Michio Kaku's "Visions" and Nanotechnology

Thu, 9 Oct 1997 09:41:23 -0400

While Michio Kaku's latest release, "Visions: How Science with Revolutionize
the Twenty-Fist Century" (as an aside, that title does not make much sense.
How can you revolutionize something that has yet to occur?), contains a wealth
of excellent material on near-future technologies, I was dismayed at the brief
and unbalanced treatment Kaku gave nanotechnology.

The most glaring omission from Kaku's discussion is the absence of Eric
Drexler's name. Dr. Drexler, along with other notable experts in the field,
was deposited in the term nameless, faceless, credentialless term "advocates".
In science circles, "advocacy" is not the most amicable term. "Expert" is much
more congenial. Advocating (implying simply support for a concept and not
necessarily knowledge) is different from knowing (i.e., being an expert),
whether Kaku intended this subtle jab I do not know. Kaku even failed to
include any of Drexler's works in the "Recommended Reading" section of his
book. The only book dealing with nanotechnology that made it into this section
was Regis' "Nano", not my first choice for an introduction to the subject.

On the flip side, Kaku finds it necessary to identify and quote three different
critics of nanotechnology: a chemist and columnist of "the prestigious Nature
magazine" (none other than David Jones, the acidic critic of nanotechnology
who, from his own comments on Drexler's "Nanosystems" either did not read the
book at all or was severely confused when penning his comments on the book), an
engineer from Hewlett-Packard, and an editor from a science fiction
publication. This constellation of critics that Kaku assembled is ironic in
that Kaku opens his book criticizing how cogent discussion of technology
(especially future technology) is inhibited by the media's reliance on
nonscientists or nonexpert scientists.

Nanotechnology is obviously a controversial subject. True molecular
nanotechnology (MNT), as described in Dr. Drexler's works, would have profound
effects on virtually every aspect of our lives and literally transform
humanity. There are some legitimate scientifically-motivated (versus acrid
criticism a la Jones) criticism of true MNT. Smalley's comments regarding
theoretical problems at the sub cubic nanometer are compelling and need to be
addressed (check out http://cnst.rice.edu/NanoWelch.html). I would have
preferred that Kaku include Smalley and Drexler, experts in the area, in his
nanotechnology discussion instead of the troupe he assembled.

I am not a scientist by training, actually I am an accountant. However, I was
distressed at the unscientific treatment Kaku gave nanotechnology. The last
thing nanotechnology needs is to be regarded as pseudoscience. Such a
designation could make finding research funding difficult. I am composing a
letter to Kaku himself pertaining to the comments above. If I receive a
response from him I will, with his permission, post it to this mailing list.

Doug Bailey