"There's plenty of room at the bottom"

1 minute read

Adam Keiper has an interesting Wall Street Journal piece about how a near-forgotten Richard Feynman lecture was raised from a history-of-science footnote, “Feynman and the futurists”:

Hoping to dissociate their nanotechnology work from dystopian scenarios and fringe futurists, some prominent mainstream researchers have taken to belittling Mr. [K. Eric] Drexler and his theories. And that is where Feynman re-enters the story: Mr. Drexler regularly invokes the 1959 lecture, which broadly corresponds with his own thinking. As he told Mr. Regis, the science writer: "It's kind of useful to have a Richard Feynman to point to as someone who stated some of the core conclusions. You can say to skeptics, 'Hey, argue with him!'" It is thanks to Mr. Drexler that we remember Feynman's lecture as crucial to nanotechnology, since Mr. Drexler has long used Feynman's reputation as a shield for his own.

There’s a lot of history-of-science-type writing, usually not written by historians of science, that highlights the “first person who thought X” kind of narrative. It’s often a self-serving way to give one’s own ideas an impressive-sounding pedigree. Or in the opposite case, to make your rival’s ideas seem like intellectual bastards. It’s disheartening to read very much of it – that was my experience reading Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.