Foresight Update 15
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Book: First Nanotechnology Text Wins Award
Editor's note: As we go to press, word has reached us that Nanosystems
has won the Association of American Publishers annual
award for best computer science book.
Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation
by K. Eric Drexler
(576 pp., 200+ illustrations. Wiley Interscience, 1992)
Today, we manufacture things in bulk: we don't know and can't
control where each atom goes. In the future, with nanotechnology,
we will build things with the ultimate in precision, controlling
the location of each atom.
Already achieved in the laboratory for a few limited types of
molecular structures, in the future we can expect to see this
technology applied on a commercial scale that will change both
the world in which we live and the assumptions that we live by.
And yet even today only the smallest fraction of the world's
population is aware of the coming juggernaut, or even slightly
prepared to cope with the kinds of changes that it will bring in
As an abstract goal or a philosophical principle the idea of
manufacturing products in which each atom is in its place has
attracted interest for some time. It is the logical culmination
of the age-old quest for the finest possible control on the
largest possible scale. But as a coming reality that will change
our lives and the lives of our children, it just hasn't sunk in.
The possibilities of rocketry didn't sink in to the good citizens
of England until they found themselves on the receiving end of a
barrage of V2's. The idea that washing your hands might be
advantageous didn't sink in to the medical profession until
almost the turn of the century, despite the fact that Ignaz
Semmelweis demonstrated its value quite clearly in 1848.
In the case of nanotechnology, it might be advantageous if the
idea were to sink in before, rather than after, the technology
becomes widely available. After the first general purpose
molecular manufacturing systems are built events are likely to
move at a brisk pace.
Today, a new technology must be reviewed and examined by the
scientific and technical community before it is accepted. This
community speaks in a very definite language and imposes very
definite standards. Nanotechnology, like any new technology, must
survive this "rite of passage" before it is accepted.
This is the unique value of Nanosystems, for it
brings together in one place, for the first time, all the
fundamental concepts needed to understand molecular
manufacturing: what it can make, how it can work, how it can be
achieved. Bringing together physics, chemistry, mechanical
engineering, and computer science, it provides an indispensable
introduction to the emerging field of molecular nanotechnology.
For the technically knowledgeable, it provides an invaluable
reference work which crosses the boundaries of several fields to
bring together, in one convenient spot, the quantitative
information required to analyze the performance of the molecular
machines that will change our lives.
The reception by the scientific community has been favorable. William
A. Goddard III, Professor of Chemistry and Applied Physics
and Director of the Materials and Molecular Simulation Center at
Caltech, said: "With this book, Drexler has established the
field of molecular nanotechnology. The detailed analyses show
quantum chemists and synthetic chemists how to build upon their
knowledge of bonds and molecules to develop the manufacturing
systems of nanotechnology, and show physicists and engineers how
to scale down their concepts of macroscopic systems to the level
Marvin Minsky of MIT stated: "Devices enormously smaller
than before will remodel engineering, chemistry, medicine, and
computer technology. How can we understand machines that are so
small? Nanosystems covers it all: power and
strength, friction and wear, thermal noise and quantum
uncertainty. This is the book for starting the next
century of engineering."
As one former nano-skeptic put it, "There's been more
analysis on this than I thought."
In short, Nanosystems provides the hard core of
technical analysis around which a new field and a new technology
will form. It provides a coherent picture of what molecular
manufacturing can look like, and a coherent lower bound to the
capabilities it will be able to achieve. Every key equation is
illustrated with a graph to aid intuition and understanding.
Several dozen molecular mechanisms are shown in full atomic
detail, and the accompanying text describes their performance and
function. The glossary provides a clear description of the
terminology, while the consistent use of MKS units makes for easy
comparisons between chemical, mechanical, and electric quantities
(unlike the Babel that usually inhibits comparison of, say,
kilocalories per mole with joules with electron volts). The
scaling laws conveniently summarized on a single page illustrate
how over 31 different physical properties scale with decreasing
size; including area, volume, acceleration, stiffness,
resistance, wear life, power, thermal conductance and more. The
summary of molecular mechanics provides a clear picture of how
atoms interact, and what interactions are important for molecular
While Nanosystems provides only lower bounds on the
performance of future systems, this lower bound is a quantum leap
beyond today's technology and moves the discussion of what is
possible into a new realm. It changes the discussion from vague
assertions that, some day, in the great future, we might be able
to make something where every atom is in the right place, to more
specific statements that (for example) mechanosynthetic assembly
of one kilogram products in about an hour with fewer than one
atom in 10,000,000,000 out of place at a cost of much less than a
dollar will be feasible. Drexler gives specific estimates and
lower bounds for critical performance parameters for a host of
fundamental materials and devices, ranging from the strength of
materials to the computational power of future computers to the
speed with which the arm of an assembler can move: all based on
careful and detailed technical analyses.
It will take some time for the conclusions in Nanosystems
to sink in, but sink in they will. Several discussion groups have
already formed, and the debates on computer networks about
nanotechnology have taken a refreshing turn for the better.
Arguments about the feasibility of some aspect of nanotechnology
less often deteriorate into vague and amorphous imponderables.
Critics and proponents alike are expected to cite page numbers
and section headings, and the resulting discussions are short and
For the less technically oriented, the summaries in Nanosystems
will give you the fundamental conclusions, while the more
detailed technical discussions will convince your more
technically-oriented friends that those conclusions and their
consequences for humanity should be taken seriously.
Anyone who cares about the future should buy Nanosystems,
for this is the basic premise of nanotechnology: the future
matters and is ours to create. Whether we create well or badly,
we and our heirs must then live in our creation. To create what
is desirable we must understand what is achievable. Nanosystems
gives us a clear and in-depth preview of a rich new vein of the
Dr. Ralph C. Merkle is a researcher in computational
nanotechnology at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and an Advisor
to the Institute for
Nanosystems is available at many technical
bookstores (in hardcover or paperback) or through the Foresight
Institute (paperback only).
[Editor's note: See Foresight Book Order Form.]
We receive many requests from students and researchers at all
levels--post-docs, graduate students, undergrads, and even some
precocious high-school students--all asking the same question:
"At which universities can I pursue nanotechnology studies
Currently we have only very incomplete information to provide;
instead we describe an information-gathering procedure which will
turn up some answers. But this is inefficient: young researchers
need a central location to turn to when selecting an institution
for nanotechnology work. We're asking Foresight members to help
us gather this information about their institutions, to be
entered into our database. If you can provide any of the
following data about your university, please communicate it to
- Is relevant work already going on, e.g. in proximal
probes (STM, AFM), supramolecular chemistry,
macromolecular or protein engineering, molecular
modeling, or other related fields? If so, which
professors or labs are involved? (Keep in mind that we
are focusing on molecular nanotechnology, not just any
work at the nano scale.) Are there any interdepartmental
projects that combine these fields?
- Are relevant courses already being taught? What are their
names, at what level are they taught (advanced undergrad,
graduate), and which staff members teach them?
- Are relevant degree programs already offered? Ideally
these would be interdisciplinary and interdepartmental.
- If no degree program is offered in nanotechnology (as is
almost certainly the case, particularly for U.S.
readers), are students permitted to design their own
degree programs? If so, at which levels: bachelor's,
- Which thesis topics would you like to see students pursue
to further progress toward nanotechnology?
- Perhaps most important: which professors are interested
in supervising students with these interests, or in
teaching a course on the topic? (Now that Nanosystems
is available, teaching such a course has become much
easier.) If a course is seen as premature, an informal
study group such as Stanford's can be a starting point.
Documentation of any of the above, such as written course
descriptions, would be most appreciated. With your help,
Foresight can become a much better resource for researchers and
students, helping to direct them to where they can be most
effective in conducting nanotechnology work.
In our last
issue we reported that the Institute
for Molecular Manufacturing had received a donation from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
This donation was actually received from EFF founder Mitch Kapor,
rather than from the organization.
Perspective & Policy
Foresight Institute's mission and fundamental goal is
betterment of the human condition, especially as it is related to
molecular nanotechnology. Foresight aims to chart a safe path
through the potential upheavals and reap the benefits of
nanotechnology. We envision the beneficial application of
nanotechnology to the human quality of life: improved health,
environmental sustainability, a stable peace, opening resources
beyond Earth, better information systems, improved education,
reduced poverty, enhanced individual rights, and a broadening of
Nanotechnology will let us control the structure of matter within
physical laws and limits, but additional limits are necessary.
The chief danger isn't a great accident, but a great abuse of
power. Global competitive forces and the unrelenting progress in
the molecular sciences will inevitably lead to
nanotechnology--but in whose hands will control rest?
If we are to guide its use, it must be developed by groups within
our range of influence. Only by emphasizing the benefits of
nanotechnology in medicine, environmental recovery, materials
science, and the economic bounty these advances portend can open,
cooperative development be encouraged. Nanotechnology must be
developed openly to serve the general welfare and the continued
realization of the human potential.
We'll have formidable new tools to use in pursuing these goals.
But if we fail--if we blunder into this final industrial
revolution without looking ahead--all earlier progress toward
these goals could vanish. It is our policy to prepare the future
for nanotechnology and to pursue this mission by:
- Promoting understanding of nanotechnology and its
- Informing the public and decision makers;
- Developing an organizational base for addressing these
issues and communicating openly about them; and,
- Actively pursuing beneficial outcomes.
[Editor's note: See current statement of
Foresight Institute Purpose and
From Foresight Update 15, originally
published 15 February 1993.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 15 to
html for this web page.