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August 30, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 35

It's never enough

To answer your question "when is enough, enough?" my answer is simply, "Never" (C&EN, July 12, page 3).

There will never be enough knowledge, understanding, or application of chemical and engineering principles for the betterment of society. There will never be enough analysis and discussion of where we are and where we want to go using chemistry and engineering disciplines. There will never be enough creativity to make every day better than the last.

All one has to do is examine the articles published in C&EN that deal with the chemical industry in terms of financial, political, environmental, and social impact. Overall, it is a positive trend that cannot be disputed. Life has gotten easier and better for more of the world's people over the years and will continue to do so, regardless of current socioeconomic factors and geopolitical situations.

I always enjoy reading C&EN, even the articles about discoveries by academic labs of unique concepts that appear to have no real value but that stimulate thought. Please, just cut back a little on the guilty-conscience writing while on vacation on the glorious beaches of the Outer Banks while the rest of us keep marching forward, "heedless of the long-term impacts of our activities."

Mike Owens
Franklinton, N.C.

Although I owe my summer reading time not to a seaside vacation but rather to a less romantic recovery from hip-replacement surgery, I was struck when reading your editorial about how the disquiet expressed regarding economic growth is paralleled by concerns regarding the future of genetic engineering and other up-and-coming technologies. These concerns were raised in several books I read recently: "Enough" by Bill McKibben, "Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology & the Quest for Human Mastery" edited by A. P. Lightman et al., "The Tangled Wing" by Melvin Konner, and "Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution" by Francis Fukayama.

The issues examined in these works include the following:

◾ How far we can reengineer our lives (and ourselves) before we destroy what it means to be human?

◾ What are the essentials of human nature that should be conserved?

◾ What is progress?

◾ Should we impose restraints on science and technology?

For the most part, these authors propose the need for setting limits or certainly advocate open and widespread discussion and debate.

I haven't read many of what I understand to be works promoting these technological futures. The summer isn't over, although my recovery is, and I have my sights on one of these books, "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future" by Gregory Stock.

There are numerous books that look backward into history and "demonstrate" how various innovations altered the course of civilization. Some examples are "Longitude" by Dava Sobel, "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky, and "Mauve" by Samuel Garfield. However, we are assigned the task and the responsibility of forecasting consequences of much more profound developments in science and technology so that we give humanity the best shot at survival. History teaches us that we are not terribly accurate in making such predictions.

Perhaps this question of when enough is enough, and what constitutes progress, is a topic that should be examined in the pages of C&EN.

Jerome S. Levkov
New York City

What's in a name?

As reported in "An Idea Run Amok," K. Eric Drexler has expressed regret that he did not name the locust-like, self-proliferating machines described in his novel "Engines of Creation" the more rationally accurate "deliberately engineered dangerous self-replicators," rather than the more sensational Blob-esque "gray goo" (C&EN, July 26, page 45).

In retrospect, the modification may have obviated some current concerns by the general public that nanotechnology may be advancing toward a catastrophe of mind-bending proportions.

Recently, C&EN has introduced adjustments in vocabulary, most notably "mustard and nerve agent" instead of the more colloquial "mustard and nerve gas," as well as "climate change" as a sobriquet for "global warming." Although the former change is inarguably justified due to physical correctness, the latter is somewhat distressing since it is analogous to the Drexler alteration, but in a different sense. It is curious that the popularity of the term "climate change" arose contemporaneously with the formation of the George H. W. Bush-commissioned International Panel of Climate Change and George W. Bush-speak initiatives that mislead the general public in a way that would make George Orwell blush:

◾ Clear Skies--Repealed key provisions of the Clean Air Act and consequently permits more emissions.

◾ Healthy Forests--Promotes destructive logging of old-growth forests.

Since the term "global warming" seems to adequately arouse public unease to the phenomenon's potential consequences, perhaps C&EN should readopt "global warming" and abandon the comparatively euphemistic "climate change" in its entirety.

John Stanks
Dartmouth, Mass.



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