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Volume 91 Issue 36 | p. 42
Issue Date: September 9, 2013

Cover Stories: Nine For Ninety

From C&EN Archives: Nanotechnology

Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Nano SCENE
Keywords: nanotechnology, nanoscience

C&EN has served up a steady diet of nanotechnology-related research fare over the past two decades. But the piece that helped the magazine make its mark in the nanotechnology arena is the 2003 Point-Counterpoint debate between K. Eric Drexler and the late Richard E. Smalley, a professor at Rice University and a Nobel Laureate in chemistry (C&EN, Dec. 1, 2003, page 37). In the piece, two nanotech advocates square off about molecular assemblers—devices capable of precisely positioning atoms and molecules.

Scientists tend to be circumspect, even when speaking on topics about which they hold strong opinions. That was not the case in the Drexler-Smalley debate. Their exchange includes memorable zingers, such as, “Your misdirected arguments have needlessly confused public discussion of genuine long-term security concerns. If you value the accuracy of information used in decisions of importance to national and global security, I urge you to seek some way to help set the record straight,” from Drexler to Smalley. And, “I see you have now walked out of the room where I had led you to talk about real chemistry, and you are now back in your mechanical world. I am sorry we have ended up like this. For a moment I thought we were making progress,” from Smalley back to Drexler.

Looking back on the Point-Counterpoint article 10 years on, Drexler says the exchange was valuable. “It provided an opportunity to push back on some of the misconceptions that had been in circulation, which I think ultimately come from popular culture and science fiction,” he tells C&EN.

“It’s part of a growth process for any field—to have some ideas that are maybe a little off the edge and then to have a debate about what’s really going on,” says A. Paul Alivisatos, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a nanotechnology specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. Over time, he says, science shows what is possible and what is fiction.

Paula T. Hammond, a nanotechnology expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the debate helped spark excitement among the public about the science. “Without the public’s excitement we would not be able to fund the incredible things that are happening now in the field,” she says.

 
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