Thursday, November 30, 2006


Not enough speculation?

Nanodot, a blog from the Foresight Institute, approvingly cites an opinion piece (pdf) by Jason Palmer at nanotoday, describing it as saying "Nanotechnology researchers urged to speculate more." I have to say that I got quite a lot of amusement out of this concept. After all, these are the folks that have promised the taxpayers a $1 trillion dollar nanotechnology industry nine years from now, which sounds pretty darn speculative to me.

Nanodot adds that "The public — often, the source of research funds — is turned off if researchers only make public statements about what is not possible, always sounding discouraging." If the researchers are indeed making gloomy public statements of this kind, they are sure not getting out to the public, because the press is much more interested in promoting the latest pie-in-the-sky speculation. Maybe the problem is that the Drexler-style dreams that drive the Foresight Institute have been around long enough that people have recognized their flaws.

To be fair, the original opinion piece is more thoughtful. It does include the questionable assertion that "Extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary proof if there is no established basis for comparison." Does this mean that shoddy evidence should be good enough to accept UFOs and ESP? It's hard to tell, but it would seem that a claim can't be extraordinary unless there is a basis for comparison.

The gist of the piece, however, is that academic researchers whose work has revolutionary and open-ended possibilities should be willing to discuss those possibilities in a way that transcends the limits of academic journals. That's fine, and Palmer's suggestion that academic web sites provide forums for discussion is an excellent one. However, his primary problem seems to be that the evidence-based requirements of real science don't seem to be a match for the marketing apparatus of companies that hype nanotech. He's looking for something from the academics that is more exciting than the "hard truths that have less influence than marketable exaggerations and falsehoods."

It seems to me that the academics have done their share to encourage the press's thirst for exaggerations and falsehoods. The scientific process may be boring, but it's real, and in the long run it's the closest thing we've got to miraculous.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Industrial Physics Forum

Jennifer Ouellette, who used to write great stories for the now-defunct The Industrial Physicist and who still has a nice blog of her own called Cocktail Party Physics, is live-blogging for the American Institute of Physics from the Industrial Physics Forum in California. Check it out.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Roco talk

Christopher Mims has a good blog on a talk at the World Science Forum by Mihail Roco, who continues to be a driving force behind the National Nanotechnology Initiative. For example, Roco seems to have originated the widely-quoted National Science Foundation estimate of a $1 trillion/year nanotechnology industry by 2015, which has taken on a life of its own.

For more of Roco's viewpoint and the history of the NNI, see also this interview with Roco from last year.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Who first developed nanotechnology?

In September, New Scientist magazine ran a story about 5-nm quantum dots of lead sulphide that the ancient Greeks used in hair dye. (The work was said to be destined for Nano Letters, but I can't find any sign of it so far.) Before this, the oldest nanotechnology I knew of was the early-20th-century optimization of the size distribution of the silver halide particles--oops, I mean nanoparticles--in photographic film. Still, it seems unlikely that the Greeks knew what they were doing, while the scientists at Eastman Kodak had a pretty clear idea that they were trading off sensitivity (speed) of film for higher resolution by making the grains smaller. So maybe they still deserve the prize. Any other candidates?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Cheap shot

If nanometer means a billionth of a meter, and nanosecond means a billionth of a second, what does nanotechnology mean?

Monday, November 06, 2006


Which of these things is not like the other?

Technology Review, the MIT-based technology magazine, maintains five channels focused on specific "emerging technologies":

Just like those "intelligence" tests from Mensa, there's more than one answer to the question "Which of these things just doesn't belong?" The most obvious answer is probably "energy," since it doesn't have a gratuitous "tech" grafted onto it.
My answer is that four of these channels cover problems in search of solutions, in information processing, medicine, energy, or business. Nanotech, however, is a solution in search of problems. Whether the problem is extending Moore's law or devising a new car wax is irrelevant. This is a great recipe for research funding. It's not a technology.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Where I come from

Over the almost 20 years I spent at Bell Labs, my research evolved from rather pure condensed-matter physics to direct support of the continual revolution that drives microelectronics. For example, I helped demonstrate some of the intriguing properties of strained silicon (now used by Intel and others in a more practical form) in the early 1990s. In the late 1990s I helped to develop a radical but manufacturable alternative (never adopted) to traditional transistor fabrication in which the transistor length didn't depend on lithography.

During that time, I heard many scientists promote their work as the basis for going beyond Moore's Law. In almost every case, the claim was laughable. These researchers had no clue what makes the integrated circuit industry tick. I always imagined myself returning to more basic research with a deep understanding of the real constraints on making these awesomely complex circuits so cheap and reliable. However, I was never able to make that return voyage.

Toward the end of my research career, I was asked to serve on the committee that investigated the work of Hendrik Schön at Bell Labs, who was announcing an astounding series of revolutionary discoveries in nanotechnology. After a few months of intense work, we concluded that a large fraction of this work was fabricated. Happily, although this episode distorted many research programs and careers, molecular and organic electronics are still vibrant areas of research.

In 2003, I changed careers entirely. I am now a freelance science writer. Mostly I'm having a great time covering aspects of biology, although I cover physics and technology as well. When I made the change, though, I thought that my background would give me the chance to put nanotechnology and advanced technology in context. What I failed to appreciate is that the press, just like the researchers, has a vested interest in accentuating the promise of research. After all, who wants to read that an exciting new development really isn't that important after all?

In this blog, I hope to cover nanotechnology and related issues with a perspective that you are not likely to find in the mainstream press. This is not to say that all nano research is worthless--far from it. I have no doubt that many fascinating discoveries will emerge from the massive spending on this class of research. Some of it might even be important.

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