Sunday, March 11, 2007

Zen and the Art of Molecular Engineering

And now for something completely different.

It's always cool to start with quotes...

"It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them." J. Robert Oppenheimer

“I'm afraid nanotechnology is one of those fields that, no matter how exciting it gets in real life, will be very difficult to turn into a successful nonfiction book.” An email from a Senior Editor, at Random House to yours truly.

The gentle reader will soon understand why I started with these quotes. The first originates from a monumental figure who profoundly altered the course of 20th century history via the application of radical new science to the ancient practice of war. The second originates from someone who selects books for a 21st century multimedia giant to perpetuate the ancient practice of profitable commerce.

Oppenheimer synthesized a transcendent principle that governs the origin of knowledge. What it is possible for humans to discover about their world. The editor was giving an informed opinion about what the reading public is willing to discover about its world. Both quotes may be true. But unless the paradox inherent in the second is overcome we risk placing humanity, and even biology, in grave danger. To the reader I say it is a necessary truth that the profound implications of the nanotechnology revolution must be communicated to the general public.

The advent of the nanotechnology era (more correctly termed the ‘molecular engineering’ era) requires that philosophers of science elucidate a field whose unprecedented interdisciplinary nature spans practically the sum of all scientific discoveries and technical developments that preceded it. Philosophers of science (or someone!?) needs to explain to Homo sapiens, the toolmaker, why the ability to build with molecules is not just another tool but the ultimate tool with which to shape our physical world. Those of us who work in this field have an obligation to explain to the rest of society why nanobiotechnology – whose explicit goal is the atomic and molecular integration of living and nonliving materials – is far more than just a synonym for cyborg.

In this brief posting, I can only warn you that if the implications of molecular engineering are not openly debated in public, particular manifestations will be thrust upon us by the rush of discoveries fueled by a worldwide ‘race to the bottom’ involving untold billions and some of the finest minds in the finest labs and corporate board rooms on the planet.

For those who think such consequences must be far in the future, it is instructive to keep in mind that the first genetically engineered bacteria were released into the environment on April 24, 1987. That was only 15 years after the first rDNA molecule was engineered in a test tube. Fortunately, there was no catastrophe that day; the probability had always been vanishingly small. But while the debate about when and how to use GM crops continues, the cutting edge of technology has moved far beyond cloning. In the United States, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has catalyzed interdisciplinary creations that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago. Areas such as ‘Synthetic Biology’ and ‘Artificial Life’ are now bona fide academic disciplines. The Synthetic Biology Center at UC Berkeley explicitly states, “The defining goal of SynBERC is to make biology into an engineering discipline.” A recent publication in PNAS boldly states, “The implementation of the silicon-neuron-neuron-silicon circuit constitutes a proof-of-principle experiment for the development of neuroelectronic systems.” Nanobiotechnology has become the chemical crossroads where living and nonliving materials meet and fuse at the molecular level to create that which has never before existed. We are already fabricating hybrid devices that go far beyond genetic or any other known form of engineering. Protein to semiconductor, DNA to nanowire, we are building these ‘things’ right now. But what are these ‘things’ we are building?

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