Nanotechnology: Where Did It Come From? What Is It For?

The World's Fair sits down with Nanotechnology Scholar Cyrus C. M. Mody to discuss the history, ethics, and policy world of nanotechnology. And other stuff.

Mody is a Science and Technology Studies guy, and now a member of the Department of History at Rice University. He is a leading light in science studies and/of nanotechnology; his work has appeared in numerous professional journals (see end of this post for a select bibliography); he is a sometime participant at nanotechnology and microscopy meetings (his earlier work was on the recent history of probe microscopy); and, of course, he is also an expert on Korean Historical Epics, of which more on that later.


This is the second in a series of "Author Meets Bloggers" posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. Read this and that for the first in the series, with Michael Egan, author of Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival. Read below for Part I of a 3-part series. (Part II; Part III.) Chime in with questions as they arise.

THE WORLD'S FAIR: Where did nanotechnology come from? I so dare you to say Feynman. I dare you to talk about Drexler.

CYRUS C. M. MODY: Ah yes. It was all Feynman. One day he was taking a break from his "real physics" work and he dashed off this speech about making tiny stuff that he gave to American Physical Society [the "Plenty of Room at the Bottom" speech of 1959] and, hey presto!!, four decades later we got the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Okay, one or two things happened in between. The scanning tunneling microscope got invented in 1981 (because that changed everything! Overnight!). Then maybe you got some buckyballs in 1985 and some nanotubes in 1991 and some guy spelled "IBM" with xenon atoms in 1990 and by then it was perfectly obvious to everyone who was anyone that there was such a thing as nanotechnology and it was great.

That's basically the thumbnail description of the history of nano that you see in a lot of popular articles, government reports, reminiscences, etc. In those contexts it's not really meant to be good history - and it sure ain't. Now, there's a very slightly different history in which this guy Eric Drexler is sort of plopped in. Drexler is usually represented either as a dangerously deluded enemy of reality whose cult of true believers is determined to frighten our children and impede Progress or as the gallant yet highly-rational knight who rode in on his horse, proclaimed the Truth of nanotechnology, mobilized the masses to fulfill their nano-destiny, and was then stabbed in the back by the evil Lord Smalley and his orcs at the National Science Foundation.

TWF: And those aren't full stories.

CCMM: Well those are nice stories but maybe you can tell I'm skeptical. First, Feynman. The "Plenty of Room at the Bottom" speech he gave in 1959 did have a slim life of its own, but basically it did nothing to advance anyone toward nanotechnology. The only part people really remembered was where he offered prizes to anyone who could make a couple different kind of small things - people who were actually in the business of making small things (unlike Feynman) kind of kidded about that over the years and every once in a while one of them would try (mostly unsuccessfully) to collect. The other thing about that speech is that he lifted a lot of it from other people. Ed Regis' book Nano (a great read if you're into this stuff) points out Feynman got half the talk from a Robert Heinlein story and half of it from a materials scientist, Arthur von Hippel, at MIT. That said, it is a pretty good speech - he says some really interesting things, especially about the relationship between physics and biology.

Now, Drexler. Obviously, I don't buy either of these caricatures of Drexler. Again, Ed Regis is a good source on this. To me, he's very much a creature of that moment in the '70s when a big social space opened up for far-out, visionary, charismatic-because-not-charismatic-at-all scientists and their groupies to advance all-encompassing plans for the future.

One of the things I love about Lost is that the Dharma Initiative rings so true as exactly that kind of post-hippy scientific program. If you look at Drexler's writings, he's only interested in nano as a means; what he's really into is immortality, ubiquitous computing, space travel, transhumanism, utopian remaking of society, etc. etc. - all the issues that the Dharma Initiative or its real-world equivalents were into. And if you look at those real-world people, they built interlocking organizations to support interest in all of those issues - which, as Mary Ingram-Waters and Patrick McCray have shown, Drexler was able to integrate into. So, you had your space travel organizations whose boards were interlocking with your immortality organizations which were interlocking with your Bay Area hippy computing organizations (e.g. the WELL [The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link]) which were interlocking with your nanotech organizations (e.g. Stewart Brand [he of earlier Whole Earth Catalog fame], was on the board of Drexler's Foresight Institute for a long time).

TWF: It was Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation, right?

CCMM: Right. So Drexler very successfully rode a wave and got a lot of people interested in this thing called nano. For instance, whenever I tell people that I do the history of nanotechnology, the first words out of their mouths are usually "oh, tiny robots" (the rest of the time it's "oh. Wasn't American Idol great last night?") The whole idea that nano is tiny robots came from Drexler's writings as they were taken up by journalists, novelists like Neal Stephenson and Kathleen Ann Goonan, and particularly by television shows - Star Trek did way more to create a public constituency for nano than Richard Feynman ever did.

Of course, the scientists and policymakers and businesspeople don't want to give a lot of credit to Drexler. And rightly so - the moment of visionary futurism of Drexler's sort has past and he now sounds weird and unappealing. Very very little of what counts as nanotechnology research or development derives from (or even fits with) Drexler's vision (the exception might be some computer simulation work and some of the more whimsical molecular electronics/DNA-architecture research). And yet, Drexler did, indirectly, help catalyze the creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. As Regis points out, Drexler did get a hearing from some important people like Al Gore and Admiral David Jeremiah - people who weren't scientists, who liked far-out visionaries, and who controlled the purse-strings for a lot of federal research. What Regis doesn't see is that there was a whole underlayer of federal program officers and science managers who were talking to each other in the late '80s about "nanotechnology" - by which they didn't mean Drexler's molecular assemblers but instead something like "the next technology area after microtechnology". But when Drexler got in the door with the bigwigs, these people were able to follow right behind and say "have we got a research program for you!"

TWF: What is nanotechnology for anyway?

CCMM: Ah, what is it for, not "what is it"? Well, the two are related. If you think nanotechnology is a bunch of great products, then it could be "for" almost everything. Some proponents talk about nano as being like electricity - i.e. when you go to the store you don't buy electricity, but electricity is in or enables pretty much everything that you do buy. So nanotech could end up being in all kinds of things. Proponents like to think of this happening in a couple waves - first, nano would just make some things we already use "better" (cheaper, longer-lasting, faster, more chocolatey). Obviously we're already somewhat into that phase with the appearance of such life-changing products as stain-resistant chinos, more durable tennis balls, straighter-flying golf balls, harder-hitting golf clubs, invisible sunscreen, etc. (Notice a pattern? I sometimes think nano is the brainchild of guys named Scooter and Corky with blue blazers and pink shirts, complaining about the lack of really high-tech preppy gear). Then the next phase would be products that are wholly novel like, I don't know, bulletproof fabric or talking newspapers or safe hydrogen storage for automotive fuel cells.

But if you think of nanotechnology not as primarily about products (which, in my view, would probably have been invented whether we think of them as "nano" or not) but as about the organization of science and engineering, then nano is "for" a whole other set of things. People like Patrick McCray argue (pretty plausibly) that nano was a way to rebrand the physical sciences in an era when the Clinton administration had redirected America's research priorities to biology and medicine. I've argued that, at least in part, nano is "for" getting alumni to donate to their universities and the viewers of the Sunday political shows to invest in companies like GE, IBM, and HP. Peter Galison thinks nano was, in part, an escape route for high-energy physicists after the end of the Cold War and the loss of the Superconducting Supercollider. So, not to be trite, but it's for different things for different people.


Part II is here, wherein, among other matters of ethics, toxicology, politics, and policy, Mody addresses the "what is it for?" question. That is, if not just stain-resistant pants?


Some of the author's work, or, three by Mody:
  • "Small, but Determined: Technological Determinism in Nanoscience" target="blank", HYLE--International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 2004, 10 (2): 99-128.
  • "Corporations, Universities, and Instrumental Communities: Commercializing Probe Microscopy, 1981-1996," Technology and Culture, 2006, 47 (1): 56-80
  • "How Probe Microscopists Became Nanotechnologists," in D. Baird, A. Nordmann & J. Schummer (eds.), Discovering the Nanoscale, Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2004, 119-133

More like this

As previously mentioned in a ScienceBlog:…

1951: Field Ion Microscope, invented by Mueller

In retrospect, Mueller was one of the grandfathers of
Nanotechnology, Feynman being the great-grandfather.

Let me now unpack this slightly.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate and best-selling autobiographer, extraordinary teacher, was the great-grandfather of Nanotechnology. Also, not entirely a coincidence, Feynman was the great-grandfather of Quantum Computing.

There are a at least a dozen grandfathers of nanotechnology (of whom I am the least, but to whom Feynman was coauthor and passed one of the torches). Some of these did not even know of Feynman's role, until asked by historians. Others explicitly acknowledge Feynman's inspiration.

The Father of Nanotechnology was K. Eric Drexler, who popularized the name (already extant, roughly synonymous with the older term Angstromics), wrote the first bestseller, founded the Foresight Institute, and wrote the 2nd PhD dissertation in the field. I was in contact with Drexler, through a mutual friend. I introduced Drexler face-to-face with Dr. Stanley Schmidt, Editor-in-Chief of Analog Science Fiction Science Fact magazine, and early editorial supporter, and to the editors of Omni Magazine (where I'd done 2 cover articles) and which profiled nano and Drexler.

Drexler asked that I NOT publish, until there's been a pseudo-Cold Springs Harbor meeting on ethical implications and containment, then published anyway.

I wrote the world's 1st PhD Dissertation in what's now called nanotechnology (and Artificial Life) in 1977, many chapters of which have been published in refereed conference proceedings subsequently. Drexler promised to endorse me in my election for Board of Directors of the National Space Society (where I was endorsed in writing by Ray Bradbury and Sir Arthur C. Clarke), forgot to do so, and I lost by about 50 votes of many thousand. Drexler's first wife did not like me, and fought to expunge me from Nano-History. Drexler is now happily remarried.

Partial List of my Nanotechnology and Computational Biology

Jonathan V. Post, "Analysis of Enzyme Waves: Success
through Simulation", Proceedings of the Summer
Computer Simulation Conference, Seattle, WA, 25-27
August 1980, pp.691-695, AFIPS Press, 1815 North Lynn
Street, Suite 800, Arlington, VA 22209

Jonathan V. Post, "Simulation of Metabolic Dynamics",
Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Symposium on Computer
Applications in Medical Care, Washington, DC, 2-5
November 1980

Jonathan V. Post, "Enzyme System Cybernetics",
Proceedings of the International Conference on Applied
Systems Research and Cybernetics, Acapulco, Mexico,
12-15 December 1980

Jonathan V. Post, "Enzyme System Cybernetics", Applied
Systems Research and Cybernetics, ed. G.E. Lasker,
Pergamon Press, 1981, Vol.IV, pp.1883-1888, ISBN:
0-08-027196-0 (set), ISBN: 0-08-0271201 (Vol.IV)

Jonathan V. Post, "Alternating Current Chemistry,
Enzyme Waves, and Metabolic Chaos", NATO Workshop on
Coherent and Emergent Phenomena in Biomolecular
Systems, Tucson, AZ 15-19 January 1991

Jonathan V. Post, "Nonlinear Enzyme Waves, Simulated
Metabolism Dynamics, and Protein Nanotechnology",
poster session, 2nd Artificial Life Workshop, 5-9 Feb
1990, Sana Fe, NM

Jonathan V. Post, "Continuous Semigroups, Nonlinear
Enzyme Waves, and Simulated Metabolism Dynamics",
accepted for Semigroup Forum (Mathematics journal), 15
May 1990 not published as employer accidently erased
only digital file of paper]

Jonathan V. Post, "Is Functional Identity of Products
a Necessary Condition for the Selective Neutrality of
Structural Gene Allele?", Population Biologists of New
England (PBONE), Brown University, Providence, RI,
June 1976

Jonathan V. Post, "Enzyme Kinetics and Selection of
Structural Gene Products -- A Theoretical
Consideration", Society for the Study of Evolution,
Ithaca, NY, June 1977

Jonathan V. Post, "Birth of the Biocomputer",
color-videotaped lecture to audience of 200, at
opening of A.P.P.L.E.'s new world headquarters, Kent,
WA, 15 Mar 1983

Jonathan V. Post, "Part Human, Part Machine",
panel discussion on cyborgs, prosthesis, robots,
nanotechnology, Westercon 37, Portland Marriott,
Portland, OR, 30 Jun 1984

Jonathan V. Post (moderator), Prof. Vernor Vinge, Paul
Preuss, Greg Bear, F. Eugene Yates (Director, Crump
Institute for Medical Engineering, UCLA), "New
Machines, New Life Forms", UCLA Extension's Symposium
on Science and Science Fiction, Westwood, CA, 9 Nov

Jonathan V. Post, Dean R. Lambe, Laura Mixon, Walter
John Williams, "Nanotechnology", panel discussion,
Nolacon: 46th World Science Fiction Convention,
Sheraton Grand B, New Orleans, LA, 4 Sep 1988

Jonathan Vos Post, "The Evolution of Controllability
in Enzyme System Dynamics", Proc. 5th International
Conference on Complex Systems, Boston, Massachisetts,
16-21 May 2004. Abstract: A building block of all
living organisms' metabolism is the "enzyme chain." A
chemical "substrate" diffuses into the (open) system.
A first enzyme transforms it into a first intermediate
metabolite. A second enzyme transforms the first
intermediate into a second intermediate metabolite.
Eventually, an Nth intermediate, the "product"
diffuses out of the open system. What we most often
see in nature is that the behavior of the first enzyme
is regulated by a feedback loop sensitive to the
concentration of product. This is accomplished by the
first enzyme in the chain being "allosteric", with one
active site for binding with the substrate, and a
second active site for binding with the product.
Normally, as the concentration of product increases,
the catalytic efficiency of the first enzyme is
decreased (inhibited). To anthropomorphize, when the
enzyme chain is making too much product for the
organism's good, the first enzyme in the chain is
told: "whoa, slow down there." Such feedback can lead
to oscillation, or, as this author first pointed out,
"nonperiodic oscillation" (for which, at the time, the
term "chaos" had not yet been introduced). But why
that single feedback loop, known as "endproduct
inhibition" [Umbarger, 1956], and not other possible
control systems? What exactly is evolution doing, in
adapting systems to do complex things with control of
flux (flux meaning the mass of chemicals flowing
through the open system in unit time)? This
publication emphasizes the results of Kacser and the
results of Savageau, in the context of this author's
theory. Other publications by this author [Post, 9
refs] explain the context and literature on the
dynamic behavior of enzyme system kinetics in living
metabolisms; the use of interactive computer
simulations to analyze such behavior; the emergent
behaviors "at the edge of chaos"; the mathematical
solution in the neighborhood of steady state of
previously unsolved systems of nonlinear
Michaelis-Menton equations [Michaelis-Menten, 1913];
and a deep reason for those solutions in terms of
Krohn-Rhodes Decomposition of the Semigroup of
Differential Operators of the systems of nonlinear
Michaelis-Menton equations. Living organisms are not
test tubes in which are chemical reactions have
reached equilibrium. They are made of cells, each cell
of which is an "open system" in which energy, entropy,
and certain molecules can pass through cell membranes.
Due to conservation of mass, the rate of stuff going
in (averaged over time) equals the rate of stuff going
out. That rate is called "flux." If what comes into
the open system varies as a function of time, what is
inside the system varies as a function of time, and
what leaves the system varies as a function of time.
Post's related publications provide a general solution
to the relationship between the input function of time
and the output function of time, in the neighborhood
of steady state. But the behavior of the open system,
in its complexity, can also be analyzed in terms of
mathematical Control Theory. This leads immediately to
questions of "Control of Flux."

Will the next installation address the question of why Cyrus hates hipsters?