Friday, January 08, 2010

Feynman and the Futurists

For once, I really don't know what to make of this. So I'm going to just throw it out there and let you people decide for yourself.

This article is citing a little-known after dinner lecture that was given by Richard Feynman before he won the Nobel Prize and because well-known. It somehow connects it to our current "craze" in nanotechnology, albeit the side that is a little bit more dubious than the current mainstream research line.

The most prominent scientists involved in this mainstream version of nanotechnology have admitted that Feynman's "Plenty of Room" talk had no influence on their work. Christopher Toumey, a University of South Carolina cultural anthropologist, interviewed several of nanotech's biggest names, including Nobel laureates; they uniformly told him that Feynman's lecture had no bearing on their research, and several said they had never even read it.

But there is another kind of nanotechnology, one associated with much more hype. First described in the 1980s by K. Eric Drexler, this vision involves building things "from the bottom up" through molecular manufacturing. It was Mr. Drexler who first brought the term "nanotechnology" to a wide audience, most prominently with his 1986 book "Engines of Creation." And it is Mr. Drexler's interpretation that has captured the public imagination, as witness the novels, movies and video games that name-drop nanotechnology with the same casual hopefulness that the comic books of the 1960s mentioned the mysteries of radiation.

I'm almost tempted to argue that this could be an example of not a "bastardization of science", but rather a "bastardization of a speech". There's also something close to a "hero worship" going on here, especially by those outside of this field of study. I think that for most physicist (and I'm probably talking mainly about myself), we definitely respect the WORK of many of the great physicists that have blazed a trail for us to follow. But we don't worship them, or give them god complex, because many of us have actually interacted with them and see them as not just ordinary people, but people with their own faults and point of view that we may not share. In other words, their "words" are not gospel!

I've "discussed" with many crackpots in which they try to argue physics using a series of quotes from this physicist and that physicist, without barely understanding the physics itself. This made it seem as if these "words" are the final words of god and therefore, must be correct, which is of course, utterly silly. And I can't help but think that this is what is going on based on what I've read in this article.

Hoping to dissociate their nanotechnology work from dystopian scenarios and fringe futurists, some prominent mainstream researchers have taken to belittling Mr. Drexler and his theories. And that is where Feynman re-enters the story: Mr. Drexler regularly invokes the 1959 lecture, which broadly corresponds with his own thinking. As he told Mr. Regis, the science writer: "It's kind of useful to have a Richard Feynman to point to as someone who stated some of the core conclusions. You can say to skeptics, 'Hey, argue with him!'" It is thanks to Mr. Drexler that we remember Feynman's lecture as crucial to nanotechnology, since Mr. Drexler has long used Feynman's reputation as a shield for his own.

Ignoring the possibility that Feynman could be wrong, it is difficult to argue when someone not only deflects a criticism by redirecting it to someone else, but that someone else is also dead! We can also argue that maybe there are other ways to interpret what Feynman said - when was the last time there is one single, non-ambiguous interpretation of a statement, much less, a whole speech?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you've heard of George Hammond, discoverer of the SPOG (Scientific Proof Of God)? He has taken name-dropping to a higher level. To argue in favor of his SPOG, he doesn't mine quotes. He's infamously been known to concoct an entire conversation between him and RPF, with the outcome of Feynman ceding that Hammond must be on to something.

And it's not that Hammond claims to have had this talk face-to-face with Feynman. He openly admits that it's made up post-mortem, that it's a thought experiment.