NANO: Skeptical MIT Tech Review Interview

Doug Bailey (
Fri, 13 Nov 1998 8:53:34 -0500

In the November-December issue of _MIT's Technology Review_, George Whitesides was interviewed on the subject of nanotechnology. Whitesides is a chemist and materials scientist at Harvard. The article describes Whitesides thusly:

"A distinguished chemist and materials scientist, Whitesides has
been exploring this very small world for years. After nearly 20 years at MIT, Whitesides joined Harvard University's chemistry department in 1982. The Harvard researcher has provided micro- and nanofabrication with some of its most useful construction techniques. But Whitesides also keeps a well-trained reality check on the nano world. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the field, he's intent on defining what is, and what isn't, going to be possible."

In the interview, Whitesides expresses enthusiam over near-term possibilities of nanotechnology (i.e., information storate, ubiquitous computing, etc.). However, Whitesides is openly skeptical of the robust MNT described by Drexler and discussed on this list. The following excerpt captures Whitesides' skepticism:

"TR: Beyond shrinking microelectronics smaller and smaller, there's
been a lot of talk about using nanotechnology for other, mechanical, types of applications.

WHITESIDES: There are a lot of things that range from being potentially real to things that are science fiction. There's the idea of very small autonomous machines that swim around in the bloodstream or something like that. I can see no way of realizing those. The reason is that, aside from the problems in building them, there are horrendous problems with power in anything that's an autonomous system. There'll have to be some truly deep invention before anyone figures out how to power small autonomous systems. We have examples of powered systems: for example, living cells, or organelles in the cell. But the cell is not actually a small object. Mammalian cells are about 25 micrometers across and even bacterial cells are 1 to 3 micrometers. Viruses, which are much smaller, are not powered. So power is one fundamental question. Friction in small moving systems is a second. Manufacturing is a third."

Again, we see skeptics who should know better basically saying certain technological accomplishments are impossible without any firm theoretical substantiation for such a finding. Whitesides covers his bets by saying he
"can see no way of realizing [such technology]" and speculates that "truly
deep investion[s]" would need to be made before we can realize some of the applications described by Drexler and others. Too bad the interviewer did not ask "Do you think such technology is possible or impossible? And if you think it is 'impossible' what are the theoretical arguments to evidence this impossibility?"

Doug Bailey