Friday, October 29, 2010

Science: The Opposite of Big Science

For a while it was the new science buzzword that managed to get the attention of the media and the public. Nanotechnology. The idea that very small technology could do wonders if only we did some researchon the few remaining unsolved problems.

That soon nano-factories and non-production would solve lots of our problems. That soon nano-robots would be inside our bodies performing nano-repairs and keeping us healthy. The future would belong to nanotechnology if we threw some money at it.

Just some money. That's all it would take.

Well... years later nanotechnology isn't as big a deal as its proponents said it would. Why isn't it a big deal? There are different approaches to explaining the problem.

One view is held by Scott Locklin. In Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry he characterizes the entire nanotechnology-will-solve-everything movement as vapourware. Now the article is inflammatory. Maybe deservedly so but it is still inflammatory. Even as he points out real problems with nanotechnology he has fun doing so:
Much of his thesis seems to be hand wavey arguments that his “looking rather a lot like a meter scale object” designs would work on a nano or small microscale. I know for a fact that they will not. You can wave your hands around all you want; when you stick an atomic force microscope down on nanosized thingees, you know what forces they produce. They don’t act like macro-objects, at all.
Or one of my favourites:
Little real thought was given to thermodynamics or where the energy was coming from for all these cool Maxwell-Demon like “perpetual motion” reactions.
So one view of why nanotechnology hasn't appeared as predicted is that it can't. The promises and ideas were impractical and maybe even impossible from the start.

Another view, one that criticizes Lockin, is that the reason there are no wonderous advances in nanotechnology is that the money that was to be used in nanotechnology research never made it there. The premise of Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle or Robert Freitas Are not to Blame When Billions spent on Ordinary Chemistry Was called Nanotechnology Work- You Got What You Paid For is obvious in the title. Brian Wang is of the opinion that the money that was originally going to be used to fund 'true' nanotechnology research made its way through Congress and the Senate and came out as money to be used for general chemical research. Since the money didn't get put to solving those few remaining problems that needed solving we haven't reached that promised future.

Of the two explanations the first has a truer ring to it in my mind. Nanotechnology proponents never explained how little nano machines were going to run. They never explained the power sources. They never explained how little nano factories and production equipment could survive the harsh environment of the world around us. Too many good and reputable scientists and technologists found problems with promises for my tastes.

As to the 'misappropriated' research money I have an alternative way of looking at what happened. Nanotechnology was a buzzword. It had captured the imagination. The word itself, and maybe the overly ambitious promises, did push lawmakers to throw money at the problem. Then, as part of the process of vetting the proposals and getting them through Congress and the Senate, the money was directed towards 'ordinary chemistry' and other worthwhile endeavours with a much better chance of results that would be useful and productive.

What Brian Wang defends nanotechnology for not being what was promised because the money wasn't spent on nanotechnology. What he doesn't say is whether the money ended up being put to a much better use in other areas of chemistry.

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