"Anyone still thinking molecular manufacturing is crazy should take a good long look at the alternative."

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!


Highlights From The ACCD Ibero American Keynote And Conference

I had far too much fun to not make mention of my first trip to Texas and keynote.


9/16 – Hotel. The photo above was my view of San Antonio from the 14th floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Having stayed in and worked all day, it took me until the 17th to realize that San Antonio is, in fact, an actual big city. One that happens to exist to the North, East, and South of my due-West window. You can see for yourself the arrangement of the city here.


9/17 – The Alamo. My godmother's friend's great-grandfather, William DePriest Sutherland (web and local pdf copy), was a 17-year-old courier (perhaps performing the duties of his uncle John S. Jr.) who died during the fighting on March 6, 1836. After 170 years, it's still a small world (if you need more proof, I link Kevin Bacon to the Alamo in 6).


9/18 – Movie. The first full day of the conference began at 5:00 am with a 14th floor fire alarm. As a chemist (well, sort of) working in a big box of laboratories full of organic vapors, my usual inclination is to run like hell when the fire alarm goes off. Much to my surprise, the directions in large hotels are to hold still until the origin of the alarm can be ascertained (you never know what… state the guests are in). The next thing I remember was waking up fully dressed in the previous day's clothes (ready to run with nothing from the ironing board). The rest of the day was spent regretting not having taken Spanish in high school, having already regretted not taking German in high school to make my translation of German chemical journals easier. C'est dommage.

The contents of the conference are worth their own posting because, frankly, it's too important generally to bury within a slide show. So, I skip the details…

The post-conference reception featured a 9-piece Mariachi band that were getting INTO it. Click on the image to launch a 30 second snippet (you'll need a recent Quicktime. they're playing my song, as it was the only Mariachi tune I knew).


9/18 – Crossroads. Carolyn Kelley is my new favorite Greek just north of the south of the border. En route to the famed Riverwalk, San Antonio's official response to Syracuse's Armory Square, we passed by the blurred hotel in the photo. This was the hotel, according to legend, where Robert Johnson wrote "Crossroads." I need say no more.


9/19 – Javier. After the second day's meeting, the assembly retired to a late lunch where I was finally able to pull my keynote translator, Javier Romïan, aside. It's bad enough having to translate on the fly. It is a whole level worse when scientific lingo/jargon is being thrown around as part of the content. It is, further, a whole other matter to have to work around occasionally incoherent, rambling, unfocused presenters (like myself). On top of all that, a glitch with the translation headsets meant I had to give my presentation to him on stage in 30 second sound bites, making my 45 minute talk last about 1 hour 25 min (which, actually, was a really nice way to give a presentation, as I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to say for the next slide AND had to make sure I curtailed my proclivity for verbosity). I don't know what he said, but he's AOK in my book.


9/20 – Abel and Jim. I spent several minutes trying to pack my bull horns into a suitcase already replete with my toiletries (there's a big difference between personal grooming and personal hygiene. As a policy (and because crazy scientists are supposed to, well, LOOK the part), I focus on the latter) thanks to events at Heathrow (and note the timing of the acceptance of the PETN paper in ChemPhysChem). The rest of the morning featured a short interview for Univision and last-minute photo ops with Dr. Abel Navarro, my gracious host and conference chair, and Mr. James Dickerson, who made the presentation logistics as easy as turning my Powerbook on.


9/20 – Just of interest to note that American cities in-progress look remarkably like the Greek and Roman ones that didn't make it over the longer haul.