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Jumping from the Hot Pot: Notes on Democracy in a Technological Age


On this page are:

Article: What happens when Science Collides with Citizenship at the Speed of Light
Article: Big Bang machine could destroy Earth
Article: Ions in the fire
Dialogue about "What happens when Science Collides with Citizenship"
Letter/article: More on the hot pot and where to jump
Memo: "Nanotechnology: You really want to read this!"


by Tom Atlee


The following story reads almost like science fiction.  But it isn't science fiction; it's real.  It raises profound questions about our survival, and about our democracy.

It is a news story from a reputable newspaper, a story about scientists preparing a leading-edge physics experiment. That experiment runs what appears to be a tiny risk of literally destroying the world. Several of the physicists involved are suggesting that perhaps the group should think again about proceeding.

A committee of these physicists at Brookhaven National Labs, home of the most powerful ion collider in the world, is gathering to make that decision -- a decision with profound implications for the rest of us. 

Did you know any of this was happening? I certainly didn't.  It makes me wonder if our values, interests and views will be adequately represented in that committee's deliberations.

The article states: "John Marburger, Brookhaven's director, set up a committee of physicists to investigate whether the project could go disastrously wrong.... John Nelson, professor of nuclear physics at Birmingham University who is leading the British scientific team at RHIC, said the chances of an accident were infinitesimally small - but Brookhaven had a duty to assess them. 'The big question is whether the planet will disappear in the twinkling of an eye.'" 

Did we hear that right? -- One of the leading scientists in this project saying: "The big question is whether the planet will disappear in the twinkling of an eye." That is certainly one of the oddest sentences I've ever read.  I'm not sure I'm comfortable having the fate of the earth depend on someone who could say such a sentence. 

But read the article for yourself. See what you think.  Then let's stop and reflect about this.

_ _ _ _ _

The Sunday Times of London

July 18 1999

Big Bang machine could destroy Earth

by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

A NUCLEAR accelerator designed to replicate the Big Bang is under investigation by international physicists because of fears that it might cause "perturbations of the universe" that could destroy the Earth. One theory even suggests that it could create a black hole.

Brookhaven National Laboratories (BNL), one of the American government's foremost research bodies, has spent eight years building its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island in New York state. A successful test-firing was held on Friday and the first nuclear collisions will take place in the autumn, building up to full power around the time of the millennium.

Last week, however, John Marburger, Brookhaven's director, set up a committee of physicists to investigate whether the project could go disastrously wrong. It followed warnings by other physicists that there was a tiny but real risk that the machine, the most powerful of its kind in the world, had the power to create "strangelets" - a new type of matter made up of sub-atomic particles called "strange quarks".

The committee is to examine the possibility that, once formed, strangelets might start an uncontrollable chain reaction that could convert anything they touched into more strange matter. The committee will also consider an alternative, although less likely, possibility that the colliding particles could achieve such a high density that they would form a mini black hole. In space, black holes are believed to generate intense gravitational fields that suck in all surrounding matter. The creation of one on Earth could be disastrous.

Professor Bob Jaffe, director of the Centre for Theoretical Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is on the committee, said he believed the risk was tiny but could not be ruled out. "There have been fears that strange matter could alter the structure of anything nearby. The risk is exceedingly small but the probability of something unusual happening is not zero."

Construction of the £350m RHIC machine started eight years ago and is almost complete. On Friday scientists sent the first beam of particles around the machine - but without attempting any collisions.

Inside the collider, atoms of gold will be stripped of their outer electrons and pumped into one of two 2.4-mile circular tubes where powerful magnets will accelerate them to 99.9% of the speed of light.

The ions in the two tubes will travel in opposite directions to increase the power of the collisions. When they smash into each other, at one of several intersections between the tubes, they will generate minuscule fireballs of superdense matter with temperatures of about a trillion degrees - 10,000 times hotter than the sun. Such conditions are thought not to have existed - except possibly in the heart of some dense stars - since the Big Bang that formed the universe between 12 billion and 15 billion years ago.

Under such conditions atomic nuclei "evaporate" into a plasma of even smaller particles called quarks and gluons. Theoretical and experimental evidence predicts that such a plasma would then emit a shower of other, different particles as it cooled down.

Among the particles predicted to appear during this cooling are strange quarks. These have been detected in other accelerators but always attached to other particles. RHIC, the most powerful such machine yet built, has the ability to create solitary strange quarks for the first time since the universe began.

John Nelson, professor of nuclear physics at Birmingham University who is leading the British scientific team at RHIC, said the chances of an accident were infinitesimally small - but Brookhaven had a duty to assess them. "The big question is whether the planet will disappear in the twinkling of an eye. It is astonishingly unlikely that there is any risk - but I could not prove it," he said.

_ _ _ _ _

       [ Note:  At the end of this article there are two Appendices:
       (1) a note from a British colleague verifying that the
       Sunday Times is a respectable paper in England and
       (2) a further description of the ion accelerator project
       at RHIC.  - Tom ]

_ _ _ _ _

So now for a bit of reflection.

I see two issues here.  The short-term issue is:  Should this experiment even be tried?  To me the clear answer is NO.  If you agree with me, please share your thinking with government officials and any representatives, media, colleagues, friends and family who might care about how all this proceeds.  I don't know where the leverage is in this, but if we all do the best we can, perhaps in the next few months our views will reach someone who can have a real effect.

But there's a longer-term issue here, as well.  If the world doesn't disappear into a black hole, this other issue will come up over and over, louder and louder, until we deal with it or destroy ourselves.  That question is:  What is the appropriate way to make scientific and technical decisions that effect the broader welfare of society and the planet? 

It has been said that democracy is people having a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.  The decision to proceed with this experiment could affect everyone.  To the extent we live in a democracy, we should have a voice in that decision.  And yet we find that science and technology seem to be operating in a different world, far beyond the reach of democracy, with no way for our voices and interests to be heard. 

This isn't new.  We've been climbing out on this limb for years.  The Brookhaven Big Bang experiment just gives us another warning about how far out we have climbed.  Science and technology have outstripped democracy in so many realms -- from global warming to genetic engineering, from telecommunications to nanotechnology, from Y2K to antibiotic resistance, from weapons technology to an endless array of other highly technical social problems.

Many of these problems are hidden in shades of grey, making them hard to think about.  The Brookhaven Big Bang experiment presents us with a starker vision.  If it produces the "wrong" results it could eradicate not only life on earth, but transform the planet itself into a super-dense black hole.

We are seriously out of our league here.  We're not dealing with a leaky roof, a sick grandmother or a war with a neighboring tribe.  Such things are native to the level of reality that we're all familiar with -- the realm in which we've evolved to operate -- the realm of things we can see and hear and touch, things that please us or get our adrenaline running... things that we can handle with chamomile tea, hatchets, a friendly hug or a primal scream. 

When I say we're seriously out of our league, I mean we're dealing with things we can't see or hear or feel because they are too tiny or too large or too subtle for ordinary people to grasp. I mean scientists are cracking genes and atoms in the lab -- and industries are pouring 75,000 barely tested chemicals into our environment -- while we walk through our lives as if everything is normal.  It seems to me that things are getting profoundly less "normal" every day.  We are in a very different era now.

How is democracy supposed to work in this new environment? What does citizenship mean, when most of us don't even know that most of these problems exist, or how to think clearly about them, or have forums for meaningful dialogue about them? What does responsibility mean, given this new world we're living in? 

The hour is late.  It is time to face these questions.  The potential consequences of ignoring them are growing daily.

As we try to deal with this issue, one pair of facts stands out: 

(a)  We human beings are able to create immensely powerful collective effects outside of the realm of our everyday awareness and activities. Scientific progress, computers, telecommunications, technical mastery, mass culture, overpopulation and oceans of money are cranking up our ability to generate phenomena never before seen on earth, either in the lab in or the real world. 

(b)  We aren't yet very good at collectively perceiving, reflecting on, and responding to the consequences of that immense power. The best we've got is an endless battle among interest groups and among experts, which generates precious little wisdom.  If we don't improve our ability to track and wisely modify our collective power -- especially in the realm of science and technology -- I doubt we'll last much longer.  What I don't doubt is the competence or ambition of those who are currently tapping into the physical and biological fundamentals of life. 

Even if it doesn't all unravel in an experiment gone awry, our expanding technological power is becoming increasingly available to the dark side of humanity, empowering them to destroy the rest. It is also empowering all of us who impact the world without even knowing it, simply by living our lives... driving our cars.. sending chemicals into the air, water, and soil... supporting increasingly toxic wars....

It doesn't have to be like this.  We do not have to continue this insane state of affairs.

A number of brilliant approaches to this problem are in use today and more are being developed.  For example, in Denmark, quasi-official citizen panels review technical issues to advise their government on what technology policy should be.  They have proven that ordinary citizens, given adequate information and facilitation, are fully capable of coming to wise judgments about how to handle complex technical issues.  Experts play a role in this process, but (as Frances Moore Lappe says) they are on tap, not on top. Wouldn't it make sense for every technological society to adopt similar practices? 

For more information about the Danish model, you can check out  It describes the Loka Institute ( ), a group in Amherst, MA, who are trying to bring democracy and sanity to our scientific and technological decision-making.  Their work is part of a broader vision, an exciting set of possibilities for making democracy strong, resilient and wise enough to carry us safely into our challenging future.  For more on this vision, I invite you to read "Creating a Culture of Dialogue" and other articles listed on

There's a story about frogs.  It says that if you put them in a hot pan, they'll jump out, but if you set them in a pan of water and slowly raise the heat, they'll just sit there until they boil. 

I suggest that it's time to jump out of the pot.

_ _ _ _ _


From Paul Swann <>
22 Jul 1999

Hello Tom,

You wrote:

>Isn't the Sunday Times a respectable paper like the New York Times
>Or is it a tabloid rag?

Yes, it's considered respectable...though like The Times it's owned by
Murdoch's News International Corporation.

To give both the Times & Sunday Times credit, they're the only British
newspapers who've given consistent, and often thoughtful coverage to y2k.
_ _ _ _ _ _


More on the RHIC, dug up out of the Web:

The Guardian London, England April 29, 1999

Ions in the fire

Particle physicists are on collision course to recreate conditions at the birth of the universe, reports Frank Close.

Hearts of gold will have an intimate reunion next month, their first for 15 thousand million years. The event will take place in the underground tunnel of the new 'relativistic heavy ion collider' (or RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

Experiments will begin that may give us the first glimpse of what it is like inside a neutron star or a supernova and even what the matter that we are made of was like in the first ten-millionths of a second of the universe's existence. Physicists from around the world, including a team from Birmingham University, have been preparing for this moment for years. What is it all about? Strip an atom of its electrons and you have what is known as an ion. Do this to atoms of heavy elements such as gold or lead and you have a 'heavy ion'. Then hurtle beams of these ions together in head on collision and you have a heavy ion collider.

It is all high speed where relativity rules; hence 'RHIC'. At least the name makes sense; but what is a collider like and what is its purpose? RHIC is a circular ring of magnets over a mile long, which is small compared to the 17 mile long LEP (large electron positron collider) at Cern, the European nuclear research laboratory in Geneva. While LEP is designed to whirl beams of electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, the novel feature of RHIC is that it can control heavy ions.

The magnets surround a narrow tube, a few centimetres in diameter, within which the beams are whirled around the ring, one beam clockwise and the other anticlockwise. At various points around the circle the two beams cross one another and here the collisions occur.

The beams are like diffuse swarms of gnats, whose individual members are so small that the chances are that the two swarms pass clean through one another. The trick is to concentrate so many gnats (ions) into the beams that occasionally two meet head on. The ions in the beams are moving at near to the speed of light and whirl around the ring over 10 thousand times each second.

With billions of ions in each beam, collisions actually occur many times a second. By surrounding the collision points with sophisticated electronics, it is possible to record the cataclysm as debris hurls across the electrical sensors. The resulting trails are like hieroglyphs that experts decode.

What is RHIC hoping to reveal about the nature of matter? Matter on Earth consists of atoms whose electrons whirl remotely around a massive central nucleus. They cluster together to make liquids, solids or gases. Inside the sun, things are different. The temperature is millions of degrees and the atoms cannot survive intact; the electrons escape from their atomic prisons and swarm independent of the protons. This is often called 'the fourth state of matter', or 'plasma'.

Although a temperature of a million degrees disrupts atoms, it is still cool on the nuclear scale. Protons and neutrons, the pieces of atomic nuclei, still retain their identities.

In the searing heat of the Big Bang the fundamental quarks and gluons, which in today's cold universe are trapped inside protons and neutrons, would have been too hot to stick together.

The sun consists of an electrical plasma: by analogy we suspect that in the aftermath of the Big Bang matter consisted of a 'quark gluon plasma' or QGP for short. Physicists believe that QGP might still exist today in the hearts of neutron stars which are so dense that a piece the size of a pinhead would weigh more than the Eiffel Tower. Even if QGP does survive, we cannot access it and so have to recreate it in the laboratory.

This is done by smashing heavy ions into one another at high energies, squeezing the protons and neutrons together in the hope of making them 'melt'. The quarks and gluons will then flow freely instead of being frozen into individual identifiable neutrons and protons.

Although the huge LEP accelerator at Cern is not yet able to control heavy ions, a smaller accelerator at Cern can. For several years physicists working have been smashing heavy ions in the hope of determining the conditions for QGP to form. But they have been aiming the beams at stationary targets. RHIC's head-on collisions will be far more violent.

Cern can heat the ions to temperatures of a million million degrees and has seen tantalising but inconclusive hints of QGP being formed. RHIC will increase this by a factor of 10 and should take us into the weird world of the quark gluon plasma.

The challenge for physicists is not simply to make QGP but to record the fact. There is an analogy between particles escaping from the heart of QGP and those escaping from a more conventional plasma, such as is found in the centre of the sun. Neutrinos are impervious to the solar plasma and fly out from the heart of the sun; both neutrinos and also electrons and their anti-matter counterparts, positrons, can escape from within a QGP. So by detecting electrons and positrons we are effectively looking into the heart of the QGP by analogy with the way that by detecting neutrinos we can look into the heart of the sun.

There are other tests that can be made. So-called 'strange' particles are expected to increase while production of the charmed 'psi' particles should become rarer. The measurements at Cern do show such behaviours but the energy of the collisions appears to be just on the threshold for making QGP. These discoveries are suggestive and raise excitement as to what the higher energy experiments at RHIC will reveal.

About six years from now the huge LEP accelerator at Cern will have been modified into a new form known as the large hadron collider, or LHC. In this new form it will be able to accelerate lead ions and to collide them head on at energies far higher even than those accessible to RHIC. At these extreme energies, akin to those that would have been the norm in the universe when it was less than a trillionth of a second old, it is expected that QGP will be common, enabling its properties to be studied in detail.

That is for the future. For the moment, in the race to produce QGP, it is RHIC that has the lead chance to strike gold.


Frank Close is head of theoretical physics at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, currently on leave as head of communications at Cern. His next book, Lucifer's Legacy, will be published by Oxford University Press next year.


Dialogue about "What happens when Science Collides with Citizenship"

Dear Reid,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful note. Here are my thoughts in response. You said:

>I am concerned as well. But I will approach this subject with a little less
>fear. Remember the atomic bomb? The same debate raged about that experiment
>as well. No one was 100% sure that the nuclear chain reaction could be
>controlled. Some well respected scientists believed the Earth's atmosphere
>would simply evaporate in an uncontrolled nuclear explosion. They were never
>100% sure until they tried it.

1) Do you have a reference describing this aspect of early atomic research? I have heard this said, but I have not yet found a good reference. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

2) Do you think the early atomic scientists should have stopped that experiment?

3) Do you believe that the fact that the original chain reaction didn't evaporate the atmosphere logically implies that the Brookhaven experiment won't end in either of it's postulated disasters?

>Let's understand the project, the issues and the risks before we all start
>sending warnings to government officials. Who do we know that can evaluate
>the information and give a "layman's" description of what is being attempted?

I don't at present know any such person or group, especially with my kind of democratic vision/bias. One precedent that may be useful here: Y2K-activists' premature alerts about embedded chips -- even though many of those alerts have been recently proven false -- are now being credited (reluctantly, by some non-alarmist experts) with getting action on Y2K remediation that may yet prevent Y2K disaster. The way our society is set up often does not allow us the time to do all the research needed before sounding a badly-needed alarm. How badly needed (or not) is often only seen in retrospect. Sometimes intuition provides me a better grounding than all the details (and sometimes not). We each have to run with whatever ball we find ourselves with. I encourage you to follow the strategy you've outlined above. For better and worse, there is no "we" to do what you've said (or what I've said, for that matter, although I'm trying).

>However, on the other hand, how does such research get so far without the
>public knowledge? This is an issue that concerns me more.

VERY HOT QUESTION. There is no one answer, but using the question as an inquiry (a tree from which to pluck a continually ripening harvest of answers) will, I am sure, produce immensely useful understandings.



And then I got this note from an anonymous person:

Dear Tom: got this from a friend, to whom I forwarded your 'jumping out of
the pot' email---------here is her response:

Now, regarding "jumping out of the pot", here is the actual London Times piece:

And a follow-up:

Gary North had these as "Dr. Strangelets" parts one and two.


Your friend conveniently misses my point.

The whole point of my essay is that in our current society, experts are "on top" in decision-making -- and that this is a problem. Decision-making has at least three stages -- data-gathering, evaluation, and selection. In making decisions with considerable societal implications, experts have a vital contribution to make in both the data-gathering and evaluation stages: They can say what they believe are the facts of the matter and the likely consequences of deciding the issue one way or the other. In this process, it is important to have DIVERSE experts, since virtually all issues have controversies about fact, about the significance of facts, and about various possible future scenarios arising from the issue. However, the experts should have little or no role in the selection stage -- in the actual decision. This stage is intrinsically values-driven, and the only question is who's values are going to drive it. I suggest that the proper drivers are The People (or those who may be affected) -- what do "the people" want, what do they believe, what do they value. The decision should be made on that basis. And the data-gathering and evaluation stages should be totally at the service of this final step. Data should be gathered and evaluated IN ORDER TO make it possible for the people to intelligently decide on a course of action that will further their welfare.

Where does this leave the scientists and engineers? It is healthy for scientists to want to find out, just to KNOW something -- and for engineers and technicians to design and build things that appeal to them. Just as it is healthy for a child to want to find out, just to KNOW something, and to make all manner of things. But that doesn't mean that society gives full rein to any of these urges. It is not unusual for a child (at least a boy) to want to play with matches and gasoline. Good parents will validate the urge to know AND provide safe contexts in which to explore a child's curiousity AND nurture a sense that the universe has a basic and awesome mystery about it that needs to be respected as well as explored. The idea that scientific exploration and technical prowess are absolute goods is demonstrably false: consider the scientific explorations in the Nazi death camps and on blacks and prisoners. There are zones into which science and technology are correctly forbidden to go, on ethical grounds. There are boundaries that must not be crossed, for the good of the society. Where those ethical boundaries are is a valid subject for ongoing public dialogue and public judgement. However, it seems obvious to me that the final word should not lie with the scientists -- especially with those who have a vested interest in the enterprise under scrutiny.

Note that the reassuring "sightings" article your friend referred to above is based on a quote from "the director of the laboratory commissioning the machine [the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which took eight years to construct]," who said that "there is 'no chance' of the atom-smashing experiment causing a disaster, such as a black hole that would devour the entire Earth." Hello? Since when is a person with the greatest investment in an activity the best source on the potential dangers or downsides of that activity?

Frances Moore Lappe says that experts should be on tap, not on top. I think that summarizes the situation pretty well.

None of this is really new. In particular, it is fundamental to the advocacy and jury aspects of our legal system. The idea is that every issue has more than one side and that forums should be provided in which the facts of the matter -- and their significance -- can be explored with expert testimony before a group of ordinary citizens, who then apply their own personal values and the values and laws of the community to evaluate what they've heard and make a decision. The fact that our legal system is adversarial and that the jury cannot ask the experts the questions they (the jury) have, and that they cannot decide much more than innocence and guilt, and that they are not provided with professional facilitation, etc. -- these are limitations of the legal system that in no way invalidate the basic wisdom of leaving the final judgement to citizens and providing them with information they need to make such a judgement. All I and the Loka Institute and others are trying to do is extend this logic to techological and other important social issues.

So this is the REAL issue here: In a democratic society our rights are limited primarily by how our actions may harm or restrict the rights of others. How does this principle apply to the advance of science and technology? And who should make those decisions? Those are the relevant questions that your friend's defense of the Brookhaven experiment ignores. I believe that we ignore these questions at our peril.

Coheartedly, Tom

Then I got this from Stephanie P. Werdager, who started out by quoting me:

>>I see two issues here. The short-term issue is: Should this experiment
>>even be tried? To me the clear answer is NO. If you agree with me,
>>please share your thinking with government officials and any
>>representatives, media, colleagues, friends and family who might care
>>about how all this proceeds.

>Whoa. Based on ONE article, the clear answer is NO? Why isn't
>the clear answer "We need to look at this issue more closely?"
>When I read the article, I became quite concerned. Then I talked
>to some friends who know about the experiment and they told me some
>things that aren't made at all clear in the article you quoted.
>I don't consider it my job to convince you either way. I'm not
>convinced either way myself. I'm just saying that when you
>read ONE article and call for the project to be cancelled,
>you lose credibility. The story as told may be true. And it may
>be poor journalism.

Excellent response, Stephanie. I guess my concern is that the overwhelming bias in our culture is towards letting scientific and technological developments proceed unless their is an obvious, compelling and immediate reason to stop them. My observation is that the world is complex and interconnected and that the consequences of things done at very small or very large scales are EXTREMELY difficult to predict. And that many scientists, used to working in a laboratory where factors are strictly controlled, are inadequately sensitive to the complex interconnectedness and ambiguity and chanciness of the real world, and seldom very responsible for the results of their work ("that's up to policy makers to decide; I just do the research"). So my BIAS is towards drastically slowing down and democratizing the development of science and techology so that we are more cautious with our growing power. After all, surveys show that people describe themselves as less happy than they described themselves in 1950; so what exactly is all this technological development about? Whose needs is it serving? And, most importantly, who should decide how it should proceed, and how should those decisions be made, in order to be wise?

If we are talking about the possibility of destroying the entire planet, it seems to me the scope of that possibility is so large that we should give the benefit of the doubt to it. After all, even if all the "credible" scientists agreed, they could be wrong. Scientists are wrong a very large part of the time. When we are playing at the frontiers of our knowledge, the chances of being wrong are incredibly high. I believe it is arrogant for anyone to say, under these circumstances, that there is NO CHANCE of something happening that they didn't predict. And if the probability is anything greater than zero, what benefit of this experiment would possibly be worth the destruction of our world? Space travel? Better physics textbooks?

That's where my "NO" came from. I'm not really a journalist, and I'm not concerned about my credibility in such things. I'm really just an ordinary person who is very concerned about the fate of our earth and our children's children. Please note that I did express my "NO" as an opinion, and allowed that others could have different opinions (I said "IF you agree with me....").

But ultimately you're right: the real answer is "We need to look at this issue more closely." I just pray we are given the time and resources to do that well. Do you think we'll have that chance?



And then I got further information, which generated a new article/letter:

Re: More on the hot pot and where to jump

Dear friends

In response to my posting regarding the (un)democratic implications of the upcoming Brookhaven Black Hole experiment, alternative economist Thomas Greco <> forwarded to me a memo (below) about nanotechnology.  Nanotechnology is the science of engineering and manufacturing machines, computers, robots, and self-replicating objects and substances at the atomic level, much smaller than we normally think of as "miniature."  I had not realized how far this technology had come, nor the connection it has to the Brookhaven experiment (see the section below on strange matter and isotope collisions).  After the article, I've added some further reflections about the nature of the hot pot we find ourselves in and which directions we might jump to get out.

* * * * * * * * *   * * * * * * * * *   * * * * * * * * *

From: "Phyl Holz" <>

Subject: Nanotechnology: You really want to read this!

Date: Thu, 22 Jul 1999 13:34:53 PDT


The following is a compilation of my notes from a lecture/discussion by a
professor at Dartmouth College.

    The discussion began with a brief history of relevant sciences in order to
contrast them with those of today.  He started with what he called the
"Shake & Bake Chemistry" that occurred between 1650 and 1890, which he
described as a process of hit-and-miss guesswork type science.  This was
followed by the Nuclear Engineering age that started when Curie began
working with isotopes and for him ended in 1980.  Following this phase was
Microlevel Fabrication, mainly photolithography, and Nano-Phase Material
Filtration, which is mostly used for water purification.

This brought us up to the Molecular Nanotechnology of today which is the
basis for all future "nanotechnologies" which are being projected for the
future.  Nanotechnology generally refers to science/technology that contains
two elements:

1) Giving atoms individual attention.  This is made possible by using a high
level vacuum, so that molecules can be isolated, and magnification that can
achieve a scale that makes an animal cell (which is 1/10 the diameter of a
human hair) one kilometer long and each atom the size of a marble.  This
allows every single atom and bond to be manipulated individually.

2) Geometric Self-replication.  This means that, in order for these to be
economical, every product is capable of reproducing itself, thus the growth
in production will be geometric (2 to the n th power).  For example, if they
could reproduce themselves every day you would have 2 on the second day, 4
on the third day, 8 on the fourth day 1,073,741,824 by the 30th day.

The first application of this science/technology is developing an Assembler
because this will be used to manufacture the future inventions.  This
device, which will typically be the size of a shoe box, will be able to
break down, at the atomic/molecular level, any materials used as inputs and
rearrange these inputs in any form that is desired.  For example, in the
input side it could take in atmospheric gas (in other words air), all forms
of electromagnetic radiation (in other words light and heat), and soil or
any waste material that is freely available.  Then, using the process
described above, produce anything that it was programmed to create.  This
could include things such as ozone and, since they are able to produce
things that are larger than themselves by "unfolding" them once they are
ejected, a clone of itself.  The startling thing about this is that the
professor predicts that the first public prototype will be operational
before 2001.

    Another basis for this new industry is Quantum Computation.  The process
used today in modeling and 'reverse-engineering' is a slow process were by
data is entered into an equation, an answer is found, and this answer is
then reentered into the equation, and the process continues until the
results are satisfactory.  By contrast, these new computers will be able to
identify all possible outcomes initially and converge on the most likely
ones.  This is opening up whole new possibilities for Artificial
Intelligence where the computational ability comparable to the human brain
will be able to fit into the size of a sugar cube.

    The most popular application of these two inventions is Utility Fog.  These
are molecular sized robots (roughly the size of a fog droplet) that usually
have 12 arms and are able to store the amount of software equivalent to a
PC.  What makes this so spectacular is that these robots will be able to
collaborate in order to form any consumer product, from a chair to a car,
using the same robots that together weigh only 5 kilograms.  As for their
application, he essentially said that our imagination is the limit to what
these can be used for.  The medical industry is looking at having a fleet of
these designated to an individual that would help neutralize free-radicals,
help eliminate toxins, fix proteins, etc., and at the end of the day give
you readout of what they had done during the day.  On the other hand, the
National Security Agency (NSA) has already developed plans for not only
surveillance "fogglets," but fogglets that monitor those fogglets.

    Space Architecture another application for nanotechnology.  Since there is
the ability to create pure carbon structures, NASA is working on Carbon
Nanotubes that would essentially be very long elevators that reach into
space, where the packages sent downward would generate the energy necessary
to project packages upward.

    Projected even farther into the future is Fermitechnology.  This represents
the idea that eventually we will be able to control every reaction that
takes place when two isotopes (heavy, radioactive atoms) are forced
together. This possesses interesting possibilities for nuclear waste disposal
since it is conceivable that with this technology (e.g. controlling alpha
emissions) we can convert plutonium to gold.  It also opens new doors for
space travel if we can make "strange matter."  This substance, which is
formed by combining 3 types of quarks (subatomic 'particles') together, is
extremely stable because the bonds it creates are 10 to the 30th power (10
with 30 zeros) times stronger than hydrogen bonds.  Thus a ring can be made
that is strong enough to create the mouth of a worm hole, which means we
can possibly fold space-time.

    When asked about the concerns that people involved in this have, two main
topics stuck out to me.  The first was industries' anticipation of 'rogue'
scientists ... reverse engineering the products
and distributing them, possibly for free.  Second was the fear of having
uncontrollable self-replicating sentient robots.  For the most up-to-date
information on how these issues are being addressed he recommended checking
out the following sites:
· "Foresight Institute's goal is to guide emerging technologies to improve
the human condition."  This site has membership info., a search engine and
lists and links about news and events.
· This site describes the national initiative, known as NTR (Nanotechnology
for the Twenty-First Century: Leading to a New Industrial Revolution), that
was introduced to congress by the IWGN (Interagency Working Group on
Nanoscience, Engineering, and Technology).  There is also concise info
about a definition, the driving forces of, the potential impact of,
investment opportunities in, and the "high-level recognition of the
potential" of nanoscience.
· Produced by the International Technology Research Institute, World
Technology Division, at Loyola College in Maryland, and sponsored by the
National Science Foundation, this site is designed to present up-to-date
sources of information on nanotechnology in the following areas: major
research centers, funding agencies, major reports and books.

You are receiving this message because I am assuming that I am not the only
one that finds the idea of self-replicating surveillance fogglets, that are
not subject to anything faintly resembling democratic regulation, at the
least disconcerting.  I give this information to you not just to tantalize
your curious mind, but hopefully to motivate you to doing something that
will shape the future of technics.  This can start with as little as
bringing it up in conversations but really requires organizing direct action
campaigns that illustrate your larger desires for a directly democratic
political sphere.  If you have any ideas, please let me know.


* * * * * * * * *   * * * * * * * * *    * * * * * * * * *


So here is another form of technology, surging ahead with much wide-eyed adventure and probable profitability, with little attention to the broader needs, values, perspectives and concerns of citizens.  In regard to nanotechnology, everything I said in the previous message about the Brookhaven Black Hole experiment holds true, with one addition:

It is becoming clear that we need more than mechanisms whereby citizens can influence scientific and technological development.  We need effective citizen wisdom to direct the course and character of society as a whole.  Science and technology are not really the problem.  They are just highly refined ways of collectively learning and doing.  The problem with our science and technology is that they reflect the kind of society we live in.  Our alienated science and technology are merely expressions of the alienated story that we in modern cultures tell ourselves about who we are in the universe.

Many indigenous tribes had (and have) sophisticated science and technology guiding their learning and doing in the places where they live.  One key difference between these indigenous sciences and modern sciences lies in their purpose:  The primary aim of modern science is prediction and control -- leading to human domination of the world around them and human well-being, profit and power.  The primary purpose of indigenous science is to learn how to be in right relationship with the life and land around you.  In this context, "right relationship" means relationship that is respectful, mutual, sustainable and -- more often than not -- spiritual. 

Fortunately, some recent modern sciences and technologies are actively integrating these two worldviews.  For example, the ecological design science and technology known as "permaculture" builds synergistic ecosystems to yield sustenance and beauty for their human partners with little need for fossil fuels and trucked-in materials.  And powerful dialogic processes such as those developed by quantum scientist David Bohm may one day combine with the multimedia and networking capabilities of the Internet to produce a benign and generative planetary collective intelligence.  In both cases, the science and technology are modern, but the goal is similar to indigenous science --  a vibrant living partnership -- not the conquest of uncertainty and nature characteristic of so much of modern science.

So the issue isn't actually science and technology.  It is our cultural worldview -- what we tell ourselves about who are we, what dreams we have, what we're supposed to be doing here, and what it's all about.  Our culture's story says we're supposed to be smart and powerful enough to get what we want, individually and collectively.  This adds up to things like the Brookhaven experiment, nanotechology, and all the other troubling technologically-generated dangers we face.

This alienated perspective -- and the way of life it generates -- tends to confuse us about our deepest and best relationship to the world.  But there is growing evidence that the vast majority of people tend to move towards their best selves and healthy relationship when they're given opportunity for deep dialogue.  There is reason to hope that intelligent use of deep dialogue can help us bootstrap ourselves out of our current dysfunctions into a more viable and meaningful culture -- one in which science and technology serve to enhance our relationship with life rather than threatening it.

This realization has led to what I call "the wise democracy principle":

This principle could become a potent political force wherever it becomes institutionalized broadly and regularly so that ordinary diverse citizens could correct their collective course periodically, as needed, through deep dialogue. 

A wise democracy is different from traditional democracy.  An advocate of traditional democracy might say: "Through public debate and voting, the majority will choose leaders to represent them and forge workable solutions."  An advocate of the new wise democracy might say: "Through deep dialogue among those who embody our diversity, we will find greater understanding and wisdom we can all share and use to guide us."  

There are dozens, if not hundreds of powerful tools for doing this.  The Danish citizen technology panels (mentioned in the previous memo) apply the wise democracy principle to provide their government with guidance on specific technical issues.  A new nonprofit institution in the U.S. called The National Commons is also issue-oriented, and aims to develop consensus among dozens of diverse people actively working on an issue, resulting in an agreed-upon program that they, themselves, put into action. 

In 1991 Canada's leading newsweekly magazine, Macleans, gathered twelve ordinary Canadians scientifically chosen to reflect the range of Canadian opinion about Canada's destiny who -- with the help of one of the world's top negotiators -- generated an extensive consensus document regarding Canada's future.  Both Macleans and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation gave significant coverage to this event.  (see )

Consultant Jim Rough has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that embodies the wise democracy principle.  He envisions that every year 24 registered voters would be randomly selected to a national, facilitated Citizens' Wisdom Council that would take a week to produce consensus statements about the State of the Union and any issues that concerned them.  Their statements would be publicly presented, and then discussed for a year until the next year's Citizens' Wisdom Council was formed.  (see and )

All these innovations are based on the three fundamentals of the wise democracy principle:
1)  DIVERSITY:  Select a group that embodies the diversity of the population they represent.
2)  PERSPECTIVE:  Give them access to a broad spectrum of information and perspectives.
3)  CONSENSUS:  Facilitate their dialogue towards shared understanding and deep consensus.

I see these innovations as tools to help us notice where we are going, to reflect on where we want to go, and to reweave our culture with healthy, rich relationships among ourselves and with the world around us.

I think the wise democracy principle is as radical an advance beyond elections and debates as elections and debates were beyond monarchy.  I believe that our current form of government cannot balance the rapid growth of corporate, economic, scientific and technological power.  I believe that this concentration of power in the hands of centralized institutions could very well be a death knell for democracy -- unless we can increase our capacity to generate collective wisdom.  That requires that we create institutions -- such as citizen technology panels, Citizen Wisdom Councils and The National Commons -- to do that. 

As troublesome as nanotechnology and the Brookhaven Black Hole experiment are, they are only symptoms of a deeper weakness in our culture and our democracy.  I am writing about these strange symptoms to suggest that the need to recreate our democracy is urgent.  Please send this essay on to others.  I will be trying to write simpler, shorter essays on this in the future -- and I invite you to do the same.  And I give you permission to use any or all of this (and the essay "It's time to jump out of the pot") in any way you wish as long as it remains in the public domain.  Because this isn't my issue.  It's ours.



_ _ _ _ _

Resources regarding dialogue include:
Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation - by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard (J. Wiley and Sons, 1998)
For a great list distinguishing dialogue from debate, see
For a general description of many types of dialogue, see