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From the archives: The 2000s

C&EN hosts a nanotech debate

by Alexander H. Tullo
November 21, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 39


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In 2003, C&EN found itself at the center of a nanotechnology dispute between two big personalities. On one side was K. Eric Drexler, chairman of the Foresight Institute. Drexler wrote the influential 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. In his writings, Drexler envisioned a potentially transformative—and hazardous—future world of molecular assemblers, tiny machines capable of directing chemical reactions by placing molecules in proximity. On the other side was Rice University professor Richard E. Smalley, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering fullerenes. He thought molecular assemblers were impractical. In Scientific American in 2001, Smalley anticipated a “fat fingers” problem: the apparatus placing the atoms would be too large to fit in the tiny space available. It would also have a “sticky fingers” problem: the molecules composing the fingers would bind to the molecules that they are trying to make. The august scientists took the debate to the pages of C&EN in a short-lived feature called Point-Counterpoint. The debate begins with an open letter from Drexler in which he accuses Smalley of a straw man attack. He explains that “like enzymes and ribosomes, proposed assemblers neither have nor need these ‘Smalley fingers.’ ” Smalley counters, claiming that molecular assemblers would then be limited to water-based biological chemistry. Drexler elaborates on what he means by “machine-phase chemistry.” Smalley concludes that such machines can’t force reactions to happen. The New York Times wrote about the exchange at the time, making light of the acrimony. The debate even has its own Wikipedia page.

A snippet of a past C&EN article.
Credit: C&EN


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