The Visioneers Wins Emme

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Forgive the self-promotion but…I’m happy to say that the American Astronautical Society announced a few days ago that The Visioneers was chosen as the recipient of the 2012 Eugene E. Emme Award for Astronautical Literature. According to the AAS, the award, named for NASA’s first historian, recognizes “outstanding books which advance public understanding of astronautics through originality, scholarship and readability.” So – pretty cool.

And, in case you want to see the actual letter —

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It’s the end of the teaching quarter here at UCSB so my blogging time is curtailed…I hope to get Leaping Robot up and jumping soon enough though. Thanks for reading.

The Once & Future Nano King*

K. Eric Drexler is back…and with a new set of bold ideas about the technological future, all detailed in his new book, Radical Abundance

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Drexler, shown in 2013, reading from his new book.

But there’s a twist! The man once christened by magazines like The Economist as the “father” of nanotechnology is imagining possible tomorrows made better without the n-word. More on this semantic shift below. But first – whatever happened to him in the first place?

Drexler’s story resembles those of once-prominent Communist Party members who fell into disfavor, vanished for a period and then, after some political rehabilitation, emerged back on the public stage.

In brief – Drexler first became interested in what he initially called “molecular engineering” in the late 1970s. A 1981 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences laid out his general plan for “molecular manipulation.” (The word “nanotechnology” appeared nowhere in the manuscript. In fact, it would still be a few more years before Drexler began using the nano-word in talks and papers.) This was based, he predicted, on the design on de novo protein-based machines which would be able to move and position other molecules so as to build up structures and devices atom-by-atom. A 1986 book called Engines of Creation popularized Drexler’s ideas and the concept of nanotechnology to a wide audience. Tech enthusiasts, business leaders, mainstream scientists, and policy makers took note.

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Drexler’s 1986 book and various translations.

In Engines and other writings, Drexler took pains to describe his work not as scientific research but as “exploratory engineering” – designing things today that obey the laws of physics, chemistry, etc. yet which we can’t build yet. Konstantin Tsiolkovskii and other early space (as well as computer) pioneers worked in a similar fashion.

When it came to nanotechnology, Drexler literally defined it with his entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Yearbook of Science and the Future 1990. Throughout much of the 1990s, when journalists and the general public considered nanotechnology, it was shot through of Drexlerian ideas (the nanobot meme, something Drexler himself eschewed, is a classic example of how some of his own imaginings were co-opted and adopted by others). Given the emerging differences between Drexler’s supporters and those in the mainstream research community who found his ideas too fanciful – a rift which widened into a chasm over the next decade – one senses that Drexler’s visioneering was succeeding perhaps too well. In the late 1990s and into the early 21st century, mainstream scientists gradually marginalized Drexler (my book The Visioneers describes all of this in great detail) and his ideas.

So, in 2003, when former president George W. Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, there were a number of people standing behind him in the Oval Office. We see a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, a nano-business advocate, a Republican senator, a Nobel prize winning scientist. But Drexler was nowhere in sight.

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Where’s Drexler?

And the bill Bush signed bore scant resemblance to the type of nanotechnology Drexler had long promoted. In fact, by the time the National Nanotechnology Initiative was proceeding full-bore, Drexler was “the name that can’t be spoken in polite society,” or at least among many mainstream scientists and policy makers.1

But that is changing. Since 2011, Drexler has been in residence at the University of Oxford. He is currently listed as an “Academic Visitor” in the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. (A video of him giving an address there is here…it’s worth watching if you have the time.) Drexler’s move to the U.K. is part of this rehabilitation. What could be more Establishment than Oxford? It also fits his overall career pattern of finding affiliations with elite schools (MIT, Stanford) while avoiding the traditional professorial career path. Drexler also has been giving more public talks and writing pieces for the mainstream press such as essays for The Guardian. Accompanying this are appearances at venues like TEDx, signs that Drexler is placing himself back in the role as a technology intellectual and public figure.

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Drexler at a 2013 TEDx event in Lisbon

But the signature event of Drexler’s rehabilitation back into public life (if not into the mainstream of scientific or engineering research) is the 2013 publication of his new book. In the same spirit as EnginesRadical Abundance is aimed at a popular audience. It’s much different from his highly technical 1992 tome Nanosystems, for example.

I’ll be saying more about the book itself in a later post. But without giving too much away, Radical Abundance is Drexler’s pivot away from nanotechnology. In his telling, that word has become much too politicized (thanks, in no small part, to his own writings) and vaguely applied. I mean, what exactly IS nanotechnology anyway? Is it passive nanoscale particles? Active nanoscale devices? A novel approach to building new materials? Or a massive government-run program? Well, it’s all of these and more. I tend to agree with Richard Jones’ interpretation and see nanotechnology more as a sociological phenomenon, a way of organizing and bridging research across disparate scientific fields. (The same can be said for the Obama administration’s current attempts to fashion a neuroscience initiative around brain mapping.)2

So, in Radical Abundance, Drexler has done away with nanotechnology and replaced it with — wait for it — “atomically precise manufacturing” (APM). This means two things in his telling – “manufacturing using machinery based on nanoscale devices” and “products built with atomic precision.”3 Drexler’s new term is, well, much more precise.

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A computer simulation of a nanoscale planetary gear. (Illustration: K. Eric Drexler/Nanorex Inc).

It’s about building things, not researching, for instance, the toxicological effects on nanoparticles on fish. And “manufacturing” connotes industry which suggests jobs. This is a good strategy. But, at its core, APM harkens back to his earlier program of building things atom by atom. APM invokes a world in which mechanical engineering combines with chemistry. And, just as in Engines, Radical Abundance offers plenty of examples of how APM offers promise and peril if adopted (which Drexler sees as pretty much inevitable).

I’m looking forward to reading Radical Abundance more closely. I’m very intrigued by the first skim I’ve made, especially those sections in which Drexler offers his view of the history of nanotechnology (and his removal from “official” narratives of same). The demarcation Drexler is trying to make between nanotechnology (old, confused) and “atomically precise manufacturing” (new, specific) is fascinating just as are Drexler’s borders between science and engineering.

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Mick in 1978…a long way from Exile on Mainstreet.

But what intrigues me most is the larger process of rehabilitation that I see taking place. We see attempts to do this quite frequently on the part of celebrities, musicians, and politicians. Sometimes this is done to craft a new public image (like the Rolling Stones going disco) or to try to atone for past sins (Newt Gingrich, ad infinitum). How common is this among scientists or technologists?

Sometimes such attempts at reinvention work. But many times – often? –  those attempting such feats end up singing the same songs and sinning as before.

* The joke here – probably not a good one – is that Drexler was also once part of a commercial venture called NanoRex.


  1. 2006 remark by physicist Richard A.L. Jones, quoted in Arie Rip and Marloes Van Ameron, “Emerging De Facto Agendas Surrounding Nanotechnology: Two Cases Full of Contingencies, Lock-Outs, and Lock-Ins,” in Governing Future Technologies, edited by Mario Kaiser, et al.  (New York: Springer, 2010), 131-55. []
  2. A recent article in Nature about the BRAIN initiative described recent efforts as “a large-scale sociological experiment, as the sprawling neuroscience community struggles to coalesce around a common research plan under intense public scrutiny and tough financial constraints.” []
  3. Radical Abundance, x. []

Paul Krugman…space colonist?

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My favorite Krugman-esque image.

Six years after the last Apollo moon mission, a young assistant professor at Yale wrote about the economics of…interstellar trade. If the economist hadn’t been Paul Krugman, I doubt we would remember the attempt. But while his 1978 essay – “The Theory of Interstellar Trade” – was intended to be somewhat of a joke, its combination of some basic physics and economic theory turns out to have some serious points.

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Cover page of Krugman’s essay; note the “credit line.” More on this in my post…

self-professed science fiction buff, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories helped launch Krugman’s entry into economics. He wrote the short paper when he was “an oppressed assistant professor, caught up in the academic rat race.”1 (This was years before he won the Nobel “for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

Despite the essay’s absurd-sounding title, it presented an economic analysis of the kind that Asimov would have appreciated. As the paper’s introduction states, “while the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make some sense.” The result is a “serious analysis of a ridiculous subject” which, Krugman notes, is “the opposite of what is usual in economics.” (Ah – so jaded and yet still an assistant prof.)

Let’s Assume We Have a Can Opener” is classic joke about how professional indoctrination encourages people to make unreasonable assumptions. The butt of the joke is an economist. So – to paraphrase the punchline somewhat – let’s assume we have an interstellar starship that can travel close to the speed of light. Krugman wrote his essay in 1978 – a year after Star Wars appeared in theaters – so probably what he had in mind looked something like this:


So – if one is an interstellar trader shuttling, say, dilithium crystals and ‘droid parts around the galaxy, “how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel close to the speed of light?” After all, the time of transit will appear less to the space pilot transporting them than it will to the person waiting  to receive them on some faraway planet. This makes calculating the true value of our (hypothetical) space commodities quite difficult.

In his essay, Krugman used physics and economics to prove “two useless but true theorems.”

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Krugman concluded that one should use clocks on a planet’s surface, not on board the traveling vessel, to calculate interest costs. The reason is obvious – a trader on Trantor (Krugman’s choice) could have invested her money in a bond. Instead, they invested it in cargo. Therefore, the opportunity cost of trade should be based on the passage of time on Trantor. As Krugman phrased it: “When trade takes place between two planets in a common inertial frame, the interest cost on goods in transit should be calculated using time measured by clocks in the common frame.”

Krugman’s second point concerns “interstellar capital movements.” Krugman’s “First Fundamental Theorem” assumed equal interest rates on the two planets. But wouldn’t interstellar movement of capital distort interest rates because “simultaneous arbitrage is not possible”? In other words, while goods move slowly, information about their circulation moves at the speed of light.

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Krugman’s “Second Fundamental Theorem of Interstellar Trade” concluded that this needn’t be a problem: “If sentient beings may hold assets on two planets in the same inertial frame, competition will equalize the interest rates on the two planets.” (Another economist read Krugman’s essay and concluded that “in such worlds the real interest rate cannot exceed the costs at which more fuel can propel you into the future through time dilation…as The Economist interpreted this: “Better buy antimatter futures while they are cheap.”)

So — we now have what the future Nobel winner called a “foundation for a coherent theory of interstellar trade.” It’s a picture of the universe that is “not a lunatic vision; stellar, maybe but not lunatic.” The double entendre here is a nice touch as Krugman’s theorems are less relevant for more “mundane” financial transactions between traders on the earth and the moon. Krugman’s conclusion: space might be “the Final Frontier of economics.”

OK – so I’ve been having some fun with Krugman’s essay (in the same spirit in which he wrote it.) But scattered throughout it are hints which point to some other interesting possibilities. First of all, Krugman – like many people his age – was aware of the public interest in space settlements stirred up by Gerard O’Neill’s visioneering. His essay, in fact, cites O’Neill’s book The High Frontier. (Of course, Krugman also cites Lawden’s Introduction to Tensor Calculus, Relativity, and Cosmology so we probably shouldn’t read too much into his bibliography.)

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Another little puzzle is found on the title page of Krugman’s essay – he notes his research was supported by a “grant from the Committee to Re-Elect William Proxmire.” Famed for his Golden Fleece awards given to protest government waste, the former Wisconsin senator became known as “Darth Proxmire” to O’Neill supporters. In fact, after CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment featuring O’Neill and his ideas, Proxmire was so incensed that he promised “not a penny for this nutty fantasy” and suggested instead that an irresponsible NASA should instead have its budget cut. (The CBS piece implied the agency was seriously considering O’Neill’s ideas. It wasn’t.) Why did Krugman single out Proxmire? Was he making a joke because of Proxmire’s dislike of O’Neill-style space settlement ideas? Or did Krugman sympathize with them?

Krugman’s foray into the economics of interstellar economics aside, there actually was a small community of people writing about such things circa 1978. Although most people realized that they would likely not be able to actually build a space colony (or an interstellar spaceship), the participants in the summer studies that NASA helped sponsor (and Gerard O’Neill helped organize) considered what living on a space settlement might be like. This demanded taking anthropology, sociology, and, of course, economics into account.

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Cover (badly pixelated) of the 1985 book Space Colonization: Technology and the Liberal Arts

Given the fondness that many in the space settlement movement had for libertarian thought, it’s not surprising that a good deal of attention was given to what sorts of future financial and economic systems would/could be enacted. At MIT, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics offered a new undergraduate course on “space systems engineering”. For an entire semester, undergraduate and graduate students studied the engineering needed to build a small, industrial space settlement.2 Other schools used the “Colonization of Space” topic to introduce undergraduates to “current topics in science and technology.”3 This attempt to jumpstart the curriculum reflected a more general trend of drawing students to science through nontraditional approaches such as the “Zen of physics.”

So, while Krugman’s essay might have been only semi-serious, it connected to other ideas circulating at the time, some of which the economist/science fiction fan was aware of. For me, the best convergence happened in 2000. This was the year Krugman left MIT for Princeton University, the same school where Gerry O’Neill spent his academic career.



  1. []
  2. MIT published the class’s final product as “A Systems Design for a Prototype Space Colony,” Spring 1976. []
  3. For example, see the essays collected in Charles H. Holbrow, Allan M. Russell, and Gordon Sutton, F., eds., Space Colonization: Technology and the Liberal Arts (New York: American Institute of Physics, 1986). []