Feynman and the Futurists

Published January 8, 2010

The Wall Street Journal

On Dec. 29, 1959, Richard P. Feynman gave an after-dinner talk at an annual American Physical Society meeting in Pasadena, Calif. Feynman was not the public figure he would later become — he had not yet received a Nobel Prize, unraveled the cause of the Challenger accident, written witty books of popular science, or been the subject of biographies, documentaries and even a play starring Alan Alda. But the 41-year-old was already respected by fellow physicists for his originality, his crackling intellect, and his roguish charm.

The announced title of Feynman's lecture, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” mystified the attendees. One later told science writer Ed Regis that the puzzled physicists in the room feared Feynman meant that “there are plenty of lousy jobs in physics.”

Feynman said that he really wanted to discuss “the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.” By this he meant not mere miniaturization but something much more extreme. “As far as I can see,” Feynman said, the principles of physics “do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.” In fact, he argued, it is “a development which I think cannot be avoided.” The physicist spoke of storing all the information in all the world's books on “the barest piece of dust that can be made out by the human eye.” He imagined shrinking computers and medical devices, and developing new techniques of manufacturing and mass production. In short, a half-century ago he anticipated what we now call nanotechnology — the manipulation of matter at the level of billionths of a meter.

Some historians depict the speech as the start of this now-burgeoning field of research. Yet Feynman didn't use the word “nanotechnology” himself, and his lecture went for years almost entirely unmentioned in the scientific literature. Not until the 1980s did nanotechnology researchers begin regularly citing Feynman's lecture. So why, then, does one encyclopedia call it “the impetus for nanotechnology”? Why would one of Feynman's biographers claim that nanotechnology researchers think of Feynman “as their spiritual father”?

The story of how his talk was forgotten and then, decades later, inserted into the history of nanotechnology is worth understanding less because of what it tells us about the past than because of what it hints about the future, a future in which billions of dollars in research and development funds are at stake.

Much of the work that now goes under the rubric of nanotechnology is essentially a specialized form of materials science. In the years ahead, it is expected to result in new medical treatments and diagnostic tools, ultraefficient water-filtration systems, strong and lightweight materials for military armor, and breakthroughs in energy, computing and medicine. Meanwhile, hundreds of consumer products using (or at least claiming to use) nanomaterials or nanoparticles went on the market in the past decade, including paints and cosmetics, stain-resistant garments, and bacteria-battling washing machines and food containers.

The most prominent scientists involved in this mainstream version of nanotechnology have admitted that Feynman's “Plenty of Room” talk had no influence on their work. Christopher Toumey, a University of South Carolina cultural anthropologist, interviewed several of nanotech's biggest names, including Nobel laureates; they uniformly told him that Feynman's lecture had no bearing on their research, and several said they had never even read it.

But there is another kind of nanotechnology, one associated with much more hype. First described in the 1980s by K. Eric Drexler, this vision involves building things “from the bottom up” through molecular manufacturing. It was Mr. Drexler who first brought the term “nanotechnology” to a wide audience, most prominently with his 1986 book “Engines of Creation.” And it is Mr. Drexler's interpretation that has captured the public imagination, as witness the novels, movies and video games that name-drop nanotechnology with the same casual hopefulness that the comic books of the 1960s mentioned the mysteries of radiation.

Using the theoretical techniques Mr. Drexler outlined, personal desktop nanofactories the size of a microwave oven could one day be programmed to convert raw materials into gleamingly perfect complex objects such as laptop computers. More radically, nanoscale machines might replace or repair damaged cells in your body, staving off aging — or they could be employed in terrible new weapons. In short, if mainstream nanotechnology promises to make our lives easier, Mr. Drexler's version aims to remake the world.

These two understandings of nanotechnology are regularly conflated in the press — a fact that vexes mainstream researchers, in part because Mr. Drexler's more ambitious take on nanotech is cherished by several colorful futurist movements (transhumanism, cryonics, and so forth). Worse, for all the fantastical speculation that Drexlerian nanotechnology invites, it has also driven critics, like the late novelist Michael Crichton and the software entrepreneur Bill Joy, to warn of nanotech nightmares.

Hoping to dissociate their nanotechnology work from dystopian scenarios and fringe futurists, some prominent mainstream researchers have taken to belittling Mr. Drexler and his theories. And that is where Feynman re-enters the story: Mr. Drexler regularly invokes the 1959 lecture, which broadly corresponds with his own thinking. As he told Mr. Regis, the science writer: “It's kind of useful to have a Richard Feynman to point to as someone who stated some of the core conclusions. You can say to skeptics, 'Hey, argue with him!'” It is thanks to Mr. Drexler that we remember Feynman's lecture as crucial to nanotechnology, since Mr. Drexler has long used Feynman's reputation as a shield for his own.

If this dispute over nano-nomenclature only involved some sniping scientists and a few historians watching over a tiny corner of Feynman's legacy, it would be of little consequence. But hundreds of companies and universities are teeming with nanotech researchers, and the U.S. government has been pouring billions of dollars into its multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative.

So far, none of that federal R&D funding has gone toward the kind of nanotechnology that Drexler proposed, not even toward the basic exploratory experiments that the National Research Council called for in 2006. If Drexler's revolutionary vision of nanotechnology is feasible, we should pursue it for its potential for good, while mindful of the dangers it may pose to human nature and society. And if Drexler's ideas are fundamentally flawed, we should find out — and establish just how much room there is at the bottom after all.

Mr. Keiper is the editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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