Why Elon Musk is wrong about nanotechnology

June 1, 2018 by Mark Lorch, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

You might expect Elon Musk, the business magnate, engineer and serial entrepreneur would be a fan of all things techy. After all, his radical enterprises are built on pushing science to its limit. He's behind a raft of visionary projects ranging from Tesla's driverless electric cars and SpaceX's self-landing reusable rockets to plans for 1,000kph "hyperloop" trains. But it appears there is a size limit to Musk's technophilia. He recently tweeted that he thinks nanotechnology is "BS".

Folks on Twitter got a bit cross about this blanket dismissal of a field of research that bridges engineering, chemistry and physics. But Musk stuck to his guns, backing up his assertion by linking to Uncylcopedia, a crowd-edited satirical website, of all things.

So is nanotech just a buzzword used to jazz up some otherwise dull research? Or is it a real branch of scientific discovery that's actually making a difference to the world?

Nano means small, really small. One nanometre is just one billionth of metre. At this scale we're dealing with individual molecules and atoms (a carbon atom is about 0.3 nanometres across). So nanotech is about arranging matter that's between one nanometre and 100 nanometres across in at least one dimension, to create usable medicines, electronics and materials.

The idea of deliberately doing science and engineering at this scale may well have started back in 1959, with a talk entitled There's Plenty of Room at the Bottomby the great physicist Richard Feynman. But, in fact, people in ancient times used nanotechnology to create stunning works of art, without realising the scales at which they were manipulating matter.

Quantum dots

Today we've purposefully harnessed nanotechnology to do some incredible things. Take . They may sound like the name of a Belgian indie band but, in fact, these real and incredibly versatile nanomaterials are being used in medical imaging, display technologies and photovoltaic solar cells.

A quantum dot is a particle of semiconducting material just a few nanometres in diameter. Due to their miniscule size, they have electronic properties that sit between what you would expect for a single molecule and a larger bulk material. One of the most useful outcomes of this is that the dots fluoresce (glow) with a colour that depends on the size of the particle. This means that by tweaking the size of the dot you can tune the colours they give off. And that property makes them an ideal candidate for use in your next flat screen TV.


Nature has a jump on us when it comes to nanotech. The protein molecules that replicate your DNA, digest your food and fight off infections are all nano-sized machines perfectly evolved to do a specific job in your bodies. This makes them ideal places to look for inspiration when trying to engineer something on the nanoscale.

A great example of this in action is a technique known as nanopore DNA sequencing. This technology involves proteins called porins that are normally used by bacteria to allow materials to enter and leave the cells. The porins are placed in a membrane to create channels or pores through it, and an electrical field is then applied. When DNA is forced through the pores the electrical current changes in response to the part of the DNA molecule (the base) that is in the pore.

By measuring the current as the molecule passes through the pore you can work out what the bases that comprise it are and sequence the DNA. This can be done at breakneck speed – up to 450 bases a second – using a tiny desktop device.


You can't mention nanotech without graphene cropping up. It's been dubbed a wonder material due to its strength, conductivity and elasticity. Made up of two-dimensional arrays of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern, graphene sheets can be just a few atoms thick but with a total area nearer the size of a poster.

When mixed with resins and plastics, the resulting material will be incredibly strong and lightweight. Graphene-based composite materials are already being used for a range of applications including sporting equipment and vehicle body panels. Meanwhile graphene's electrical properties mean it can also enhance battery technologies.

Doesn't that sound like something an electric car manufacturer might want to look into?

Explore further: Why nanotechnology is more than just a buzzword

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not rated yet Jun 01, 2018
Elon also believes the universe is a Extraterrestrial simulation.

But, anyways, I find most of today's intellectuals a mixed bag; if not mixing science with their religion that dominates in their home country, they're good for one insight but then have all kinds of cookee ideas. Like Eric Drexler thought of nanotechnology, but then thought hyperlinks and economics would get people to be more rational. As far as I can tell Eric and the whole Foresight crowd just got bored with the idea. They had a whole software developed. But, you just knew what what going to happen . . everyone with their own version of science was gong to make hyperlinks comments on their own view of things. Everyone was just going to talk right past each other. So, I try to tell Eric about how mathematics works - questions assumtions, makes sure it's idealizatoins are not over/under generalized, . . i'll admit, and I told him it was rough draft! and how people are generally anti-ratoinal; Eric flips!
not rated yet Jun 01, 2018
O.k. here's another example, Richard Carrier has more or less taken the Jesus Chris is a myth field all to himself since the death of Acharya S a few years back. He'll tell you all kinds of things most of your university religious degree guys wont - like Jesus Christ is a sungod; actually, he doesn't go as far as Acharya S did, Jesus Christ was midrashed from the old testament. Midrashing is a kind of literary interpretation of old texts. You almost can't open the New Testament without they saying where they got their idea of Jesus Christ from - from scripture! But, just yesterday, or wednesday, I heard Richard Carrier laugh off the suggestion that Jesus Christ is pro-Roman. The interviewer quoted a Gospel passage "give Caesar what is his". And he just wrote it off. He even points out Romans 13 which says believe what the rulers(the Romans) tell you to believe.

- Look, it you read any Gospel, the interaction between Jesus Christ and Pontus Pilate, you'll see that Jesus . .
not rated yet Jun 01, 2018
You'll see that Jesus Christ is a Roman trick on the Jews. Pontus PIlate, in all the Gospels tells the Jews, we'll give you back Jesus Christ and keep this criminal Barsabas. And, in all the Gospels, the Jews are made to take the criminal and tell Pontus Pilate(the Romans essentially but also the Herodians!) to crucify Jesus Christ. This puts the blame on the Jews. In all the Gospels, Pontus PIlate(the Romans again), cleanses his hands of the crucification of Jesus Christ, and in John 19:15, the Jews even say "we have no other ruler by Caesar!"

- But, Richard Carrier of all critical scholars of Jesus Christ laughs off the suggestion that Jesus Christ is a pro-Roman Jew.

- Getting back to Eric Drexler, Eric Drexler comes up with this 'disruptive". I mean he's complaining about nanotechnology disrupting the polluting industrial past; so, now the scientific community spins the notion into some positive idea - i don't think anyone has ever really defined this positive spin
not rated yet Jun 01, 2018
- Today, no scientist or futuristic engineer ever quesitons this disruptive buzzword.

- Likewise, today, there his platonic elements(the Greeks physics idea that there's only four elements that makes up everything in the universe) Earth, wind, fire, water . . .in the idea of empathy. . . . no matter how many contradictions I point out to A.I. researchers for instance, about this modern day aether concept, they just keep on using it. They're as bad as Christians who say, well he says he's christian, therefore he must be good. He doesn't believe in God? He must be Satan! They just equate good with empathy. So, if you disprove this empathy concept(as if the human brain has the word empahty genetically engrained in it; as if any mathematical concept is genetically wired in the brain), they just take this to mean you're against being good! And they stop talking to you at all!
not rated yet Jun 01, 2018
O.k. let me get back to Richard Carrier again - Richard writes some book about Roman Scientists, and that Christians destroyed this Roman science in the city of Alexandria. I point out to him that there were no Roman scientists or engineers. Lucretius hardly counts. About all he did was say the sky is blue. The Romans never produced one mathematician. He points out Vitruvius to his credit; but, that's not much compared to the predominant reality; if the Romans wanted some science or engineering done, they brought in some Greeks.

- I point out that the scientists/engineers in Roman times were Greeks and this is called Hellenistic civilization. To say the least, he hasn't gotten back to me on this one.
not rated yet Jun 01, 2018
I could go much further; let me just note Norman Wildberger; a nice, seemingly rational man; who doesn't believe infinity is a concept that mathematics can handle. He totally disregards the whole work of George Cantor on(really Galileo also; Galileo notes the one-to-one correspondence between the even and odd numbers and the integers for that matter!). He's spent his entire life recasting mathematics in non-infinite methods. Or, at least he's tried to!

- This is just one example in the world of matheamtics. There's the whole foundations issue, and there's a lot of different ideas that various mathematicians try to put their stamp on the field with - from various forms of intuitionisms, to various forms of logicism and formalism.

- I've seen mathematicians jew and spit out other mathematicians on the issue of the axiom of choice. One guy taking it, and the other guy arguing for some strange never before heard of axiom to replace it!
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 01, 2018
Want to thank you flash for outlining some of the evidence for my contention. "That it takes the smartest of people to produce the stupidest mistakes!"

The fallibility of being Human. In a haphazard world. Amidst a chaotic cosmos.

Yep, Stupid Design, without a doubt or hope of remediation.
4 / 5 (4) Jun 01, 2018
As with all new tech we should be cautious about negative side effects. Nanotech research is important, but we shouldn't blindly throw it at anything and everything. Our bodies aren't designed to cope with nanoscale particles. Nanoscale pollution cannot be removed from the environment. Filters won't cut it. It's one of those things that don't have an 'undo' button (like nuclear power) - and that makes it potentiallly catastrophic.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2018
We're already having nano tech pollution problems.

We're also having something akin to nano pollution problems with the level of plastics in the ocean. Their breakdown and dispersion. Which is not surprising, with constant agitation, and the off- center pH of the oceans, and water being the universal solvent. Availability and bio availability are also connected to surface area and nano particles are a maximum surface area type of condition.

"Elon also believes the universe is a Extraterrestrial simulation."

That one, in the face of the logic and the evidence tied to the logic, is pretty well impossible to debate. It's a done deal. It's bog standard high level stuff. Planck, among many, also covered this. Full analysis of the complex data set says it is irrevocably true.

It's Elon's 'Socrates moment', as the emotions & lesser intellectual scope of most will force him to drink the hemlock. The animal in man, the fears of such revelations --will fight to make it go away.
not rated yet Jun 02, 2018
"Elon also believes the universe is a Extraterrestrial simulation."

That one, in the face of the logic and the evidence tied to the logic, is pretty well impossible to debate. It's a done deal. It's bog standard high level stuff. Planck, among many, also covered this. Full analysis of the complex data set says it is irrevocably true.

The universe simulation argument is just kicking the can down the road in explaining where the universe came from. It doesn't explain anything.

And it has the fundamental problem that the simulations must run slower than their "parent", and they cannot contain more information than the parent, so each recursive simulation must necessarily be vastly slower and simpler.

So the argument that we're probably in a simulation doesn't hold water. It's likely that if the universe contains one simulation of another universe, that simulation does not contain "life".
not rated yet Jun 02, 2018
It's just another one of those singularity religious ideas. In a simulation, you always trade accuracy and complexity for speed and energy efficiency.

If you want to have another universe in a computer, you either have to sacrifice accuracy to the point that it cannot evolve "life", or compute it longer than the life of your own universe to reach the point where that universe would evolve another civilization that could make another simulation that would make another simulation... etc.

Computing every aspect of even a single planet would probably require many times the mass-energy of said planet (E=mc^2) every computing cycle because handling information means handling energy. Every bit is an energy-state of something.

The simulation argument is based on the idea that there's so many of these nested simulated universes that if you pick one at random, you're most likely living a simulation. In reality, it's unlikely there's going to be even one simulation that has life.
not rated yet Jun 03, 2018
Eikka, you've built a straw man universe theory, so you can seemingly knock it down....

You've circled back on your own limited logic. (Not saying mine is any better)

You've got a lot of simulation theory tied to the world or thing you think you exist as/in.

Godel's incompleteness theorem rears it's head in this, a trap to try and avoid.

So one is stuck elevating the self to be able to find the missing links.

High level questions like this are as much about the questioner as the question itself. In the same way the fundamentals of this space are a function of the bubble of this space itself. Which is part of the why of requiring the energy of the universe to be able to 'beat or reach' light speed.

The ludicrousness of the q&a pairing on that one tell you all you need to know.

We can't reach light speed (travel) as the fundamental of the wave/particle is the arrow of the protrusion bubble itself. ie, time is a residual resonance coupling effect, as is mass.
1 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2018
I must compliment you guys for intelligently delineating why Stupid Design is a viable theory to explain the reality we experience. And not the reality we expect.

"If wishes were horses?" We'd all be spending a lot of time shoveling out the manure from the stables.

Instead? We get to shovel shit throughout our daily lives. And not one damn pony in sight!
not rated yet Jun 03, 2018
This is just how Elon thinks. He can't at this time imagine how to assemble macro-sized products atom by atom and molecule by molecule in any practical way. Frankly, I have problems with that too. In fact, I used to say that, while nano-fabrication of almost anything is possible, it would probably take a hundred years to fully assemble a banana, and, well, we all know how that banana is going to look after all that time. Now, however, nano-technological fabrication processes are done on a wholesale scale. We can use vapor deposition technologies to assemble molecule-thick layers of material entire layers at a time. That happens relatively quickly, and that's nano-assembly. There's nothing B.S. about the silicon chip industry, and nothing macro-scale about it either.

Elon just needs to do a little more thinking about the subject, that's all. Some day he might very well be fabricating the highest energy density batteries in the world using nano-assembly techniques.

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