Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today’s Sciency Word is:
American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited with coining the word nanotechnology, a term which essentially made his career and his reputation. Ironically, Drexler also created the term that, according to this article from Wired.com, seems to have destroyed his career.
Nanotechnology, as Drexler envisioned it, involves nano-scale robots swimming around in a sea of atoms, assembling whatever molecules we have programmed them to build for us. But what if we program our nano-assemblers to build more of themselves? What if we can’t get them to stop building more of themselves?
Drexler warned of this possibility in 1986, in his book Engines of Creation. He described the growing mass of nano-assemblers as a grey goo, a blobby thing that just keeps growing and growing and growing until it consumes the whole planet.
That article from Wired is kind of dated (it’s from 2004), but the story it tells is fascinating, especially for our purposes here on Sciency Words. It portrays Drexler as a shy, nerdy kid who grew up to be a shy, nerdy adult. He had a revolutionary idea (nanotechnology) which propelled him to success and prestige.
But he also planted the seeds of his own downfall. The grey goo scenario got picked up by science fiction writers and the media. Fear and anxiety grew among the general public, and ultimately Congress cut off funding for nanotechnology, or at least they cut off funding for the kind of research Drexler wanted to do. Drexler’s career was ruined as a result.
This sounds so much like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps the origin story of a super villain, that I can’t help but think Wired was embellishing some of the details. Even so, words have enormous power to shape public discourse about any issue. Drexler seems to have learned that lesson.
Next time on Sciency Words, we’ll look at one more word Eric Drexler invented in an effort to salvage his vision of tiny, molecule-assembling robots.