NanoEnthusiast wrote on our blog yesterday, "I can't help but think that if all the radical ideas related to Drexlerian nanotechnology (i.e radical life-extension, nanofactories that can make anything) had not been talked about; then maybe the rather modest-sounding claim that one can build interesting nanostuctures out of diamond one atom (or dimer) at time would have been accepted more easily."
A few days ago, I was making a list of the reasons why molecular manufacturing might have met with such slow acceptance and determined resistance. Here are some:
- Drexler committed the unforgivable sin of scientists: he wrote a popular book.
- He published a catchy term for a horrifying scenario ("grey goo").
- Drexler, and several other nanotech people, spoke in favor of cryonics.
- Bill Joy published a scary anti-MM article just as the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was getting off the ground.
- For a very long time, vitalism was a significant problem: the idea that machines can't make machines, only life can do that.
- MM people sometimes cited non-MM-focused research as evidence of MM's feasibility, and the researchers often objected to that, especially once MM became controversial.
- Drexler was too far ahead of his time, and for a while there was very little experimental evidence to back up his physics-based extrapolations. Even today, this is a weak spot. (Trouble is, once the evidence is all in, we'll be very close to building a nanofactory, with no time left for adequate policy discussion!) (Other trouble is, even where evidence existed, it was ignored--for a number of years, scientists made such broad claims of impossibility that they effectively declared biological life impossible!)
On the other hand, it's not obvious that even if everything had gone right, MM would have been accepted any faster. It's easy to pick on mistakes made by individuals, when the larger failure was inevitable. We can learn a lesson from history here. As told in The Doctors' Plague by Sherwin B. Nuland, Ignac Semmelweis knew what caused childbed fever, but made a lot of mistakes in promoting his theory, and it was not accepted. It's easy to blame Semmelweis. But the Afterword of The Doctors' Plague tells the story of Joseph Lister. Lister did not make Semmelweis's mistakes. He started research on bacteria and infection in the year of Semmelweis's death; he worked patiently, did solid research and published his findings... and still had to work for almost two decades before antisepsis and asepsis were accepted in hospitals.
Going back to the comment that inspired this post, it may be worth noting that Richard Feynman in 1959 made the claim that nanoscale machines could build more nanoscale machines... and nothing MM-ish happened for decades afterward. So it seems that just making modest claims is not sufficient.
Perhaps the answer is simply that it takes a long time for paradigms to shift, and molecular manufacturing--even in its "boring" formulation of depositing atoms to build stuff--did require a paradigm shift. It's easy to forget that a few years ago, that was widely thought to be impossibly difficult, and many even assumed it was forbidden by the laws of physics.
It will be interesting to see under what circumstances the paradigm shift is translated into action, and when this will happen.