predictions about where they’d be seen and how they’d be found”

                  Bose and Einstein specific testable prediction: If you cool a sample of atoms to near absolute zero, you will get a Bose condensate.

                  Drexler specific testable prediction: If you assemble molecular structures as described in Nanosystems, they will be stable and behave as predicted in Nanosystems.

                  Why didn’t Bose and Einstein create BEC in the 1930’s?
                  Lack of instrumentality: They couldn’t cool a sample to near absolute zero. Lasers needed to be invented, followed by laser cooling, followed by a rotating magnetic trap to segregate the ultra cold atoms.

                  Why didn’t Drexler create MNT in the 1990’s?
                  Lack of instrumentality: De novo protein engineering needs to be invented, followed by more sophisticated forms of molecular manipulation, to create these types of structures.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on September 9, 2010 at 12:26 am

                    “Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Drexler is no great scientist or engineer and focus instead on the issue of whether these ideas can actually work. ”

                    No: let’s not do that, any more than we’re going to focus on the issue of whether or not Star Trek Warp Drives or Asimovian Positronic AI’s are possible. Whether or not they are possible, these ideas are so far away from human understanding and capabilities, they are effectively science fiction.

                    As for your “testable prediction” of “If you assemble molecular structures as described in Nanosystems, they will be stable and behave as predicted in Nanosystems.”

                    You fail at falsifiability. If you build a Warp Drive and it works just like on Star Trek, then I guess that means Star Trek Warp Drives are true, right? Oh, what, you haven’t built one yet? Well (using Drexlerian logic), you can’t prove that one can not build a Star Trek Warp Drive, therefore it must be possible! Zing: General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics doesn’t contradict Star Trek Warp Drives, therefore unless you can find a flaw with Warp Drive physics, it is only a matter of time before we build Warp Drives!

                    • Kyle Rybski said, on December 12, 2011 at 9:23 pm

                      Isn’t it an important point that the supposed functions of warp drives have never been demonstrated, whilst nature has demonstrated many times to us the nano-scale functions that we want?

                      Since y’awl have maxed out WP’s stack: I wasn’t aware that there were diamondoid nanoscale things like Drexler describes in his science fiction book. As near as I can tell, that’s on all fours with warp drives and fully autonomous robots that look and act like Arnold Schwartzenegger. Saying that there are small things which could have desirable properties is a lot like saying that there are large things which could have desirable properties.

    • LaserCutter said, on December 9, 2011 at 5:45 am

      You people who attack Drexler and his ideas are a mass of ignorant fools. Drexler is actually super conservative in his estimates as to what can be done. Self replicating and expontential nanomachines, diamondoid materials and nanofactories are stone age scratch compared to what is truly possible and what has already been done. Atomically precise diamondoid is 100 percent possible within the known laws of chemistry. To argue against Drexler is to argue against science and chemistry, and thus you, fools, lose.

      • Mark Plus said, on December 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm

        Produce the goods, then. Show us a working “Ribosome II” or whatever Drexler calls his latest marketing gimmick, demonstrate that it can do what Drexler claims, and we’ll apologize.

        I mean, seriously, if you view Drexler as a kind of inventor, he seems like an abject failure considering that he has worked at his crankery since the time of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. I even feel a bit sorry for him. By contrast the people from his generation who went into real fields like, say, genome sequencing, have something tangible and even useful to show for their lives.

  29. […] of you may have been following Scott Locklin’s “reality check” on nanotechnology, which was linked by CrunchGear and Hacker […]

    • David Gerard said, on September 6, 2010 at 10:45 pm

      That could be the most garbled response post ever. It’s Smalley’s fault for *stealing* funding earmarked “nanotech” to do things that don’t defy physics. It’s Locklin’s fault for then calling out the physics-defying variety for having failed to defy physics because he should *know* the funding was *stolen* by those awful scientists who do things that are actually possible. Or something.

  30. Mark Plus said, on September 11, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    I wonder how much of this now applies to Eric Drexler:

    Crank HOWTO


  31. Mike said, on September 13, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Mike Anissimov also has this awesome article about nanofactories.
    Yep, all you will need is a natural gas feedstock and energy from the sun. Then you can create chairs and tables solely by downloading a program from the internet. Building your furniture molecule by molecule will be much more economical than any current method.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 13, 2010 at 2:04 am

      “Completely autonomous self-replication is on the horizon.”

      Gaaaah: this makes me want to reach through the screen and head butt this yoyo on the nose. Oh yes, completely autonomous … except a human has to put it together … and buy and program those pesky computer chips and other electronic components. Obviously, we’re but months from the singularity. Watch as my eyes roll at 1000 rpms, now.

  32. William O. B'Livion said, on September 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm



    PH3@R 1+!

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 21, 2010 at 3:56 pm

      Yeah, someone posted that one already. Oh boy: activated carbon as nanotech! That means we’ve had nanotech for 200 years now!

  33. Mark Plus said, on September 24, 2010 at 2:52 am

    If you want to see what a productive MIT graduate has done with his life, read about Amar Bose:


  34. […] I have singled out Nano-stuff for scorn in an article I’d describe as “well received,” (aka, the squeals of the ninnies […]

  35. Cathy Sander said, on October 9, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I am also annoyed by the ‘nanotech’ label. At most, it’s an attitude towards making things, which is what synthetic chemistry was always all about. Unfortunately, by dividing chemistry up further, like into various forms of “-tech”, less and less people will appreciate what chemists do in the world. It also dilutes the responsibility that chemists have to society, by avoiding that label that defines it so much…chemistry.

  36. […] trap to let higher velocity atoms escape, allowing the cooler atoms to form BEC … Read story This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Dark Circles Under Eyes […]

  37. Mark Plus said, on July 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Hello, Scott. Apparently Drexler has a new book in the works to try to repair the damage to this reputation as a policy wonk and visionary about future technologies:


    • Scott Locklin said, on July 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm

      Unicorns and pixie dust, oh my! I’m pleased to notice it’s a policy book, rather than a “science” book. Water finds its own level and all that.

  38. […] but still the mentions of nanotechnology don’t have the degree of skepticism you see in some places nowadays. An email near the end of the game says: We’ve been able to build and […]

  39. Dante said, on October 7, 2011 at 7:37 am

    This article is pathetically uninformed and the comments serve as nothing more than an echo chamber.

    “As far as nano objects for manipulating things on nanoscales; such things don’t exist.”

    Nadrian Seeman invented a robotic arm that can place atoms and molecules with 100% accuracy and precision. http://roboticstechnologycenter.com/1194/nano-robotic-arm-places-atoms-and-molecules-with-100-accuracy-and-precision/

    “We don’t even have micromachines. Mechanical objects on microscales do not exist.”

    Penn State university has invented a self-directed “microspider” that has the potential to repair blood vessels. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20867-selfdirected-microspider-could-repair-blood-vessels.html

    Most of your other objections are either straw mans or have been answered by Robert Freitas’s many peer reviewed articles a hundred times over. Nano-scale devices are the inevitable consequence (I could show you the equation and regression models that prove this, but judging by the endless torrent of ad hominems against Drexler and his work I doubt you’re much interested in facts) of the miniaturization of technology.

    And Smalley was a creationist. Drexler’s informal point was that because these devices exist biologically, we can understand and perfect their principles. Smalley, not believing in evolution, thought these devices were created by the Judeo-Christian God and man couldn’t improve upon them. Reminds of me of Lord Kelvin’s criticism of the Wright brothers and their vision: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” It seems he wasn’t aware of the existent of birds. We now have planes that can travel from Los Angeles to New York in 11 minutes. Likewise, it doesn’t seem you’re aware of the existent of organelles, proteins, and enzymes that do the things Drexler envisions.

    • Mark Plus (@venturism) said, on October 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      I don’t get this weird man-crush so many people have on Drexler. If you want to become infatuated with someone who got a doctorate from MIT, how about Amar Bose? At least Bose has accomplished useful and tangible things in his life.

      • Dante said, on December 1, 2011 at 9:42 am

        I don’t have a “man-crush” on Drexler. He proposed an idea as much as Richard Feynman did. That’s it.

        But to suggest that Drexler is responsible for Congress renaming “chemistry” “nanotechnology” is ahistorical. In fact, quit the opposite. Drexler fought against it; Smalley was the one who fought for it. To also suggest that it is impossible to prove atoms with precision is also wrong. It’s wrong, as Seeman proved with his machine that does just that.

        Science isn’t “if we can’t do it now we’ll never be able to.” It’s never been like that.

    • Dante said, on October 11, 2011 at 8:27 am

      I’m still waiting for your reply, but judging by comments above that utterly refute your position or which you conveniently ignore, I’ll reiterate what a previous user accurately said about your psychology:

      “1. to acknowledge, like a gentleman, that the other person was correct on that point, and perhaps argue other relevant points.
      2. to say nothing further on the point, and make buffoonish sounds: “Bwahahahahah, and double hahahas”.”

      I’m guessing on #2. But judging by other comments on here, I’ll add #3: “You’ll ignore it.”

      I don’t know what drives this irrational opposition to Drexler and others, or why you would bizarrely blame him for others misusing the term “nanotechnology.” There has been significant progress in the field of nanotechnology, much of it inspired by Drexler’s original thesis, and the denial of this is simply ahistorical.

      You need to give up your hubris and your loaded diction (and holy shit is it unnecessarily and pretentiously loaded) if you want an intelligent discussion.

      • Scott Locklin said, on December 1, 2011 at 9:57 am

        I’m not going to get an intelligent discussion from anyone who firmly believes in magic and pixie dust.

        You sent me two doltish articles you cadged from a google search. The first is the sheerest flim flammery. From reading that, you’d imagine Dr. Ding Dong has an actual bionic robot arm moving atoms around. In fact, he has a very dumb AFM; basically, a record player needle made out of squishy stuff. The second on some microscopic, not nanoscopic doodads which … act as nucleation centers in a liquid. Wow; that’s original. Obviously they’re little robotic spiders who are going to clean out our arteries…. oh, no, actually, they’ve very much like dropping some dirt into a supersaturated cup of sugar water. Color me unimpressed, dipshit.

        I await your groveling apology for wasting my time with your sad cry for attention. Meanwhile, do the world a favor and attempt to greet “golly gee whiz, the Singularity is coming real soon now” articles with something other than gaping credulity. You might try reading a physics or chemistry book while you’re at it. I realize I might as well ask a bivalve to integrate a Bessel function, but it’s my blog: if you want to hang around here, stop acting like an idiot. Either argue using, like, logic, nouns, verbs: facts even, or shut the fuck up. Your dumb links waste my time and raise my blood pressure.

    • Eudoxia said, on November 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      It’s also worth mentioning that Seeman was a regular attendee at the Foresight Conferences on Nanotechnology. Though I’m not sure the arm counts as an example of ‘Drexlerian’ nanotechnology, since it’s biological and not exactly computer directed. Something like a nanoscale robot arm driven by electrostatic motors would be nicer.

      Anyways, the first experimental demonstration of mechanosynthesis:
      “Mechanical Vertical Manipulation of Selected Single Atoms by Soft Nanoindentation Using Near Contact Atomic Force Microscopy”

      Zyvex’s work on Patterned Atomic Layer Epitaxy:

      Rack-and-pinion motion of a molecule on a patterned surface:

      Gaussian, ab-initio simulations of a nanotube electrostatic motor ten times smaller than Drexler’s original Van-de-Graff-generator-in-reverse:

      And from the research group, a propeller:

      And a movie!

      I liked what Damian Allis had to say: “I look at where science has come since Nanosystems, and especially since Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” and I just think we’re on a right track despite what the nay-sayers tell us. You’ve got single Si atom manipulation, Feringa’s optical motors, Tour’s got his nanocar. Those things aren’t dimer deposition to build diamondoid gears, but they’re far more “mechanical” than chemists were thinking 30 years ago, and they certainly hint at all the potential we have for fundamental control over matter that we still don’t have today in ANY field.”

      • Scott Locklin said, on November 12, 2011 at 12:31 am

        You have a funny name considering what is in my queue.

        • LaserCutter said, on December 9, 2011 at 5:51 am

          You are a fool, Scott. A total, utter, and complete idiot. Others have shown that molecular mechanical technology is possible and does not violate any laws of chemistry and physics. In order to disprove this, you have to show that molecules cannot serve as machine parts, and molecular machines cannot perform programmable work. Both are proven. Your claims are disproven.

  40. Mark Plus said, on December 1, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Apparently nanotechnology has yet another name: Atomic precise manufacture.


    • Scott Locklin said, on December 1, 2011 at 5:40 am

      If they’d spend more time on research, and less time on marketing…. Well, they’d probably be in the same boat as now, but I’d have less cause to make fun of them.

      “A world with APM-level production capacity would remove some of today’s constraints on economic scarcity, but also change the organization of production.”

      Pixies and fairy dust, oh my!

      • Dante said, on December 1, 2011 at 9:38 am

        Stop being an asshole and respond. Show a little dignity and admit you were wrong.

        • Scott Locklin said, on December 1, 2011 at 9:58 am

          Um, go fuck yourself with a carrot peeler?

          • Adams said, on December 3, 2011 at 6:26 am

            Scott, you are pretty disgusting. Is this the behavior of a rational person ?

            • Scott Locklin said, on December 3, 2011 at 11:26 pm

              When somebody comes to my house, insults me, attempts to order me around the poop deck, and impugns my personal honor: yes, in fact, it is the behavior of a rational person to be nasty in return. In fact; this is the essence of and reason for good manners and gentlemanly behavior.

              Do you think I’d behave any differently in person?

      • Mark Plus said, on December 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm

        I suspect this sort of wishful thinking will sound increasingly desperate & crazy if the Great Stagnation drags on for another generation. However, I noticed that the Extropian movement more or less fell apart about a decade ago as middle-aged reality set in, and I predict similar dissipations of the transhumanist & singularity cults in a few more years as their current young members approach 40.

    • Eudoxia said, on December 2, 2011 at 4:09 am

      He expects molecular manufacturing to be essentially desktop manufacturing, but on the molecular level. He expected this with mechanosynthesis and again with this foldamer thing he has going. A “Mark II Ribosome”… Is anyone working on that?

      “Acceleration of acceleration” aside, molecular manufacturing (Or atomically precise manufacturing, or tip-based nanomanufacturing, or whatever…) would still involve a highly controlled lab setting. A desktop assembler is only feasible if you had, say, an input of ready made atomically-precise material, little building blocks especially designed, and then all you’d have to you is position them with the scanning probe. A couple million piezoelectric tubes and what not.

      But any system based on patterned atomic layer epitaxy (Zyvex’s method and they’re the only ones explicitly researching molecular manufacturing) would require a UHV chamber, a cooling system, the piezoelectrics, a couple trillion invariant scanning probe tips (Which would have to be produced using APM from less precise tools), and the whole bunch. And then there’s the precursor gas, which is not just “raw carbon or dirt from the ground”. It has to go through a whole processing cycle to become silylene radicals. Then there’s the Germanium, whose global production was 100 tonnes last year and is the only feasible way to actually detach these machines from the surfaces on which they are grown. After you have solved all that you can use something like the Feed Lines from The Diamond Age to take the parts to customers whose assemblers grab them and place them into finished products.

      But the whole thing, from an atom all the way up, in a desktop? Christ. 20 years pursuing mechanosynthesis and now it’s “Actually let’s go with foldamer engineering because that’s what people are working on right now anyways lol”.

      I guess they’ll have to change it to “The Peptoid Age” or something.

      • Scott Locklin said, on December 2, 2011 at 11:28 am

        What boggles me is … people can’t even do stuff like this with large mechanical objects. Oh, sure, we have “solid printers.” But when you look at the output of something like that, compared to giving some old Navy guy a chunk of steel… Kind of hard not to snicker at the result. Especially if you tell the solid printer nerd what you want, and let him race with the Navy guy. Oh yeah, and I want my widget out of the wonder material known as metal, Mr. Solid Printer Nerd. Ha ha.

        I dabbled a bit in magneto optical multilayers, back when this was a viable replacement for floppy disks. Making small stuff, even very simple small stuff like a monolayer with properties you find agreeable is really freaking hard. Making it, to order, with the kinds of properties you want, which is pretty much the reason people want their magic pixie dust: that’s just plain impossible. Thin film engineering involving atom-sized features is like figuring out how to bake a cookie by mixing random foodstuffs together at random temperatures. Eventually you get a sample that works, and you try to reproduce it. Sometimes this works, and we eventually get a 20Tb hard drive as a result. It would be nice to have a computer program to run your sputtering machine and order up really awesome materials like everyone wants. Life is hard: it don’t work that way. Maybe it will some day, but Drexler’s big idea is not a good plan for figuring out how to do stuff like this.

  41. David said, on December 5, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Is it fair to say that Drexler’s book defines the field? Nanotechnology is a vague term that encompasses so much. It also sounds like a huge marketing ploy… Personal fabricators and self-replicating nano-machinery may never develop but nanotechnology is more important for the solutions to practical problems that it will provide.

    I don’t claim to know much about nanotech as I’m researching for a small project as part of an undergrad course but from what I’ve seen, nanotech will develop and provide solutions for some of our greatest problems in the near future.

    I do thank you for posting this and giving an alternate view to nanotech. I also wish I understood some more quantum mechanics so that I could make a more solid opinion on the credibility of nanotech.


    • Scott Locklin said, on December 5, 2011 at 9:53 pm

      It’s fair to say that “nanotech” would be known as chemistry, had Dr. Pixie Dust gotten a degree in accounting.

      I’m sorry your professors are so retarded as to not disabuse you of the notion that “nanotech” is anything but a marketing ploy. If it were an actual technology, it wouldn’t be a vague term which encompasses so much; it would be something you could point to or buy from somebody. Heaven help you if you are actually enrolled in a course teaching about “nanotech.” You’d be better off studying feminism, which has a larger impact on everyone’s lives.

      • Mark Plus said, on December 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm

        I’ve noticed that a lot of the Occupiers claim they got useless degrees in subjects like “feminist studies,” which also pretty much guarantees their unemployability in anything other than low-wage service jobs.

        If universities start to offer degrees in “nanotechnology,” assuming they haven’t already, do you expect the people suckered into getting them to wind up similarly unemployable?

        • Scott Locklin said, on December 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm

          I reviewed a long and impressive looking book Amazon sent me on “renewable energy” written by some learned magnifico at Stanford -turned out to be a big pile of fluff. That bubble was propped up by government funding for quite a while; it might even make a good career now; at least as good as a methodist preacher. Depending on what is on the curriculum, a degree in nanotech might be a sort of third rate chemistry degree.

          I think the market for mountebanks is halfway decent even today. Certainly there is no shortage of credulous numskulls out there who think a degree in feminist studies qualifies as “education” rather than “a rationalization for hating my parents.”

  42. Mark Plus said, on December 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Drexler has started to remind me of Harold Camping:

    Lecture by Eric Drexler at Oxford on physical law and the future of nanotechnology


    Uh, guys. Look at the date on the calendar. We live in “the future of nanotechnology” Drexler wrote about in the 1980’s. I find the results underwhelming.

    • LaserCutter said, on December 9, 2011 at 5:58 am

      Others have said this, I will say this: The types of devices Drexler speaks of are super conservative. In reality, quantum engineering systems will make nanosystems obsolete. Direct control over matter and energy at the subatomic subnuclear quantum and subquantum level will make nanotech unnecessary. We will be able to do all nanotechnology promises, and much, MUCH more. Scalar wave engineering, Whittaker structures, and Aharanov Bohm based Tesla devices will allow us to make macroscopic quark whiskers and planck scale materials that would slice through the hardest diamondoid as if it were air.

      • Scott Locklin said, on December 9, 2011 at 6:03 am

        OMFG: A Thomas Bearden fan! Surely you’re trolling me? Bearden at least is widely recognized as a complete crank. He’s been around even longer than Drexler, and still labors in obscurity with his “tesla scalar wave over unity drive.”

        • David Gerard said, on December 9, 2011 at 7:40 am

          And here I am just having written this a month ago: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Scalar_wave I could tell it was a good topic, because I could feel myself getting stupider as I researched it, and the loved one was most pained that I had found yet another extremely stupid thing to rant about.

          • Scott Locklin said, on December 9, 2011 at 7:51 am

            Obviously, the green aliens have you under their influence.

            • David Gerard said, on December 9, 2011 at 8:10 am

              That’s it – green fairies! “Waiter, more absinthe, I’ve just found some pseudoscience too stupid even for Wikipedia!”

      • Eudoxia said, on December 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm

        As much as I agree with you on Drexler, you understand that saying you’re a believer in femtotech puts you in a very indefensible position.

        Right between Hugo “buy my books” deGaris and Ben “didn’t write a single line of OpenCog” Goertzel.

        • Mark Plus said, on December 9, 2011 at 3:23 pm

          I don’t understand why certain individuals attract cult followings among geeks, especially when they haven’t accomplished all that much. Kurzweil’s fandom seems close to defensibility; Kurzweil has a useful career behind him, though he has stepped way beyond his zone of competency into Dunning-Kruger territory, judging from his embrace of medical woo. And Peter Thiel has plenty of money to shower on geeks who can talk him into supporting their visionary scams, er, “projects.”

          But Drexler, deGaris, Goertzel, Patri Friedman and Eliezer Yudkowsky? What do they have to show us, apart from glib talk about their utopian or science-fictional fantasies?

  43. Mark Plus said, on January 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    Christine Peterson, Eric Drexler’s ex-wife, still drinks the Kool-Aid after joining the nanotech cult in the 1980’s and sticking with it as a dead-ender::


    “Christine Peterson, co-founder and president of The Foresight Institute, a public interest group seeking to educate the community on forthcoming technological advances, emphasized the increasingly prominent role that nanotechnology has come to play.”

    What “increasingly prominent role”?

    Since I’ve reached my 50’s, I’ve realized how many instances of “the future of X” I’ve lived to see in our mysterious, far-future year 2012, where X simply hasn’t happened:

    Artificial intelligence

    Fusion power

    Space colonization

    The postindustrial leisure society

    And, of course, “nanotechnology.”

    By contrast, I’ve also lived to see “the future of genomics,” which doesn’t disappoint because it has shown progress. Genome sequencing works; it has gotten dramatically cheaper; it generates real data; and it has started to transform our understanding of biology, evolutionary history and medicine. The hustlers of “nanotechnology” and “nanomedicine” have nothing comparable to show for their efforts over the past generation.

  44. Mark Plus said, on November 24, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Drexler says that he received the first Ph.D. degree, ever, in “molecular nanotechnology.” Who, if anyone, has received the SECOND Ph.D. in this field, from any reputable university? I have had no luck in finding that out so far.

    If Drexler has a basically one-off doctorate in a field which hasn’t gone anywhere, that says a lot about the value of his work right there. It also raises questions about the integrity of MIT’s process for granting Ph.D. degrees, at least in one instance.

  45. MOB said, on February 5, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    “It was never noticed that computational chemistry (aka figuring out molecular properties from the Schroedinger equation) is basically useless. ”

    I’ll tell that to a friend of mine who does ab initio molecular simulations for a living.

    Maxwell’s demons, really? Please point out ANY concrete example where thermodynamics or other physical laws are violated in Nanosystems. There’s extensive coverage of power supply and waste heat dissipation. I wonder whether you have actually read the book or just skimmed through it.

    Richard Smalley was much closer to being a charlatan than Drexler was in that debate. Eventually he had to admit that his “big fingers” and “sticky fingers” babble was a textbook strawman, but he never apologized. Intead, he kept attacking Drexler for “scaring the children”.

    Sorry, but this article reads like it was written in the early nineties, when alleged experts could get away with all kinds of BS criticism of molecular manufacturing. Meanwhile, in the real world, we have DNA origami, rudimentary molecular assemblers, and the increasingly normal use of the term “molecular machine” to describe both natural and artificial systems.



    • Scott Locklin said, on February 7, 2013 at 1:16 am

      “Ab initio molecular simulations” is a phrase that could mean a lot of things. When your pal figures out how catalysis or something modestly useful, like, say, protein folding works, feel free to tell me about it. Meanwhile, “making a living at” computational chemistry doesn’t mean it’s any good. Does he make a living at it in a place where he needs to produce real world results, like, say, a drug company, or is he simply on the dole?

      There is no need to point out a concrete example of nanosystems violating the laws of thermodynamics: most of them don’t admit the existence of heat. Quoting an MIT professor of chemistry who read Drexler’s thesis, “And the mechanosynthesis stuff I saw in that thesis might as well have been written by somebody on controlled substances.”

      • MOB said, on February 7, 2013 at 2:31 am

        Yes, my anecdotal friend works at a public university, but you there are plenty of examples where molecular simulations are useful in the chemical industry. They are increasingly useful as more and bigger mollecules can be simulated with reasonable speed.


        You said “most of them don’t admit the existence of heat. ”

        Unfortunately the Nanosystems text in not fully available online, but if you own a copy you can look it up.



        Now search “therm” in this summary. It gives 11 results, including:

        “Scaling of classical thermal systems (Basic assumptions. Major corrections. Magnitudes and scaling.)”
        “Thermally excited harmonic oscillators”
        “Elastic extension of thermally excited rods”
        “Elastic bending of thermally excited rods”
        ” Thermomechanical damage”
        “Thermoelastic damping and phonon viscosity”

        Now search for “power” in that document. See what I mean?

        I think you should give the whole subject a fresh look.

        • Scott Locklin said, on February 7, 2013 at 2:49 am

          Find me the part where he takes into account thermodynamics when constructing magical robots that can do everything, or, for a more concrete example; his dumb mechanical computer. These examples you found are irrelevant stuff he simply copied from a textbook, which adequately describes the equations in the rest of his fantasy novel. Virtually everything Drexler says is irrelevant to what he is trying to accomplish, or simply wrong.

          I think the whole world has paid far too much attention to such nonsense. That’s why I wrote this. To prevent young idiots over-awed by this vision from wasting their lives on nonsense, quackery and deception. There is no nanotech. There will be no nanotech. Grow up and study a real science, like chemistry.

          • MOB said, on February 7, 2013 at 5:49 pm

            “Find me the part where he takes into account thermodynamics when constructing magical robots that can do everything, or, for a more concrete example; his dumb mechanical computer.”

            No, you have it backwards. It is you who should find the part where his designs violate thermodynamics.

            You might as well see a preliminary sketch for a huge crane and call it a perpetual motion machine. Then when people ask you “how so?” you answer: “show me where the designer takes into account thermodynamics!”. Well, thermodynamics is simply not the main concern in this case. Instead, you have to look at stress, deformation and other magnitudes which are relevant to materials science.

            A molecular machine, like any other machine, needs power and heat dissipation. But that’s the easy part. Microprocessors gate sizes are already measured in nanometers. Heat dissipation may be something of a challenge, but power supply is piece of cake.


            The tricky part is whether it will have enough structural integrity and positional accuracy at room temperature (or at its nominal working temperature anyway) to do useful work such as building complex nanoscale structures like those described in Nanosystems. That’s the main point Drexler set out to prove.

            By the way, I do have a formal engineering education (no, not software engineering, the physics-related one, which includes a good deal of thermodynamics and thermal engineering) and I don’t appreciate your patronizing. I sure can tell whether something is a PPM or not.

            Your “about” section explains a lot. Indeed, there’s plenty of pseudo-science floating around, but this time you picked the wrong target.

            • Scott Locklin said, on February 8, 2013 at 4:39 am

              So, what you’re trying to tell me is, thermodynamics is irrelevant in building mechanical objects to the point where nobody needs to bother analyzing it? That, in other words, we should just take Drexler’s word for it, over that of an actual chemist? Tell me you are not working in a patent office. Otherwise, I know a Mexican Nanotech firm traded on the pink sheets who might be interested in your skills.

              Your physics education is obviously useless to you. Tell us who your professor was so we can have him shot.

              • MOB said, on February 8, 2013 at 11:45 am

                Are you trying to tell me that every single physical law should be taken into account when you design a device? Do you have to think of, say, Ohm’s law when you design a mechanical watch? What about mathematical truths? Do you have to keep in mind Fermat’s last theorem when you design a screwdriver?

                Thermodynamics is used extensively when it comes to powered devices and power generators, but it’s usually taken for granted. Every engineer worth his salt knows how to calculate heat dissipation from useful power and supplied power. It’s no big deal, really. Drexler does account for those issues, but it simply doesn’t take that much of the book. Any engineer would understand why.

                By the way, only an “actual chemist” with an extensive background in chemical physics and computational chemistry is really qualified to evaluate Nanosystems. Not every “actual chemist” will do. Incidentally, my anecdotal friend does have such a background, and he doesn’t see any fundamental problems with Drexler’s ideas. Neither do the “actual chemists” from the National Academies, or those from the chemistry departments of several universities in the US and elsewhere.



                • Scott Locklin said, on February 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm

                  What I’m telling you is, when some acid head has a vision during one of Gerald O’Neill’s space colony lectures; a vision of mechanical bacteria that will change … everything (presumably, much like Gerald O’Neill’s space colonies), you should treat his ideas with something a little more critical than gaping credulity. You should be aware of things, like Drexler’s having never created mechanical objects with his own hands. Had he done so, he might notice that, for example, when shaping a piece of steel on a lathe, the steel gets hot. Rumford noticed. That’s how we got to the laws of thermodynamics in the first place; by noticing how matter works. You should notice that actual bacteria are also subject to the laws of thermodynamics; postulating a new chemistry made of … whatever … isn’t going to change the laws of thermodynamics. Things oxidise; they get hot, they fall apart. You should also notice that he doesn’t actually know anything about physics; he just copies equations from books, and makes magical passes over them. You should also notice that, putting his dumb book aside, and the fact that he no longer even attempts to do science or technology, the entire “field” is littered with frauds and montebanks, looking to cash in on the credulous. For example, the asshat (a well respected nanotechnologist who gets good press *constantly*) who formed the fraudulent nanotech company here: https://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/nano-hits-the-pink-sheets/
                  Or the dumbkopfs who published a book on nanotech, which was littered with irrelevancies and lies:

                  If you were me, you would not have one pal with vague connections to the field of Chemistry. You would have a hundred, some of whom you worked closely with while you were at LBNL tormenting helium atoms. You would have noticed that every single one of them who gave the subject a moment’s thought would have realized that the core idea, that of creating mechanical bacteria that run on pixiedust, is bullshit. Some of them worked at the “Center for Nanotechnology,” and gave the world weary shrug; they’re just doing chemistry anyway -might as well cash in on the craze.

                  So yeah: it actually is up to you and Drexler to explain to the world why the laws of thermodynamics do not apply to his mechanical bacteria.

                  But then, you’re not me: you are a gullible person who has an emotional attachment to a field with about as much relevance to the actual physical world as phlogiston or phrenology, or Aristotle’s idea that eyeballs are like flashlights.

                  Linking to that dipshit Drexler or his Amen Choir will not help you.

                  • davidgerard said, on February 8, 2013 at 10:01 pm

                    ” Some of them worked at the “Center for Nanotechnology,” and gave the world weary shrug; they’re just doing chemistry anyway -might as well cash in on the craze.”

                    Yeah. I got a chemist I know who got wall-punchingly furious at the word “nanotechnology” to finally admit it was guilt over taking money to build magical microscopic robots and handing back chemistry. Bwahaha.

                  • Mark Plus said, on February 9, 2013 at 7:07 pm

                    It says something about the integrity of MIT’s doctorate-granting process that Drexler got a Ph.D. for this illusion.

                  • MOB said, on February 14, 2013 at 5:21 pm

                    Engineers are not supposed to create things with their own hands, but with their own minds. That said, it seems that Drexler did get his hands dirty with mass driver prototypes when he had to:


                    Your references to alleged scams and nanotech books you didn’t like, both of which have no direct relation with Drexler are, of course, irrelevant.

                    You say:

                    ” postulating a new chemistry made of … whatever … isn’t going to change the laws of thermodynamics. ”

                    First, Drexler doesn’t postulate new chemistry, he applies accepted physical chemistry theory and modelling techniques.

                    Second, as I said, he doesn’t come even close to violating any thermodynamics law. He also applies thermodynamics when it’s relevant, which is not all the time. For instance, you don’t need any thermodynamics to calculate strain and deformation. Your insistence that I must show where he “takes into account” thermodynamics in every single page of the book is not justified. As I said, it’s up to you to show where he violates known physical law.

                    “Things oxidise; they get hot, they fall apart. ”

                    From an engineering POV, only getting hot is directly related to thermodynamics. The other two are amply covered in chapter 6 of Nanosystems (“Transitions, Errors and Damage”). Of course, many of these machines are designed for a controlled environment where they don’t have a chance to oxidise (ultra-high vacuum, machine phase). In any case, the main types of damage are addressed.

                    You say: “You should also notice that he doesn’t actually know anything about physics; he just copies equations from books, and makes magical passes over them.”

                    It’s easy to make this kind of vague accusations. Why don’t you bring up a specific case? An engineer is not supposed to contribute to pure science, he is supposed to apply (that is, “copy from books”) well-known equations where relevant, and calculate results (what you call “make magical passes”) from those equations and reasonable data.

                    Let’s take chapter 11, section 5 (“Convective cooling systems”). He doesn’t just mention Murray’s Law and Hiemenz’s flow equation. He explains how and why they are relevant for his fractal cooling design; then he fills in the relevant data. For instance, the temperature (273 K), the viscosity of the carrier (pentane), the volume fraction of suspended particles (at most 0.4), the smallest pipe diameter (one micron) the maximum distance to a pipe (5 microns), pressure drop (20 MPa, that is 197,38 atm. Comparable the pressure in the primary coolant loop of a pressurized water reactor, which is 15.5 MPa), slab thickness (at most 1 cm); From those he obtains a cooling capacity of 100 kW/cm3, which is kind of cool, pardon the pun, given that the temperature is kept at a constant 273 K and all the heat absorption is due to the latent heat of fusion of water (ice) inside the suspended particles.

                    Now, you can see that he uses actual data and his results are concrete numbers, not vague generalities, as you seem to imply. And by the way, you see that most of the difficulty is about fluid dynamics and heat flow. The only thing related to thermodynamics here is the latent heat of ice, which is quite trivial to use.

                    A similar approach is used in other sections to discuss power supply, which of course will depend on the type of molecular devices. For instance, in chapter 11, section 6 (“Electromechanical devices”). section 7 (“DC motors and generators”) , chapter 12, section 7 (“CPU-scale systems: clocking and power supply”) we can find detailed facts and figures.

                    In summary, you characterization of Nanosystems is a textbook strawman. Unsurprisingly, the MIT is right and you are wrong.

                    • Scott Locklin said, on February 14, 2013 at 9:35 pm

                      Congratulations: you have just provided several examples of the vapidity of Drexler’s thesis, without my having to look at the wretched thing again. Oooo, he PUT NUMBERS INTO THE EQUATIONS HE COPIED FROM A FREAKING BOOK, obviously, the man is a super genius!
                      Glancing at the thing now, I utterly dismiss chapters 1-8 as in fact, copying equations from a book. I won’t look further, thanks to the later examples you quote, and my lack of inclination to waste further time on the subject. Unless you develop something worth saying on my blog, you’re going to have to crawl back under your nano rock.

                    • MOB said, on February 14, 2013 at 9:40 pm

                      Nevermind, I sometimes forget that any attention-seeking nobody can have a blog. I guess I better go start one.

  46. davidgerard said, on February 14, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Since this thread is still going, here’s an academic chemist very, very patiently explaining why magical microscopic robots defy physics and chemistry: Nanotechnology ate my hamster.

    • Mark Plus said, on February 14, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      And again I ask, why did MIT give Drexler a doctorate for his unintentional troll? A real chemist, Rick Lane Danheiser, sat on Drexler’s thesis committee, so why did Danheiser not catch the obvious-to-chemists problems with Drexler’s ideas?


      • MOB said, on February 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm

        Maybe because the MIT people do know what they are doing and you guys are dead wrong? Just an idea.

        • Mark Plus said, on February 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm

          Drexler supposedly got the first doctorate, ever, in “molecular nanotechnology.” Can you tell me who, if anyone, got a second such doctorate, from any university? I have had trouble finding that information. Or have such doctorate-holders failed to proliferate because the field doesn’t, and can’t, exist for physical reasons?

          And as Locklin points out, Drexler gave up on his cargo cultism and now tries to make a living now as an academic policy wonk. That says a lot about this imaginary field as well.

          • MOB said, on February 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm

            The reason is simple. People seek a doctorate to improve their career opportunities. Molecular nanotechnology is still too young, so there’s not much room for MNT careers either in the industry or academia. For most people, researchers and companies, making complex, precise calculations about future technologies is simply not worth the effort. If you can’t build it now or in the near future, you can’t earn money from it. The exception is pure scientific reaserch, because scientists band together and lobby for more funds. But MNT is not pure science either. So there’s no obvious niche for it in the current environment.

            The closest thing today to a real-life, mainstream, nanotech expert is a computational chemist, which is an increasingly promising career.

            • Mark Plus said, on February 14, 2013 at 6:19 pm

              Sounds like a bunch of rationalization for nonperformance to me. I’ve started to read McCray’s book about O’Neill and Drexler, and it strikes me how these badly formulated technological fantasies have opportunity costs when they lead young people with aptitudes for STEM careers into wasting their most productive years by chasing after mirages instead of trying to do useful things. Funny how no one has gotten any closer to becoming a space colonist since I joined the L-5 Society in the late 1970’s, and no one has gotten any closer to building a “nanoassembler” since the 1980’s, despite the millions of propeller-heads’ man-hours which must have gone into these respective ideas by now.

              • MOB said, on February 14, 2013 at 8:05 pm

                Well, no matter how good the explanation is, you can always brush it off by saying “sounds like a rationalization to me”. You offered no rebuttal.

                Whether young researchers are inspired or distracted by MNT has no bearing on the soundness of the concept. Don’t blame Drexler, he never promised to deliver these machines, he just made predictions and calculations. Time, effort and money has gone in droves into research related to nuclear fusion, quantum computers and other alleged future technologies with varying degrees of plausibility.

                There has been quite a lot of progress in these years. Molecular modelling is becoming increasingly common, and its predictions are increasingly confident; there are experimental proofs of principle such as simple mono-molecular machines. Protein and structural DNA engineering are producing some complex shapes to specification. Most relevant is the fact that no fatal flaw was found in the MNT concept, no matter what vague rants one might read in some random blog. At this point, it doesn’t matter at all. In some places outside the US, Drexler doesn’t even have to explain what MNT is to technical audiences, let alone provide rebuttals to old tired pseudo-arguments again and again. Nano-critics are a dying breed. Good riddance.

                I came to this blog through a reference in a blog called RationalWiki. I thought it was a relevant site, worth correcting. My bad. Both this blog and RationalWiki are worthless noise no one should care about.


                • Scott Locklin said, on February 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm

                  ” Most relevant is the fact that no fatal flaw was found in the MNT concept….”

                  And … you still don’t know what you’re talking about.
                  There is no fatal flaw in the idea that my penis will shoot out molecular nanomachines which will build me a solid printer and make me a million dollars. I can even use a computer to help me!

                • davidgerard said, on February 14, 2013 at 10:23 pm

                  Yes, that definitely refutes the detailed patient explanation from the chemist why this stuff is stupidly impossible. Well done.

            • Scott Locklin said, on February 14, 2013 at 9:40 pm

              “By the way, Drexler is discussing MNT as much as ever.”

              Yes, retard, and he’s STILL NOT DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Any moron can yammer vague things about Drexler’s magical silicon bacteria. You’re doing a creditable job of it. Where is Drexler’s science? What practical thing did he do with his vague and hand wavey Ph.D. thesis? What huge breakthrough did he make? Which lab did he produce his results in?
              Surely, if MIT “knew what it is doing,” when it published his thesis, it would have produced a fine scientific and technological worker in K. Eric Drexler. How come he spends all his time giving speeches and writing policy statements (or arguing with me on this blog) rather than, you know, doing Nanotech?

              • MOB said, on February 14, 2013 at 9:52 pm

                As I said, there’s no practical niche for MNT, because it’s neither pure science nor near-term engineering. Not every great scientist or engineer became rich and famous in their lifetime.

                He’s doing what he does best: learn, teach, debate, explain, guide and inspire researchers. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to deal with bullshit critics like those you admire any longer (I don’t say “like you” because you are, of course, a nobody).


        • Petr said, on September 17, 2018 at 6:42 pm

          MIT makes mistakes – in awarding PhDs, hiring admissions staff (google Marilyn Jones), and….brace yourself – awarding tenure.

  47. […] have a real project: you have a wish. What are the manageable pieces needed to make “nanotech” or controlled nuclear fusion a reality? What are the manageable pieces needed to make […]

  48. Mark Plus said, on March 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Drexler tries to reboot his reputation as a “nanotechnologist”:


    • David Gerard said, on March 30, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      The absolutely key point here is that any URL starting forbes.com/sites is just some random blogger with no editorial oversight. The claims in the post that Drexler was interviewed by “forbes.com” are a blatant lie. It’s like examiner.com except they’re starting by trashing a brand that used to have a reputation.

      • Mark Plus said, on March 30, 2013 at 11:53 pm

        Apparently Drexler counts on the fact that we have a whole generation of young adults who don’t remember the grandiose predictions he made about “nanotechnology” back in the 1980’s which haven’t come true Well, I remember those predictions, and I’ll remind people about them if it looks like Drexler starts to get more attention than he deserves with today’s batch of young techies. I still think this kind of “visioneering” inflicts opportunity costs when it leads otherwise intelligent people to waste the most productive years of their lives chasing after technological mirages instead of doing useful things in the here-and-now.

  49. […] Nano-nonsense notwithstanding, there is there really a good reason why we could not have flexible electronics, complete with flexible asynchronous processors and foldable screens by now? Nobody really gives a fuck about performance hits, people would rather be able to fold up their iPads into iPhones. […]

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 9, 2016 at 12:00 am

      The basics of flexible screens and printed circuit boards have existed for a long time. I think the screens are in high end devices or at least prototypes now. High end chips of all kinds (video, cpu) are a problem, as is attaching them to flexible things, though the latter issue is something that could eventually be overcome.
      FWIIW I went to a seminar on the subject of flexible screens and flexible/plastic/organic low end chips in 1996 or so. The future is coming in this regard, but it’s damn slow.

  50. advancedatheist said, on January 26, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    The late Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler’s “doctoral adviser,” played a role in enabling Drexler’s career. Minsky seems over-rated to me, and his support of “nanotechnology” raises questions about his scientific competence and judgment.

  51. Joseph Ratliff said, on May 31, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Quaerere Propter Vērum.

  52. Petr said, on September 17, 2018 at 6:38 pm

    This field is already undergoing a crisis. Despite the flagship journals (Nature Nanotechnology, Nano Letter, ACS Nano being the bigger…), students already shy away from nanotech projects. Chemists started calling things by the names they already had, such as “colloids” or just “molecules” instead of “engines”. Nanotech was a huge academic rebranding movement to gather funds and create hype on fields that needed no changes or new words for. But it’s already being reformulated: it will take the time for the careers of the academics who made their names in the late 90s and over the 2000s to fade away and end so that nano can go away and people can name things intelligibly again: but students want none of it, because they know their transition to industry is a lot tougher if their research was in any “nano” field. It’s a non-field….good riddance.

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