Just in time for the holidays, Rocky Rawstern has published my response to a question too new to be “age-olde.”
“If you had the attention of the entire world, what would you say regarding molecular manufacturing?”
To quote Mark Twain, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” I provide the response below, which is not meant to rile my fellow scientists (some of my best friends are crystallographers).
I’d take a very different approach to the question. I think it safe to assume that more people still rely on the plow than the microprocessor as a means to individual sustenance, if for no other reason than that most people who work with plows know how to fix’em, and I don’t think I know more than a handful of people who wouldn’t ask for a cattle prod when I asked them to reseat RAM. I perceive the gap between molecular manufacturing and the microprocessor to be on par with the plow/processor gap, which is to say that what underlies the gap is so fundamentally different from the technology people are familiar with/oblivious to that words (well, my words) offer little insight into just what’s ahead. In America’s case, we’ve seen that negative campaigns work wonders for capturing the public’s attention. How fortunate are we for that? Therefore, I’d address the public not as a scientist trying to wax mechanosynthetic on molecular manufacturing, but as a molecular manufacturing enthusiast (and I’ve NO DOUBT that we’re all headed in the direction of absolute atomic control and precision in our manufacturing processes because, quite simply, it makes absolutely no scientific sense to stop at some size regime en route to such control) taking a good long look at the state of the world and wondering just how odd what we do now is going to look in a century (if we all make it that long).
So, at the risk of offending just about every researcher on the planet (given my background, perhaps myself under different circumstances), I’d probably spend a good long paragraph taking the position inflammatory to the state-of-the-art and ask questions such as, “Does it not seem a little strange to everyone that people measured in meters and centimeters are currently using equipment measured in meters and centimeters to build molecules and structures measured in nanometers?! Does it seem a bit unusual that a team of trained Ph.D.’s will spend years of their lives in multi-step organic syntheses involving large quantities of starting materials and solvents, fractional yields and highly condition-sensitive chemical reactions, just to make a drug molecule that the biomolecular factories in simple sea sponges will spit out as a part of daily activities? Are not numerous scenes from ‘Quest for Fire’ invoked when considering that the most heralded means of atomically characterizing molecules and proteins comes from slowly growing crystals large enough for a researcher to see (if they can grow them) so that they can be picked up with tweezers and placed into a diffractometer the size of a closet in a three-star hotel? Does it make sense that nanometer-regime microprocessor chip features are attainable only in some of the world’s largest fabrication facilities? And really think about scale for a moment. If we ballpark the Sears Tower to 500 meters (cutting the building off somewhere between the roof and the spire) and take the period at the end of this sentence as being 0.5 millimeter, we get a factor of 1 million. If we take that same period and one atom, which I also ballpark to 0.5 nanometer (and I do that to make the math look easy. Most of the atoms in your person have diameters closer to 0.25 nanometer), we get that same ratio. Does it not make at least 1 million times more sense to manipulate that period with a desktop PC or, if you can find them, pencil and paper than a physical manipulator the size of the Sears Tower? Even cells a fraction of the size of that period have had a good long ride in this solar system performing feats of atomic precision without the benefit of calculus or 6-sigma. Does it not make some greater sense generally to manipulate building blocks, be they atoms or molecules, using equipment within, just for the sake of argument, only a few orders of magnitude larger than those building blocks?!”
Good heavens! Anyone still thinking molecular manufacturing is crazy should take a good long look at the alternative.
If Ray Kurzweil is right, I won’t have to wait the usual year to regret this being posted. It might drop to 3 months!