X-Message-Number: 21906
From: "MIKE TREDER" <>
Subject: Nanocosm Critique
Date: Sat, 07 Jun 2003 10:48:50 -0400

A critique of William Atkinson's "Nanocosm" has been prepared by Chris 
Phoenix, Director of Research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology 


William Atkinson has an agenda. This self-described "professional 
rhetoretician" (p. 134) has written a book on the emerging science of 
nanotechnology, with special emphasis on debunking. The reader will learn 
many details about science and nanoscience--and much of it will be wrong.

For example, Atkinson believes that in 10-15 years, "Maxwell Demons" will be 
developed (p. 277), enabling "heating, cooling, and material sorting, at 
zero energy cost." This is of course perpetual motion. The error is not 
merely sophomoric; it is glaring. Atkinson apparently believes this because 
someone told him that Cool Chips (pp. 76-79) trap heat on one side. 
Maxwell's Demon, in theory, does the same thing with no energy, and even 
Maxwell knew that this implied perpetual motion. What makes Cool Chips work 
is a constant stream of electrical power--a fact that Atkinson seems to have 
missed in his excitement. If it traps heat, then... then... it must be a 
Maxwell's Demon!

In addition to incomprehension of basic science, Atkinson does not check his 
facts. He claims that gallium arsenide is "almost universally found in 
microchips" (p. 193). In fact, gallium arsenide is a niche competitor to 
silicon and has no place in most microchips. The "fin" in FinFET transistors 
is not for cooling, as he claims (p. 283). Any computer scientist could have 
told him that his description of cellular automata (pp. 261-263) is not only 
confusing, but wrong: neither cellular automata nor cells are added to a 
running cellular automaton. He misspells "analyte" as "analete" 
repeatedly--even in its glossary entry. He gets brains wrong too: "Gray 
matter ... takes care of linear thought. White matter handles reflexes and 
intuition." (p. 42) In fact, gray matter contains the chunky part of nerve 
cells, and white matter contains the long skinny part of the same cells.

So why did he write a book on subjects he doesn't adequately research, in a 
field he apparently knows little about? Open the book to a random place, and 
you'll probably find the word "Drex." Apparently part of a professional 
rhetoretician's job is to make up childish nicknames for people he wants to 
criticize. Drex, of course, is Eric Drexler; "Merk" is Ralph Merkle. It's 
funny the first time. The 20th or 30th time, it's simply tiresome. But this 
is the purpose and focus of the book: debunking "Drex." Science, accuracy, 
and honesty are apparently less important.

Atkinson's treatment of Drexler crosses the line between rhetoric and 
intellectual dishonesty. He complains that Drexler's book Nanosystems 
discusses cooling systems (p. 130). In the very next paragraph, he asserts 
that Drexler believes that nanobots will produce no excess heat. What are 
the cooling systems for, then? Likewise, he gives a description of Drexler's 
"Stiff-Arm Nanomanipulator" design (p. 127), ending with the complaint that 
the design makes no concession to "the otherness of the nanocosm." But the 
whole point of Drexler's design--as reflected in its name--is that things 
must be built much stiffer at the nanocosm.

So the reader can't trust the book's basic science, or nanoscience, or 
descriptions of molecular nanotechnology. Even the anti-Drexler rhetoric is 
too heavy-handed to be useful. On page 131, under the heading "The Church of 
St. Drex" (see what I mean?) he refers to "the movement called 
Drexlerianism." Alas, that word doesn't exist, at least not on Google's 
three billion web pages. Atkinson seems to have made it up to support his 
assertion that a "movement" even exists. He spends the next few pages 
complaining that Ralph Merkle is a good speaker. He really, really wants you 
to believe that there's nothing to Drexler's work but hype. To make this 
point, he spends five pages (126-130) making fun of Nanosystems--for being 
too technical. "This is too smart for you, so it must be bogus," he says, in 
essence. "Move along, nothing to see here. Now let's laugh at 'Drex' and his 
'movement' some more."

Atkinson's technical criticisms of Drexler's work are often demonstrably 
wrong, and the rest are questionable at best. Many of his criticisms are 
supported only by his own authority: for example, "staggeringly 
complicated--unworkably so, in my opinion" (p. 255). This particular 
criticism rests on the claim that nanobots would have to respond to 
picosecond events--which shows a basic misunderstanding of Drexler's work. 
Drexler's designs control the conditions so that they do not ever have to 
respond to rapid events. This leads to Atkinson's next criticism: that 
Drexler's designs require the complete subjugation of the natural world, and 
so can't work in practice. On page 256, he claims that "Drexlerians" refuse 
to consider using chemicals to pass messages between nanobots because "wet 
nanotech" is "anathema" to them. This is untrue. Nanomedicine, a thoroughly 
"Drexlerian" book, considers exactly that possibility in section 
"Ideal Messenger Molecule."

Later on that page, Atkinson gives an absurd description of molecular 
manufacturing: a vision of humans who "think themselves atom-sized" in 
"control booths." Then he describes more advanced designs. It seems that 
nanoassemblers "would themselves choose how, where, and when to work." With 
onboard memory and planning, "The nanoassemblers would then, by any 
definition, be a species of living individuals." No nanotechnology expert 
claims that nanoassemblers, with or without memory, would be alive--that 
stretches logic far past the breaking point. It's hard to tell whether 
Atkinson is making this claim, or attributing it to Drexler. Either way, 
Atkinson's statement is incorrect.

A few of Atkinson's criticisms deserve an answer. On page 9, Atkinson 
claims, "to Drexlerian engineering, carbon is a disaster. The instant a 
nanomanipulator arm touched carbon, it would become as immobilized..." Many 
of Drexler's proposals involve the manipulation of carbon, so it is simply 
untrue that "carbon is a disaster" in "Drexlerian" engineering. But would 
the arm actually become immobilized? The science is new, and a little 
skepticism toward molecular manipulation may be appropriate. But it's worth 
noting that a few weeks ago, scientists in Japan used a nanomanipulator arm 
(an atomic force microscope) to remove an atom from a sticky, covalent 
silicon surface--and then put it back--and then scan the surface to verify 
their work.

But many of Atkinson's attacks on Drexler's work are simply not worth 
answering. On page 33, he makes the false claim, "Now, according to Eric 
Drexler and his ilk, nanotechnology will make us omnipotent." On page 69, he 
compares "Drexlerian" work to "belt sanders and escalators at the atomic 
level," and then to "a time machine out of tin cans and Plasticine." It gets 
worse. Page 145: "K. Eric Drex, K. Eric Drex /The man who dispensed with 
reality checks."

I am reminded of a saying of Mahatma Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then 
they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Atkinson is trying to 
fight, but most of his attacks are little more than mean-spirited mockery. 
The strongest attack he can muster is a reference to Smalley's criticism of 
Drexler in Scientific American. Unfortunately for his case, this has been 
thoroughly answered in "A Debate About Assemblers," and "An Open Letter to 
Richard Smalley" by K. Eric Drexler.

To be fair, Atkinson spends a lot of the book reporting genuinely exciting 
advances in nanotech. If it were not for the scientific and technical errors 
scattered liberally through the book, I might recommend that people ignore 
the Drexler-bashing and read the book for the nanotech news. Anyway, better 
sources of nanotech news can be found online for free: for example, TNT 
Weekly or Nanogirl News.

A nonfiction technical book should be accurate. As Atkinson states in the 
Preface, one of his goals is to give the venture capitalist "a thorough 
briefing in the science and technology emerging from the nanocosm." 
Unfortunately, his science and technology explanations are too inaccurate to 
be useful; readers will come away badly misinformed.


The full critique can be found online at

See you in the future!

Mike Treder
Director, World Transhumanist Association - http://transhumanism.org
Executive Director, New York Transhumanist Association - http://nyta.net
Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology - 
Founder, Incipient Posthuman Website - http://incipientposthuman.com
Executive Advisory Team, Extropy Institute - http://extropy.org
KurzweilAI "Big Thinker" - http://kurzweilai.net/bios/frame.html

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