Nanotechnology is the science of working with atoms and molecules to build extremely small entities that can often be assembled into higher order structures and devices. I work in a broad array of nanotechnologies, everything from medicine (working on traumatic brain injury, stroke and autoimmune diseases); surfaces for spacecraft with NASA; capturing and reducing the amount of CO2 that is released to the air; and making memory devices and alternative energy devices, such as batteries, supercapacitors, fuel cells and water-splitting catalysts.
Nanotechnology has many applications. Most fabrication by humans is top down. For example, you cut down a tree and make a table. But everything in nature, including you and me, is generally built from the bottom up. A seed grows and makes a tree. So with nanomachines, we envision how we might build from the bottom up. We are learning how to take small molecules and atoms and assemble them using nanomachines. In nature, for example, you eat a bagel this morning and then this afternoon it’s a part of your ear! These little nanomachines called enzymes break down those carbohydrates and apply them where they are needed in construction. What we want to be able to do is mimic this ex vivo, outside of an environment of a living entity.
And if we modify the DNA, we could go directly from seeds to the table. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Why do we get a tree-shaped object from these seeds? It’s all inscribed in the DNA. But there’s nothing to say that we can’t modify the DNA to go directly from seed to table.
I see molecular structure in everything, and it changes my perspective on things. Sometimes when I’m speaking to people, I’m looking in their eyes, and in my mind’s eye, I see the neurons firing and the protein synthesis occurring. If I look at a tree, I see the leaves, and in my mind’s eye, I envision a magnesium atom sitting in the middle of a porphyrin (the head of a chlorophyll molecule), and light comes in and hits that and it ejects an electron. And that starts the whole photosynthesis process. This is what I think about when I look at a tree. And so there’s a different depth of what I see in everything. In all objects I can immediately see the molecular composition in my mind’s eye. I am stressing this so that you realize the perspective that I have when I consider the properties and function of materials and systems. Furthermore, I’m telling you this so that you understand my perspective when I discuss Darwinian evolution. I see molecular structure in everything. This is the way I’ve been trained. Most biologists are not trained this way. I am living with the molecules. To me molecules are my friends, and I get to know them. And once you study molecules, they really take on characters so that you can predict what they will do. Those of us who have spent our time building molecules learn about molecular interaction, and we know what molecules do and what they don’t do.
Many people ask me, “How can you be a scientist and have faith?” Science has never shaken my faith. It’s actually strengthened my faith. And I’m not alone. Lord Kelvin, who helped develop the laws of thermodynamics, said, “The more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe science excludes atheism. If you think strongly enough, you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all religion.”
I watch a mosquito just flying around. Do you know how hard it is to build something that small, a package with a little brain that controls it? And then that brain is sensing me, and it’s sensing the molecules that I’m emitting, and they are drawing that mosquito to me. And after he stings, he starts emitting small molecules to call other mosquitos and to say, “Come, here’s meat. Right here!” All of this sophistication. And this organized flight. All this molecular sensing and interaction. Amazing design! All in a little package. Science will strengthen your faith. You look at this and you say, “Wow! How can this be done?”
Look at a cell. How does it operate chemically? It’s not just a bunch of protoplasm; it’s a factory. How do we get material from one end of a factory to another? With overhead tracks that move materials back and forth to areas of need in a factory. How do you get things to move from one side to another in a cell? Microtubules start constructing right across this cell to take material from one end of the cell to another along a track. And as soon as the material gets there, that microtubule breaks up into small molecules again. And then the cell uses those small molecules to build another track to bring in other material that’s needed. It constructs and deconstructs so rapidly. There is so much going on inside a cell. A lot of it we understand. But there is more that we don’t understand.
But as a scientist I want to understand it. It is not improper to ask the question, “By what chemical mechanisms does the cell function?” The very question spawns further investigation. And then we formulate a hypothesis. Maybe it does it by such and such a mechanism. And then we go in and we start looking at that. And as soon as that hypothesis is not substantiated, we have to come in with a new hypothesis. Any scientist would say, “Yes, this is how you do science.”
All of my colleagues are Darwinists, and I love them as people and deeply respect them as scientists. I hope that they feel the same way about me. Here I’m defining a Darwinist as one who holds that random mutation and natural selection account for the complexity of life. I don’t confront my colleagues. I just want to learn. So I ask questions.
I ask them to explain evolution to me from a chemical perspective. Show me the chemistry. How do small random molecules come together to form a complex living organism? Which comes first, the DNA or the cell membrane? You can’t have a DNA with a nucleus without a cell membrane. And you can’t get a cell membrane without DNA prescribing the membrane’s structure. You can’t get past first base from a chemical perspective. I have asked this question of Nobel Prize winners, National Academy members and the head of the National Institutes of Health. They have no answer. Not a word.
On my website (JMTour.com) I wrote: “Some are disconcerted or even angered that I signed a statement back in 2001 along with over 700 other scientists: ‘We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.’” People say to me, “Because you signed that, I can’t accept anything you say.” Look back at the statement. All it says is that I’m “skeptical of the claims.” It never says Darwinian evolution is wrong. It says careful examination of the evidence should be encouraged. Remember the cell? Every scientist would say, “Yes, there’s a lot we don’t understand there. We need to further investigate.” But with evolution, you can’t touch it. It’s become taboo.
I continue on my website:
I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me? Furthermore, when I, a non-conformist, ask proponents for clarification, they get flustered in public and confessional in private wherein they sheepishly confess that they really don’t understand either. Well, that is all I am saying: I do not understand. But I am saying it publicly as opposed to privately. Does anyone understand the chemical details behind macroevolution? If so, I would like to sit with that person and be taught, so I invite them to meet with me. Lunch will be my treat. Until then, I will maintain that no chemist understands, hence we are collectively bewildered.
That has been up on my website for ten years or so. Nobody’s come for lunch. How do you get macroevolution, one system changing into another? We do microevolution all the time in a test tube. But macroevolution, how does this happen chemically?
I sat with a Nobel Prize winner and a National Academy member in my office. They were upset with me that I had signed the statement. I looked at one of them and said, “Do you understand how macroevolution can happen?” And he just stared at me. So I asked the other one, “Do you understand it?” And he just stared at me. Their reluctance to answer is an answer in itself.
I was in Israel, and a biophysicist was telling me about his work. We have a rod in our ears. Its stiffness changes along the length of the rod, and that’s how we can hear different tones so well. As he was describing this to me, it was so fascinating; I stopped him and said, “Tell me. How does something like this evolve? Chemically, how does it happen?” He replied, “Jim, look. We all believe in evolution, but we have no idea how it happened!” And that’s exactly it. That is the first honest response I ever received. And so because I say the emperor has no clothes, people get upset.
I can’t disprove Darwinian evolution, nor do I want to. I just want to ask a few questions. If it makes you nervous, then you want to question, is this a religion or is this science?
Science is self-correcting. If Darwinian theory is correct, the chemical description will become evident. It may just be that we don’t know yet. That’s why I can’t disprove Darwinian theory. All I’m saying is right now we don’t have the chemical evidence. Let’s investigate further. I think we should have more research into this. I think we should teach it along with what we really know and what we don’t know. And just say this is a theory.
There may be another theory. Some people are upset that I say I’m not an intelligent design proponent. They think that if it’s not Darwinian then it must be ID, intelligent design. But that’s not the way science works. To say that because we don’t have an explanation, then God must have created it, can be viewed as a weak argument from a scientific perspective. I hold my colleagues to certain standards, where they need to show me, using the tools of chemistry, how Darwinian evolution takes place. They need to use the tools of the chemical sciences. Intelligent design doesn’t use those tools. ID advocates need to be held to the same scientific standard.
By my faith, by my Bible, I am very sympathetic to intelligent design. I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and everything that is on the earth. But I don’t know how to prove that using my tools of chemical science. I don’t know the details of how He did it.
Therefore, I see molecular structure in everything, and I am driven to understand the chemical mechanisms behind which molecular systems operate. Whether those systems are synthetic or biological, I want to understand. Unfortunately, in Darwinian theory, as it is now practiced, we are not permitted to ask the basic questions that underpin the theory—we are forced to accept it and then to propose constructs that substantiate that conjecture. It’s frustrating and ill-fated to do science this way. But science is self-correcting. So one day Darwinian theory will either be chemically substantiated or proven to be incorrect. Until then, I will continue to ask questions.