K. Eric Drexler

 

In the field of nanotechnology, there is a name that always stands out and it is K. Eric Drexler. Oftentimes, he is thought of as the “Founding father of nanotechnology” and this gives everyone a clearer idea of just how significant his contributions are to the field. He is one man that had big plans for the future and wants the best for mankind. It is amazing to see just what kind of man he is and what has pushed him into doing extensive studies on nanotechnology. His career is one that is extremely notable but it is also one that has had its fair share of controversy.

His life and work

Kim Eric Drexler was born on 25th April, 1955. He is an American engineer and is most known for being the driving force behind the idea of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) and of its potential benefits for humans back in the 70’s and 80’s. In the year 1991, he published his doctoral thesis at MIT and it was later on republished and turned into a book which was entitled Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery Manufacturing and Computation. It was published in 1992 and went on to receive the Best Computer Science Book award for 1992 from the Association of American Publishers. He is what you might call an MIT loyalist and holds three degrees from the institution. It was where he received his B.S. in Interdisciplinary Sciences back in 1977 and his M.S. in Astro/Aerospace Engineering in 1979. It was in 1991 when he got his Ph.D. from the auspices of the MIT Media Lab.

It was back in the 1970s that Eric Drexler first became influenced by ideas listed in Limits to Growth. At his first year at MIT, he went out to look for someone who was doing work on extra-terrestrial resources as this was his response to the whole Limits to Growth idea. It was because of this that he ran into Dr. Gerard O’Neill who was with Princeton University and who just happened to be a physicist that was known for having a very strong interest and focus on particle accelerations. Dr. O’Neill was also known for his work on concepts of colonies in space. In the summers of 1975 and 1976, K. Eric Drexler would study with NASA. It was during his summers in NASA that he learned about space colonies and helped fabricate revolutionary metal films to better show the potential of using solar sails. He would also spend a lot of time coming up with mass driver prototypes and delivering papers to the first three Space manufacturing conferences that were held at Princeton. In 1977 and 1979, he and Keith Hendon co-authored papers on vapor phase fabrication and space radiators; both papers were given patents. Drexler was also quite active in space politics and in the year 1980, he helped the L5 society in defeating the Moon Treaty.

It was in the late 70’s when he really began to develop ideas pertaining to MNT and it was in 1979 that he encountered a provocative talk by Richard Feynman named There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. In Drexler’s boon entitled Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, he used it to talk about the use of nano-scale assemblers that had the ability and capacity to build copies of itself and other things of different complexities. This might not sound too scientific but he also coined the “grey goo” term which he used to describe what happens if the MNT he talked about was to go haywire.

Drexler and his then-wife Christine Peterson helped put up the Foresight Institute in 1986 and the main goal was to prepare for the eventual manufacturing and use of nanotechnology. It was in 2002 that the husband and wife team ended their marriage of 21 years and today, Drexler is no longer a member of the institute they put up. However, he did join Nanorex in 2005 which is a company that specializes in molecular engineering software and he became the Chief Technical Advisor. A year later, he married a former investment banker named Rosa Wang.

Controversy

It is safe to say that K. Eric Drexler was quite passionate about MNT but it just so happened that Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley wasn’t too into the idea and he even went as far as to criticize Drexler’s ideas. In Smalley’s 2001 article in the Scientific American, he argued that “fat fingers” were the reason why MNT was impossible. He went on to argue that the nanomachines everyone envisioned would have to be more like chemical enzymes and not the assemblers Drexler imagined and even then, they would only work on water. Drexler countered these criticisms by saying that they were nothing more than straw man arguments but had no further replies from Smalley. In December 2003 though, Drexler did have his vindication because Ray Kurzweil dedicated four whole pages in his book to debunk Smalley’s theories and prove that Drexler’s ideas on MNT were in fact practicable and were already being put to use.

Mentions

Smalley may not believe in what Drexler has to propose but Science fiction writers and fans all over the world have fallen in love with the idea of nanotechnology and Drexler was even mentioned in the Diamond Age which is a sci-fi book that is about society in the future that makes use of nanotechnology almost every day. In the book Decipher, written by Stel Pavlou Drexler is mentioned and the same goes for the novel Excavation written by James Rollins where he referenced Drexler’s Engines of Creation.

In closing

The scientist Kim Eric Drexler now lives in Los Altos, California and he lives comfortably knowing that his studies have yielded to the nanotechnology used today. Even better, his critic Richard Smalley has admitted that he developed an interest in the field by reading one of Drexler’s books. It has to be said that Drexler is just as much of a visionary as he is a scientist; he sometimes gets carried away by what can be rather than what really is but it is his very idealism that made nanotechnology what it is today.