[extropy-chat] C-R-Newsletter #18 April 29, 2004
iph1954 at msn.com
Fri Apr 30 16:54:16 UTC 2004
C-R-Newsletter #18 April 29, 2004
If you'd like to read the HTML version, with nicer formatting and
working hyperlinks, just go here: http://crnano.org/newsletter.htm#18
Slashdot Does CRN
The new C-R-Network
Blog improvement suggestions?
Tell us about enabling tech!
Feature essay: Science vs. engineering vs. theoretical applied
Slashdot Does CRN
Slashdot.org* is a large techie news blog. CRN was featured on their
front page today. Many of the 650 comments posted to the article* show
that readers are aware of the power and the problems created by
molecular manufacturing. Now we just have to get the news to nanotech
Mike and Chris* are both very busy with CRN activities, as well as other
pesky aspects of real life that keep intruding. Chris, for example, is
in the process of moving this week to a new home in Miami. For his part,
Mike spent four days last week in England at a Board of Directors
retreat for another NGO that he works with. But no complaints; we both
love our lives and our work.
Speaking of work, were both laboring mightily to prepare for important
conference activities next month on behalf of CRN. As weve told you
before, Chris will be jetting to China in mid-May to give a talk at the
World High Technology Society's Life Spring Forum* in Dalian. Following
that conference, he will give talks in Nanjing on progress toward
molecular manufacturing, and in Shanghai on advanced nanotechnology and
While Chris is in China, Mike will be in California for the Foresight
Institute's Senior Associates Gathering,* where he has been invited to
be a featured speaker. Perhaps some of you will be there to meet him and
hear his talk. Here is the abstract:
>The challenges brought by advanced nanotechnology will have to be
addressed by a diverse collection of people and organizations. No single
approach will solve all problems or address all needs. The only answer
is a collective answer, and that will demand an unprecedented
collaboration of leaders in science, technology, business, government,
and NGOs. It will require participation from people of many nations,
cultures, languages, and belief systems. Never before has the world
faced such a tremendous opportunityand never before have the risks been
so great. We must begin now to develop common understanding, create
lines of communication, and build a stable structure that will enable
humankind to pass safely through the transition into the nano era.
By the way, the Foresight Institute has extended a nice offer to CRN
supporters. They will give C-R-Newsletter readers a discount of $200 off
the standard fee to join Foresight and register for the Senior
Associates conference. Visit this page* to register at the long-expired
"Super Early" rate and put "CRN" in the comments field.
The new C-R-Network
Since our founding in December 2002, CRN has experienced significant
growth. People often tell us how impressed they are by all that weve
accomplished in a short time. Its nice to hear such things, of course,
because sometimes when one is so close to the actual work, its hard to
appreciate how much progress is being made.
Some members of our Board of Advisors* have told us that we should
prepare ourselves for even faster growth. Evidently these people, who
have more experience in startup organizations than we do, can sense that
CRN is nearing a tipping point, and that things will start moving even
faster for us.
A piece of advice they have offered is that we need to be more proactive
about developing a strong working network of supporters, researchers,
and potential collaborators. As such, weve decided to form the
C-R-Network, and we want you to join! If youre interested in being a
part of the solution, please click on the link above.
Blog improvement suggestions?
As most of you know, we started a weblog in January 2004 called
Responsible Nanotechnology.* Response has been great. Were averaging
well over 300 hits per day and we get three to four times as many posted
comments as we make blog entries. But everything can be improved, right?
If you are a regular reader of the blog, please tell us what we can do
to improve it. We think its an important way to stay in touch with our
constituency, and the feedback we get to our ideas is truly helpful. So
tell us how we can make it more useful or interesting to you. And if
youre not a regular reader of the blog, maybe you should be!
Tell us about enabling tech!
One of the things that indicates CRN was founded at the right time (not
a moment too soon, and we hope not too late!) is the rapid development
were seeing in enabling technologies. From nanoscale lasers to dip-pen
lithography, and from nanoscale fasteners to nucleic acid building
blocks, the molecular manufacturing toolbox is filling up rapidly.
Its very important for us to keep abreast of these developments. Weve
got our ears close to the ground, but if you come across something you
think we should know about, please tell us. Perhaps you work in a field
that is doing relevant work, or maybe youve just read something that we
didnt catch. In any case, dont hesitate to email Mike* or Chris* with
* mtreder at crnano.org
* cphoenix at crnano.org
(Suggested subject: "Enabling Tech")
Science vs. engineering vs. theoretical applied nanotechnology
by Chris Phoenix, CRN Director of Research
When scientists want an issue to go away, they are as political as
anyone else. They attack the credentials of the observer. They change
the subject. They build strawman attacks, and frequently even appear to
convince themselves. They form cliques. They tell their students not to
even read the claims, and certainly not to investigate them. Each of
these tactics is being used against molecular manufacturing.
When facing a scientific theory they disagree with, scientists are
supposed to try to disprove it by scientific methods. Molecular
manufacturing includes a substantial, well-grounded, carefully argued,
conservative body of work. So why do scientists treat it as though it
were pseudoscience, deserving only political attack? And how should they
be approaching it instead? To answer this, we have to consider the gap
between science and engineering.
Scientists do experiments and develop theories about how the world
works. Engineers apply the most reliable of those theories to get
predictable results. Scientists cannot make reliable pronouncements
about the complex "real world" unless their theory has been field-tested
by engineering. But once a theory is solid enough to use in engineering,
science has very little of interest to say about it. In fact, the two
practices are so different that it's not obvious how they can
communicate at all. How can ideas cross the gap from untested theory to
In Appendix A of Nanosystems*, Eric Drexler describes an activity he
calls "theoretical applied science" or "exploratory engineering". This
is the bridge between science and engineering. In theoretical applied
science, one takes the best available results of science, applies them
to real-world problems, and makes plans that should hopefully work as
desired. If done with enough care, these plans may inspire engineers
(who must of course be cautious and conservative) to try them for the
The bulk of Appendix A discusses ways that theoretical applied science
can be practiced so as to give useful and reliable results, despite the
inability to confirm its results by experiment:
For example, all classes of device that would violate the second
law of thermodynamics can immediately be rejected. A more stringent
rule, adopted in the present work, rejects propositions if they are
inadequately substantiated, for example, rejecting all devices that
would require materials stronger than those known or described by
accepted physical models. By adopting these rules for falsification and
rejection, work in theoretical applied science can be grounded in our
best scientific understanding of the physical world.
Drexler presents theoretical applied science as a way of studying things
we can't build yet. In the last section, he ascribes to it a very
limited aim: "to describe lower bounds to the performance achievable
with physically possible classes of devices." And a limited role: "In an
ideal world, theoretical applied science would consume only a tiny
fraction of the effort devoted to pure theoretical science, to
experimentation, or to engineering." But here I think he's being too
modest. Theoretical applied science is really the only rigorous way for
the products of science to escape back to the real world by inspiring
and instructing engineers.
We might draw a useful analogy: exploratory engineers are to scientists
as editors are to writers. Scientists and writers are creative. Whatever
they produce is interesting, even when it's wrong. They live in their
own world, which touches the real world exactly where and when they
choose. And then along come the editors and the exploratory engineers.
"This doesn't work. You need to rephrase that. This part isn't useful.
And wouldn't it be better to explain it this way?" Exploratory
engineering is very likely to annoy and anger scientists.
To the extent that exploratory engineering is rigorously grounded in
science, scientists can evaluate it -- but only in the sense of checking
its calculations. An editor should check her work with the author. But
she should not ask the author whether he thinks she has improved it; she
should judge how well she did her job by the reader's response, not the
writer's. Likewise, if scientists cannot show that an exploratory
engineer has misinterpreted (misapplied) their work or added something
that science cannot support, then the scientists should sit back and let
the applied engineers decide whether the theoretical engineering work is
Molecular manufacturing researchers practice exploratory engineering:
they design and analyze things that can't be built yet. These
researchers have spent the last two decades asking scientists to either
criticize or accept their work. This was half an error: scientists can
show a mistake in an engineering calculation, but the boundaries of
scientific practice do not allow scientists to accept applied but
unverified results. To the extent that the results of theoretical
applied science are correct and useful, they are meant for engineers,
not for scientists.
Drexler is often accused of declaring that nanorobots will work without
ever having built one. In science, one shouldn't talk about things not
yet demonstrated. And engineers shouldn't expect support from the
scientific community -- or even from the engineering community, until a
design is proved. But Drexler is doing neither engineering nor science,
but something in between; he's in the valuable but thankless position of
the cultural ambassador, applying scientific findings to generate
results that may someday be useful for engineering.
If as great a scientist as Lord Kelvin can be wrong about something as
mundane and technical as heavier-than-air flight, then lesser scientists
ought to be very cautious about declaring any technical proposal
unworkable or worthless. But scientists are used to being right. Many
scientists have come to think that they embody the scientific process,
and that they personally have the ability to sort fact from fiction. But
this is just as wrong as a single voter thinking he represents the
country's population. Science weeds out falsehood by a slow and emergent
process. An isolated scientist can no more practice science than a lone
voter can practice democracy.
The proper role of scientists with respect to molecular manufacturing is
to check the work for specific errors. If no specific errors can be
found, they should sit back and let the engineers try to use the ideas.
A scientist who declares that molecular manufacturing can't work without
identifying a specific error is being unscientific. But all the
arguments we've heard from scientists against molecular manufacturing
are either opinions (guesses) or vague and unsupported generalities
The lack of identifiable errors does not mean that scientists have to
accept molecular manufacturing. What they should do is say "I don't
know," and wait to see whether the engineering works as claimed. But
scientists hate to say "I don't know." So we at CRN must say it for
them: No scientist has yet demonstrated a substantial problem with
molecular manufacturing; therefore, any scientist who says it can't work
probably is behaving improperly and should be challenged to produce
To donate to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, go to
http://crnano.org/support.htm, click on "Donate Now", and
remember to specify CRN. Thanks!
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology(TM) (CRN) is an affiliate of
World Care(R), an international, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization. All
donations to CRN are handled through World Care. The opinions expressed
by CRN do not necessarily reflect those of World Care.
Is your PC infected? Get a FREE online computer virus scan from McAfee®
More information about the extropy-chat