Dr Don Eigler - Oral Evidence Summary

This evidence was taken on October 16th 2003 at the ‘Organising Atoms’ conference, held at the Royal Society. It was taken in the presence of Professor Mark Welland, Professor John Pethica, Nanotechnology Working Group members, and Dr Andrew Dunn and Sara Al-Bader of the Royal Society. The evidence was written up by the secretariat and has been approved by Dr Eigler.

The views summarised in this document represent the personal views of Dr Eigler, and do not necessarily represent the views of IBM

Definition and communication of Nanotechnology

Dr Eigler saw a clear distinction between nanotechnology and nanoscience. Nanoscience has been around for at least 100 years, and probably a lot longer. Much of chemistry could be defined as nanoscience for example. Nanotechnology on the other hand should incorporate a manufacturing process with a clear market application. The term has probably arisen for societal reasons (e.g. science fiction) rather than scientific, and serves as a marketing label for fund raising and popular fiction. This should not necessarily be perceived as negative-it’s the way the world works.

On the public funding of research, Dr Eigler felt that the public should know, and as much as possible understand what it is they are funding. This should enable scientists to be held accountable, and in turn ensure that the public is aware that science is benefiting society.

When asked how the public should be engaged, Dr Eigler felt that the broadest possible audience should be sought and engaged in rational discussion. Mass communication of both the benefits and excitement of science by a gifted communicator along with a ‘lay’ person who the public can trust and relate to was very much needed. As much as possible, this group must be representative, and be able to communicate on a similar level to the general public.

Future developments/time line

Dr Eigler was asked why IBM funded Dr Eigler’s research: The future is in small structures-this is clear from a historical perspective. Therefore we need to understand the fundamental properties of nanometre scale structures, and then learn to how engineer these structures for useful applications.

Dr Eigler believed that developments in nanotechnology would proceed by a slow evolution rather than by disruptive breakthroughs. This was partly because technology now is already very well advanced and hence difficult to compete with.

Regarding silicon technology, Dr Eigler believed there would be a gradual slowdown as the technology matures and becomes more expensive. When asked what would replace Silicon, Dr Eigler noted that computation was not the only requirement and that nanotechnology may enable technological niches to be captured such as sensors or embedded systems.

He noted that the funding climate in the US since September 11th had changed resulting in more money and opportunity to develop fledgling technologies.

Health, safety and environmental issues

As far as he knew, IBM did not have HSE regulations specific to nanotechnology. IBM operates under a minimum of local, state and federal regulations with an additional layer of personal responsibility. Dr Eigler’s personal opinion was that nano-particulates are no more or less dangerous than conventional chemistry. Both just involve making re-arrangements of atoms.

On working with carbon nanotubes

When asked how he would handle nanotube material, Dr Eigler said that at a bare minimum he would use current legislation, chemical data sheets and his own judgement. He made the point that with any scientific progress comes risk, and that the question “is it safe” is less meaningful than “is it dangerous?” He would hope to see a set of regulatory mechanisms to restrict the dangers without halting technological growth. There is a balance between risk and innovation – zero risk leads to zero innovation.

Grey goo

There is no grey goo. Dr Eigler likened the grey goo scenario to the old fears of ocean dwelling monsters and serpents capable of swallowing entire vessels. Those fears persisted for some time despite any evidence of monsters or rational argument that there must be such monsters. He also pointed out another similarity: just as no one could have proven that sea monsters did not exist, we cannot prove that a novel form of self replicating life, so called grey goo, cannot exist. We can only state that, to the limit of our best rational considerations, grey goo does not exist and cannot exist.

Motivation of scientists

The public have raised the issue of motivations of scientists and the corporate control of research. Dr Eigler had no specific suggestions for how to deal with this issue but thought that it would be favourable to create a scientific culture less driven by money-legislation alone won’t work.