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Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech

The lecture didn’t always seem well grounded in fact, but the lecturer was full of fresh ideas and thoughtful viewpoints.

Last night, my wife and I had the pleasure of listening to the famous physicist Freeman Dyson talk about the future of mankind. This was part of an ongoing lecture series sponsored by Mentor Graphics among others for the Institute of Science, Engineering and Public Policy (ISEPP).

 Freeman Dyson and Mentor's Ry Schwark
Figure: Famous physicist Freeman Dyson talks with Mentor Graphic’s Ry Schwark following an ISEEP lecture.

Dr Dyson talked about many things, but for this blog I’m only covering those that directly or indirectly related to the world of semiconductor technology. The talk started with his personal observations about the need for unilateral destruction of nuclear weapons, while the remainder of his discussion centered on the importance of bio-technology.

His comments about the origins and growth of bio-technology seemed a mix of fact and personal opinions. For example, Freeman compared the domestication of biotechnology to the analogous evolution of computers. At first, computers were big, massive and very complicated machines. He shared the infamous 1950s quote attributed to IBM’s past president – Thomas J. Watson – that there was a potential market for only 18 electronic computers in the US.

Since that time, though, computers have gotten smaller and more powerful, leading  Freeman to conclude that computers have now become domesticated. From my perspective, this seemed like a oddly agrarian choice of words, since “domesticated” usually refers to the taming of plants or animals for the service of humanity. Even a layman in technology would have said that computers have become a commodity, meaning that computers are readily affordable and available to most users. Using the phrase of “computer domestication” suggests a lack of appreciation for the countless manhours spent in R&D, architecting, testing and manufacturing required to give birth to the electronic age that so many people take for granted.

Some may argue that this is just a problem of semantics, but it highlights the growing gap of technical literacy among even the most educated and respected of our community.

Later on, Dr. Dyson observed that biotech, not nanotech, was the faster growing area of technology. He mentioned that nanotech had been around for almost 50 years. I assume he was referring to Feynman’s casual mention in the late 1950’s of building atomic level molecular machine.

In contrast, biotechnology is still in its infancy, yet has become far more common place that nanotechnology in a shorter period of time. At least for this comment, I believe that Dyson was equating biotechnology with “gene splicing,” which was first demonstrated in the early 1980s.  But this is hardly a fair comparison, as he indirectly confirms in later comments about the relative ease of gene splicing and current availability to the public via home gene-slicing kits and inexpensive DNA analyzers. He postulated that gene splicing would soon become so common that small farmers across the planet would use it to improve the yield of their crops.

Coming from the semiconductor work, I would argue that building atomic level nano machines is somewhat more involved that gene splicing appears to be. Few semiconductor visionaries predict armchair engineers will easily build nano-bots in their garages anytime soon.

There was one question that the geek in me wanted to ask Dr. Dyson, but just couldn’t. That question concerned the mention of the Dyson Sphere  in an episode of Star Trek. In the late 1950s,  Feeman theorized the possibility of creating a enormous spherical structure around a star. Lifeforms would grow around the interior of the sphere by absorbing the energy of the star in the center of the sphere.

Instead of asking this question, I suggested to him that he must have been more of a mathematician than a physicist, judging from his early work in electrodynamics and quantum mechanics. He heartily agreed, restating his early comment during the lecture that he was part of a (relatively) younger group of scientists that were more interested in tiding-up the details left over from more revolutionary thinkers like Richard Feynman, Sin-itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. The modesty of the man in his 80’s was endearing.

Freeman’s humbleness, combined with his obvious eagerness for new ideas and theories, was inspiring. I only hope that I do as well when (if) reaching his age.

5 Responses to “Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech”

  1. Lou Covey Says:

    John, you bring up some interesting positions here. I can see why you might be slightly miffed and the concept of computer domestication, but even if you correctly parsed the phrase, I would have to agree with Dyson. I know very few computer laymen who give a rip about what it took to make their computers. I have one friend with a very successful, non=-tech business (a true rarity in this economy) who doesn’t want to hear my suggestions for how he might fix a tech problem.
    “I pay a guy to fix that stuff. I don’t even want to think about it.”
    He doesn’t care what goes into his computer and he has ceased asking about what I do for a living because he really doesn’t want to spend time on it. We have other things to talk about, happily.
    He is not alone. People don’t want to know what it takes to build a car or fix one, they don’t want to know how government works or what it will take to fix it. They just want stuff to work.
    Before computers were ubiquitous, science fiction novels involving computers (2001:A space Oddessy, a case in poiint) was strange and wonderful. Now, computers are furniture. I would argue that even biotechnology has reached the same point with the huge misconceptions regarding stem-cell research and what it is capable of. The common wisdom is that it is either an affront to God or the be all and end all of disease management. People really don’t want to know the reality of the problem. They just want it fixed.
    The problem, as I see it, is the belief that whatever we are doing individually is so obviously important and basic that ANYONE should be able to recognize its significance and respect the process. That is a fallacious position and can only be resolved by adequately communicating the real value to the general populace. That in itself is problematic because you have to understand why it is important to the general populace and most technologists don’t.
    Les Spruiell of Synopsys once summed up the problem very clearly in the context of chip design: If this industry were involved in the automotive repair tool industry, most of the work would be revolving around determining what the thicknessness of the chrome on a ratchet set should be. Having adequate thickness could be very important to the life and effectiveness of the tools, but a mechanic doesn’t really give a damn and neither does the car owner.

  2. Jim Edgerton Says:

    We, as the technology evangelists, have done a pretty bad job of explaining to the masses what we have been doing. I see this once a month during new employee orientation.

    For the last several years, I have volunteered to explain to new employees what our company does and why. We’re a major EDA company. In a 90 minute period I describe how DFT software helps find manufacturing faults so small they are the equivalent of finding a golf ball in the state of Ohio. I describe how some software allows “printing pictures” in a photographic process smaller than the lightwaves used. And how a design that should take 10^53 years to verify can be adequately done in three minutes.

    The employees are always surprised. Not just the finance, facilities and administrators, but many of the technologists as well.

  3. JB’s Circuit » Freeman Dyson – Biotech vs Nanotech Continues Says:

    [...] to my original critique concerning Dr. Feeman Dyson’s December’09 lecture in Portland, OR [Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech]  Perhaps the most engaging response was from Russ Baker, which I’ve posted [...]

  4. Thomas Culbertson Says:

    Dear Sir:

    You are wrong on two counts.

    First; domestication is much more descriptive of the change that computers have gone through since the main frame days.

    Second; Feynman’s comment on nanotechnology was not casual. He delivered a famous speech at Caltech entitled “There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom” on the subject and offered a cash prize from his own pocket for actual results.

    It appears that “Freeman’s humbleness” was not inspiring enough because you come across as arrogant. You should hope learn to do as well at your present age.

    Thomas Wade Culbertson

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