Nanotech angels

Kabbalah and nanotechnology share unexpected common ground: They are testament to the incomprehensible infinite.

Published October 7, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Back in 1984, IBM sent an obscure University of Kentucky professor on a mission to study the flow of toner in copy machines. To any other scientist, the project might have been seen as "busy work," void of significance. But to Mike Roco, now the chief architect of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, nothing on a small scale is ever insignificant.

As Roco spent hours contemplating tiny specks of toner, he had a revelation. Something really bizarre was happening once he zoomed in to the nanoscale, a realm where distances are measured in atomic lengths. The bits of toner transformed themselves from solid to liquid depending on their dimensions, shapes, or the distances between them and their neighbors. He saw for himself that the building blocks of nature -- whether liquid, solid, plasma or gas -- could theoretically be manipulated into, well, anything. All things converged on the nanoscale.

Two decades later, Roco's larger mission in U.S. nanotech policy is to bring about the conditions for differing schools of technology to converge. Physics, chemistry, biology? Don't mind the gap. It doesn't exist.

Or, according to one nanotech observer:

"The genius of nanotechnology is the reduction of space. Smaller is infinitely more powerful ... Today, scientists recognize that less matter and less space, not more, equals more raw power." And the closer scientists look, "the more they realize that it's not about physical matter at all, but about energy."

The observer quoted here is no scientist: He's Rabbi Yehuda Berg, Madonna's personal guide into Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. Madonna's rabbi sees incredible similarities between Kabbalah and nanotechnology, similarities that bring the worlds of science and spirituality into unexpected harmony.

Today, Kabbalah is enjoying a surge in popular interest and appreciation. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, is often viewed with suspicion: How will these new materials interact with the human body and the environment? Could run-amok nanotech replicators turn the world into gray goo? Nanotechnology has a P.R. problem -- could a little spirituality help?

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To a Kabbalist, the Torah has many tiers -- and the Bible stories that have come down to our generation are only the most simple, literal translations. To these scholars, every single word, letter, number combination -- and even the spaces between them -- bring with them different levels of truth. The most brilliant men of Medieval Jewry, shut out of any other profession in which their intellect could be used, employed their mind power to reflect on not only the minutiae of Jewish law but also the way in which the laws were written.

In Hebrew, each character can also represent a number. So, the math savvy among them, as they contemplated God, could not help but contemplate infinity as well.

Kabbalists believe that "Creation" is constantly taking place, that the universe itself exists on a continuum of interdependent realms. God, they say, is a "verb," not a thing but the sum of all things -- a process that ties all things together at its most basic level. Like the famous "butterfly effect," your actions, your thoughts, your deeds, have ripple effects. But if God, or nature, is infinite, how can that ripple have had a beginning or an end, and how could it have moved from point A to point B with infinite fractions in between?

Like their contemporaries in science, the Kabbalists attempted to comprehend the nature of infinity. They had no atomic force microscopes to see the physical evidence of this, but they knew intuitively that the smaller you got, the more order broke down. It had to, given their belief that the universe contains sparks of the divine.

They shared with the most brilliant scientists the idea that the material world is connected to something other than the sum of its parts. The universe is not made out of particles. In its core, it is energy, waves, strings. But to contemplate its nature, to figure out how anything comes together in the first place is, to Kabbalists, to contemplate the nature of God.

It took Kabbalists centuries to elaborate their magnificent structure of spirituality to that point. The scientific world took a few millennia to figure out the same basic idea, too.

Most Philosophy 101 students are hit on day one with Zeno's Paradox -- that mind-blowing puzzle by the crafty ancient Greek that proves motion is impossible if you assume that space and time can be subdivided infinitely many times, or the one that says you can never leave a room because there are an infinite number of fractional distances to cross along the way.

It's a disturbing thought experiment, and the idea of infinite steps between "1" and "2" consumed many a scientist over the next few millennia, driving some to madness.

Most notable of these mad scientists was Georg Cantor, who was consumed with paralyzing depression every time his work became trapped in that same continuum of infinite interdependent realms central to Kabbalah. Finally, he reached a formula that, appropriately, used the Hebrew letter aleph to represent infinity. His formulas took humanity and mathematics to the next level. But he never solved the insolvable paradox and went to his grave muttering incomprehensibly about Francis Bacon being the true author of Shakespeare's work.

The truth is, humankind's way of representing space and time is flawed. Since Cantor's time, more sophisticated formulas have been devised to think about infinity and the continuum. But they are still inadequate and imperfect, even if they are likely the best that we can do within our limited frame of reference. To truly study something in the context of its place, you need to step outside it.

When Cantor touched the ceiling of current scientific understanding, many of his contemporaries rejected what they did not understand, but he found that religious leaders were the ones who most took to the concept. Certainly the Kabbalists understood. They had arrived at the same place centuries earlier -- only they did it via reverse-engineering. Kabbalah scholars start with the premise that human comprehension of the infinite is not possible. So, they begin with the incompressible infinite -- what they call the "Ein Sof," or the highest emanation of God, and they count backward into lower levels, lower frames of reference, that can be quantified. These are the sefirot, or lower emanations of God.

The Kabbalists' representations of the infinite and levels of the infinite are no more or less superstitious than Cantor's formulas. The language is different, and different goals were pursued, but the quest ultimately leads both the best scientists and the best of the religious grasping toward the same ultimately unattainable goal of total human comprehension of the infinite, of Ein Sof, of God -- you choose which word you want to use.

Nanotechnologists, too, are now thinking about new frames of reference within the continuum. They need to if the science is going to develop much further. The scientists pondering these issues are not necessarily the ones working for the nanotechnology companies you see in the headlines these days: The business community that churns its engines of commerce to crank out stain-free pants and smaller-featured semiconductors bears as much resemblance to nanotechnology's original dreamers as, say, the pop "Kabbalists" who buy red string at Target do to the great Jewish thinkers who devised the complex series of Jewish teachings.

The nanotechnologists who concern themselves with continuum mechanics are the ones who are modeling the complicated nanosystems of the future. Remember Roco and that toner that acted funny on the nanoscale? Well, if scientists want to control matter on that scale and tailor chemical reactions, flow effects, electrical fields and other properties so that particles do exactly what they want when they want, there's going to need to be some serious calculating into the continuum. You need a more-accurate calculator that can reach into these tiny dimensions. You've got to dig into more levels of infinity and come up with exact numbers -- force the unknown into the predictable.

But like the Kabbalists contemplating Ein Sof, the best they can do is devise a series of lower emanations -- approximations that get closer to the infinitely small, if not all the way there.

There is, of necessity, a line to be drawn here. A faith-based system and a science-oriented system must part company at some point. But the two are philosophically similar. Both nanotechnologists and those who study Kabbalah talk of a sense of convergence, a sense of disciplines becoming interconnected, of the ability to manipulate -- and set right -- the foundation of matter and "spirit."

Ironically, however, this idea of "playing God," of tapping into this infinitely connected world, is at the root of both the promise and the fear of nanotechnology.

Some who sound warning bells against nanotechnology play on this. Jim Thomas, of the anti-nanotech group ETC Group, wrote: "It all adds up to a little Bang (Bits, Atoms, Neurons, Genes) theory enabling a godlike level of control over knowledge, matter, mind and life. But who gets to be master of the universe?"

Depending on your preconceived notions, the concepts inherent in nanotechnology can be manipulated into any worldview you'd like. This idea of "convergence," though, was very much on the minds of the early Kabbalists, who also integrated other religious concepts -- from the Greeks and Buddhists -- into this soup.

Science left religion at the altar back in Galileo's time, and many scientists are still stuck with 17th century ideas of what religion is or means to many people. But nanotechnologists have every reason to embrace their ancient pious enemy. Religion can give them the imagery they need to inspire the public.

The mantra in the nanotech industry is to learn from the mistakes made in biotechnology and the public rejection of genetically modified organisms. Partly to blame was a "top-down" attitude taken by a scientific establishment that was much too self-important to bother with public attitudes and perceptions. So, consideration of "societal and ethical implications" is No. 1 on the nanotech industry's list. However, part of that process involves paying attention to the separate philosophical and religious societies in the world. Not the abstract "society" of a scientist's dream -- one that will listen to scientific explanations and reach "correct" conclusions based on the strength and logic of their arguments -- but the real society that's out there, the one that laughs at, or adores, Madonna and wears red strings, the one that crowds around old barns in rundown villages to gaze at a stain that they swear is the image of the original Madonna, the one that drops to its knees and faces Mecca five times a day, or faces toward Jerusalem every Friday night to welcome the bride of Shabbat.

If nanoscientists just can't stomach any kind of cavorting with the religious, they should take a look inside their own camp. Take this quotation, for example:

"Here is God's purpose -- God, to me, it seems, is a verb not a noun, proper or improper; is the articulation not the art, objective or subjective; is loving, not the abstraction 'love' commanded or entreated; is knowledge dynamic, not legislative code, not proclamation law; not academic dogma, not ecclesiastic canon. Yes, God is a verb, the most active, connoting the vast harmonic reordering of the universe from unleashed chaos of energy."

Just what New Age crystal-wielding, red-string-knotting nut wrote that? It was R. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and an icon of the nanotechnology revolution. When nanoscientist Richard Smalley and his team discovered the miracle molecule C60 -- 60 carbon atoms all perfectly patched together like a soccer ball -- they named the thing buckminsterfullerene (aka buckyball) in honor of Fuller. To nanotechnologists, this is not just a symbolic homage. The buckyball holds such wonderful possibilities because of its perfect shape -- the way its curvature places strain not on any one point of the structure, but spreads it around, each bend and curve supporting the other equally. That's what gives the buckyball its great strength.

While they're marveling at the molecule, they should also take a closer look at the man. To Fuller, the geodesic dome is more than just another shape he tried out. It truly represents the way he sees the interconnectedness of the universe.

As Fuller said: "There are no solids. There are no things. There are only interfering and noninterfering patterns operative in pure principle, and principles are eternal."

Or, if you prefer, as Madonna said: "I choose to look at myself as a person who's now awake and a person who's now trying to be part of the order, not the chaos, of the world."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.

By Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is a freelance writer who specializes in the business, politics, science and culture of nanotechnology.

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