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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(January 1, 2009)

SciQ's Judgment Day Via Nanotechnology
by Ming Zhen Shakya

The Science Channel's show, ScIQ, recently presented The Dark Secret of Hendrik Schon which didn't have much to do with Hendrik Schon athough it did manage to make his dark secret seem like a glorious ephiphany. The program contained so much overblown narration and elicited so many bizarre comments from a few experts that reviewing it brought to mind the old quip about misplaced emphasis: "When observing the performance of a singing horse, it's not how well it sings, but that it sings at all."

A scholarly program that purports to be about science ought not be a theater of doomsday fantasies - especially one that creates the impression that scientists are running amok, hell bent on fulfilling some medieval "end of the world" prophecy. We've been down that road before and it invariably leads to citizen panic, religious revivals, and Biblical Fundamentalists leading a crusade to legislate the science out of existence.

The program wanted to scare us in that old Armageddon-science style: nuclear fission A bombs that would ignite the atmosphere; nuclear fusion H bombs that would ignite the atmosphere; pulsars that send warnings; nuclear winter; global warming; planet consuming black holes created in Long Island's RHIC particle accelerator; planet consuming black holes created in Europe's CERN large hadron collider - a facility so powerful and secure that days before the collider was scheduled to be operational, a bunch of Greek kids hacked into its computers and left a taunting message - (which really is scary); and now Nanotechology, the real villain of SciQ's exposť about Henrik Schon.

By its title, the program, a British production that was edited for U.S. viewing, suggested that it would examine some unknown, mysterious facts about Schon, a once and probably not future physics' wunderkind.

Curiously, the program opened with a bold, declarative sentence. "This is the story of the man behind the most remarkable discovery." Yet the script writer found this statement to be sufficiently ambiguous to reveal subsequently that Schon had made no such remarkable discovery. He only seemed to have made it which, evidently, was fortunate since the discovery "could wipe us out and cause complete extinction."

After imparting this news, the program portentously whisked us ahead to London in the year 2098, presumably as it would have looked if Schon had done what he only seemed to have done. The streets are decayed and deserted. The weather is lousy. The narrator intones, "Our day of reckoning has come and gone. Most of life has literally been devoured by something called nanotechnology. Tiny machines that were designed to save the human race. But instead they turned on us. Human life has been wiped out by the nanobot."

Human life had cause to be disappointed in this result. The narrator had an opinion: "Nanobots were created to be like life. To be able to reproduce to serve our needs." These nanobots just did not know how to keep their place. (The Brits are particularly touchy about things like this.) "The machines began to change, and as they changed we found that we could not control them. They began to take on a life of their own" Uh, oh. Trouble in Nanoland.

Someone speculated that uncontrolled trillions of nanobots could constitute, "a non-biological cancer that could just eat up, you know, the natural world. That's the so-called grey goo problem."

In the event that we had missed it, the narrator punched up the significance of malignant grey goo in lines deleted from the U.S. script. "So great is this fear of the grey goo that eminent figures around the world such as Prince Charles have raised concerns about it.. The British Government have asked the Royal Society to investigate nanotechnology."

That settled it. We were in trouble. Or, actually, we would have been in trouble if...

Continuing his confused appraisal of Henrik Schon's discovery or seeming discovery, the narrator added, "And while to most it may seem that this world of grey goo is nothing more than science fiction, it all seemed to take a step closer thanks to a discovery by a brilliant young physicist. His name was Jan Hendrik Schon. Hendrik Schon was one of the greatest minds the world of physics had seen for years." So Schon did make the big discovery... No?

The big discovery concerned an urgent problem: the dilemma posed by the expiration of Graham Moore's "Law." The "law" - actually a prediction - anticipated the doubling, every couple of years, of the number of silicon transistors placed on an integrated circuit; and the problem was that capacity was reaching its limit. Adding more silicon transistors meant that each one would have to be slimmer; and they were fast attaining an unsustainable emaciation. Physicist Michio Kaku explained that if we didn't solve the problem of Moore's Law, we'd likely experience economic stagnation. We understood that as computers, for example, become more powerful and, therefore, more versatile, they generate demand which creates production and insures the flow of capital. Concomitantly, the increased power and versatility provide for the development of new products and continued commercial viability. Zero growth in computer power could be economically disastrous. Yes. the problem had a definite urgency.

We were told that by the age of thirty-one Schon had done breakthrough work in lasers and superconductors. Having gained a formidable reputation in physics, he was hired by Bell Labs; and in 2001, he began to try to solve the Moore's Law problem. His "solution" was to substitute carbon for silicon. He claimed that when he put a molecule-thin film of carbon dye on a special surface and zapped it, he recorded input and output signatures similar to that of a silicon transistor. Such publications as Nature and Science put their imprimaturs on his claims.

Nanotechnology futurists could not contain their joy. Life was carbon-based. Might it not be possible to avoid economic extinction the same way that life avoids extinction - by simple reproduction? Carbon was so marvelously fecund. One molecule could beget two; and two could beget four; and four could beget eight, and so on; and since nobody provided for a nanobot graveyard, the pyramid scheme could continue until, well, molecular nanobots consumed all edible life.

The thought that these quasi-creatures would dine upon us was worrisome. One scientist discerned the need to develop protective nanotechnology, "blue goo - police nanobots that would try to combat the destructive ones."

Against this total annihilation of planetary life, the scientists weighed the benefits: (This is a complete list taken from the transcript, so help me God.) "Thirty years from now I'm wearing a really smart shirt and I have an accident, the shirt knows I've had an accident because it can measure the G force and it might even measure that I'm bleeding. The shirt can tell the ambulance in great detail while they're on their way exactly what's wrong with me so they've got the equipment ready for when they arrive. It might save my life." (A merciful editor deleted this from the U.S. version.) "More powerful computers would allow us to crack age old problems that have defeated science, like understanding the extreme complexities of our climate. Molecular computers would give us faster, more accurate forecasting of even the most complicated weather systems." "We'd be able to give people more advanced warning of storms and hurricanes and we'd save people's lives." "Nanotechnologists have already tinkered with carbon atoms to make lighter, stronger tennis rackets. The molecules in sunscreen have been manipulated to give improved protection." "One day scientists could manipulate molecules to create tiny computers that will fuse with our bodies." "If we can get molecular computers.. small enough, we can get these things into contact with every synapse in your brain," then, "with molecular computers in your brain other people could literally download your thoughts. You could download theirs. All knowledge would be instantly available."

Health and longevity are virtually guaranteed. "These self-replicating machines could be programed to target every diseased cell in our body." And while "white blood cells take an hour and a half to destroy a bacteria... a nanorobot can do the job in seconds. It would be far more powerful like destroying pathogens in cancer cells." And a tiny molecular computer, the already-named respiracyte,. "could be injected into the victims of drowning. Once in the blood stream these nanobots would break down the excess molecules of carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the blood. They could mean the difference between life and death." "The lives of our children could be extended by decades."

We had plunged into a Dantean "what-if" journey. We what-if'd our way through the nanobot Paradiso of a long and disease-free life and then, just as we began to shudder thinking about Thomas Malthus, the earth's burgeoning 6,800,000.000 population and its shrinking land mass, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloped by. For If the gift of nanobot-induced longevity were not munificent enough - and it certainly ought to be - we were also offered the boon of nanobot weaponry. "Wars would be fought using nanobots." "Nanobots could lie silently in the environment for years, sending back information about our enemies. They could even be our assassins. These killers could be programed to know precisely who to attack." "You can target them very specifically so that they will attack people with only certain characteristics." Hmmm.. Nanobot Genocide! Ethnic nano-Cleansing!

And to think that the engine of this brave new world was sabotaged by Jan Hendrik Schon! There may be a Nobel Prize in his future, after all. Maybe not Physics... but Peace.

Fortunately or unfortunately (the program wasn't awfully clear) Schon had discovered nothing. When serious complaints were made to Bell Labs by scientists who could not replicate Schon's results, Professor Lydia Sohn of Berkeley found a message on her voicemail, prompting her to conduct an investigation. She and Professor Paul McEuen of Cornell found evidence of numerous instances of fabricated data - including the vaunted carbon transistor "breakthrough." Schon was exposed; and Bell Labs quickly fired him. And we were given the distinct impression that the Nanobot Express had screeched to a stop.

If the program had only trivialized nanotechnology, it would have been skewed but only in the way that envy can skew an observation. Or if its doomsday scenarios were played with obvious tongue in cheek, we could all have enjoyed the laugh. But the scare tactics had a taunting whiff of disdain that seemed calculated to provoke eschatological fear - a world-ending prophecy that would leave ignorant multitudes waiting on mountaintops for the heavens to open. This program went out of its way - by accident or by design - to present nanotechnology in such a grotesque way that religious fundamentalists are likely to see the need to erect a shield against it. Either that or to start making plans to evangelize the new life forms or perhaps to impose sanctions on their rate of reproduction.

That so much brain-power could be devoted to bizarre fantasies about prolonging life - at least long enough for us to kill each other in techno-combat or to be devoured by rapacious slime - tells us that intelligent people who hold great power are not necessarily sensible enough to use it wisely.

Nanotechnology is a young science - one that, as the African proverb states, will need to be raised by the whole village. It does not need unofficial spokespersons making enemies for it or holding it up for ridicule as the village idiot.

In fact, without having received any of TV's Godfatherly nurturing, nanotechnology has managed to grow nicely. Academic and commercial interests around the world are heavily involved in the research and development of a wide variety of applications for this new science.

SciQ's program would have been better spent focussing on Schon instead of just using his name and fall from grace as an excuse to subject nanotechnology to some yellow journalism. Why would a young scientist fake data that, given the common practice of peer scrutiny and replication of results, he surely knew would be exposed as false? Who was this man? Did he not exist before the fakery began? We know nothing about him. In physics, does the "publish or perish" stress of professional life begin early, say, in high school, and if so, do the intellectual demands of physics so consume the nutritive resources of a young scientist's psychology that other areas of his personality are left barren? (And come to think of it, there is an adolescent lack of judgment in just about everybody involved in this man's career.) How much responsibility should be born by the prestigious publications and by the scientists who co-authored his papers? Would these people sign a blank check? What were the real-world effects of this fraud? There are many issues that could have been examined. Instead, SciQ opted to become SciFi and in doing so, left nanobotic ethics and judgment hanging outside, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, and a bit too close to religion's window.

A year ago, ScienceDaily reported that scientists from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had succeeded in printing the entire Old Testament onto a silicon chip smaller than a pinhead. According to Professor Uri Sivan, head of the university's Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute, "The nano-bible project demonstrates the miniaturization at our disposal. This research could lead to the creation of more advanced miniature structures -- and imaging -- on a nanometric scale, advances in storing information in very small spaces, and the use of DNA molecules to store information."

The Israelis had made a nice pre-emptive P.R. strike.

Nobody says that science ought to wink or bow to religion, but it wouldn't hurt to treat associated philosophical issues with half as much respect as it demands for itself.

Humming Bird