The Alchemy of Nanotechnology


"The science of alchemy I like very well, and indeed, 'tis the philosophy of the ancients. I like it not only for the profits it brings in melting metals, in decocting, preparing, extracting and distilling herbs, roots; I like it also for the sake of the allegory and secret signification, which is exceedingly fine, touching the resurrection of the dead at the last day."

- Martin Luther, Table Talk

[1] Throughout the middle ages, scientists and philosophers sought a method or substance that would transmute base metals into gold.  The means of this transformation was called the "philosopher's stone" and variously described as a solid material, a process, or an elixir that could not only produce gold but also perfect any substance, cure disease, and restore lost youth.  Alchemists, through their experiments, did come up with useful chemical and pharmacological substances, as noted by Luther in the quotation above. But they never did obtain unlimited gold.

[2] The claims for nanotechnology are strikingly similar to those of alchemy.  Nanotechnology shows two faces in today's world.  The first face matches the real results of medieval alchemy in that nanotechnology, as a method of materials science, has already produced a variety of new and improved products.  The second face matches the aspirations of alchemy; boosters of nanotechnology claim that it will ultimately give us a method through which one form of matter can be changed into any other, and will lead to unprecedented wealth, restoration of the body, and even life everlasting. 

[3] Let's explore the religious implications of each of these faces.

Hi-Tech Pants and Sunscreens
[4] There are already more than 600 new products on the market that involve nanomaterials or manufacturing processes, ranging from sunscreens to cosmetics, stain-resistant pants to improved tennis balls.  Researchers expect nanotechnology to provide improvements in computer technology, energy technology, medical diagnosis, and pollution cleanup within the next few years.  As a branch of materials science, nanotechnology provides us with improved products and tools that, while not life-changing, might certainly be life-enhancing.  Consider, for example, the new tennis balls.  They have an internal coating that keeps them from losing air.  The same technology might soon be applied to car tires, resulting in an improvement in tire inflation that could lead to a significant savings in fossil fuels and reduced pollution.

[5] Are there religious implications in this technology?  The development of such products falls well within an ethic of benevolence that calls on us to reduce human suffering, enhance human creativity, and engage in responsible stewardship of the earth's resources.   Theologian Ted Peters, in his book Playing God, notes that, "the task before us is to be good stewards of the advance of . . . science and technology so that it contributes to human welfare without creating new injustices."1   

[6] There is still much to do, before we will be good stewards of nanomaterials.  According to David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Woodrow Wilson Center, while over $1 billion was allocated to nanotechnology research in 2005 in the US alone, only $38 million of that has been spent on studies assessing the environmental or human risks of nanotechnology.  There are no governmental regulations on nanomaterials, and producing such regulations will be difficult, due to the very nature of the field.  Their extremely small size makes it hard to monitor nanoparticles outside of the laboratory, and the fact that nanomaterials can take on so many different structures means that the results of a study on one product are unlikely to apply to a different nanotechnological material.  Rejeski notes that these qualities of nanotechnology make for a "high potential for being surprised."2  

[7] Still, we have worked out ways to regulate a variety of technologies in the past.  Mainstream nanotechnology is not qualitatively different from conventional chemical engineering.  Some of its products will greatly enhance our lives; others will present some environmental or medical challenges.  None will change the very nature of our lives.  

The Philosopher's Stone
[8] But nanotechnology has, in theory, the potential to change the very nature of our lives.  Why stop at new and improved tennis balls?  Eric Drexler, one of the earliest visionaries of nanotechnology, explored the notion of molecular manufacturing as early as 1986, in his book Engines of Creation.  Drexler posits the development of molecule-sized machines that could construct products one atom at a time, thus manufacturing "anything that the laws of nature allow to exist."  We could finally turn base metals into gold.  Or into fresh food, fresh air, even items that have no static nature, such as "clothing that becomes your bath water and then your bed."  Nanosized robots could swarm through the bloodstream, repairing damaged cells, adjusting hair or skin color, and restoring lost youth.3  

[9] Could the dreams of the old alchemists finally become reality?  Adam Keiper, in The New Atlantis, notes that so far no solid argument has been advanced that proves these things could not be done, though a number of scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley of Rice University, dismiss Drexler's vision as "just a dream," one that will "always remain a fantasy."4    While no one yet knows how to make the molecular machines that could make these dreams a reality, neither has anyone found a fatal flaw in Drexler's theory. 

[10] Inventor Ray Kurzweil espouses Drexler's dream.  He expects that nanotechnology will be one among many technologies (such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetic engineering) that will lead to an irreversible change in human life as we know it.  Kurzweil asks what will remain unequivocally human in a world in which physical reality is as mutable as virtual reality.  His answer: "Ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations."5  

[11] Kurzweil's words echo those of Reinhold Niebuhr.  In The Nature and Destiny of Man Niebuhr notes that the essential nature of humanity contains a dilemma.  We are finite beings who envision, and thus, continually strive for the infinite.  Created in the image of God, "man can find his true norm only in the character of God but is nevertheless a creature who cannot and must not aspire to be God."6   The strength of this image within us is that we continually search for a transcendent God.  The downside is "man's willful refusal to acknowledge the finite and determinate character of his existence."7   It is in this refusal that Niebuhr locates the root of sin.

[12] The ultimate dreams of molecular manufacturing are the same as those of alchemy-total control over nature in the ability to transmute any substance into any other.  Niebuhr warns against such dreams, noting that modern culture fails to appreciate the human capacity for misusing any power:

[Our] ability to stand outside and beyond the world tempts man to megalomania and persuades him to regard himself as the god around and about whom the universe centers.  Yet he is too obviously involved in the flux and finiteness of nature to make such pretensions plausibly.8

[13] We think of ourselves as standing outside of nature, and therefore able to control it, yet we are a part of the natural world, and our control is always illusory.  Drexler himself notes the potential for error in molecular manufacturing and warns of a "gray goo problem" in which the molecular reassembling of raw materials could get out of hand and obliterate life on earth.  "Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident."9   Drexler co-founded the Foresight Institute, in part, in order to push for guidelines that would make such an accident unlikely.  This does not, however, obviate the possibility of nanotechnology being deliberately misused as a weapon of mass destruction.

[14] Do we want to live in a world of our own design?  Even in the best of scenarios, where laboratory mistakes are guarded against, and where nanotechnology is only used by the most responsible, one must ask this question.   Adam Keiper asks a similar question:  "Is there room for wonder in a future where atoms march at our command?"10    Niebuhr provides an answer:  "Both the meaning [of life] and its fulfillment are ascribed to a centre and source beyond ourselves.  We can participate in the fulfillment of the meaning only if we do not seek too proudly to appropriate the meaning as our secure possession or to effect the fulfillment by our own power."11

A Symbol of the Resurrection
[15] The greatest dreams for nanotechnology are dreams of immortality.  Robert Freitas, one of the leading writers on nanomedicine, predicts that nanosized robots equipped to repair cells and deliver medications will give us the ability to halt aging and even reverse it:

Once nanomachines are available, the ultimate dream of every healer, medicine man, and physician throughout recorded history will, at last, become a reality. Programmable and controllable microscale robots comprised of nanoscale parts fabricated to nanometer precision will allow medical doctors to execute curative and reconstructive procedures in the human body at the cellular and molecular levels. . . [T]he ability to direct events in a controlled fashion at the cellular level is the key that will unlock the indefinite extension of human health and the expansion of human abilities.12

[16] Several hundreds of people in the extropian movement have paid to have their bodies frozen in hopes of a nanotechnological resurrection at some future date. But we must note that this is far from the resurrection promised in the Gospel, which is not about more time in our current finite bodies, but the promise that we will ultimately transcend time and in this transcendence, as Paul notes, "we will all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51).

[17] Yet nanotechnology is about nothing if it is not about change and the ability to change.  Luther ends his comment on alchemy, with which I began this essay, by noting that one of alchemy's virtues is its ability to symbolize the transformation of the human being that will occur in our resurrection.  Alchemy was never only a physical science; the principles of alchemy were as much, or more, about the ability to change the human heart from something base into something golden.  Nanotechnology could act for us as a similar metaphor.  For at its root it points out that everything around us is not static and immutable, but is formed of atoms that are in continual motion, and that, while they form one thing now, could easily become something else.  So, we note that we may be one thing now, but, by the grace of God, we too are in a process of change, growing in His image and likeness and will ultimately be something else.  The world that seems so solid and real may ultimately be quite malleable.  In this we can find a new source of wonder and a new appreciation for the dynamic natures of both the universe and of our own souls.

End Notes
1  Ted Peters. Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2003), 2.

3  Eric Drexler. Engines of Creation: The coming Era of Nanotechnology (New York: Anchor, 1986), reprinted on the web at

4  Adam Keiper, "The Nanotechnology Revolution," in The New Atlantis, Summer 2003. Online at, 5.

5  Ray Kurzweil, "The Next Frontier," in Science and Spirit, November/December 2005, 69.

6  Reinhold Niebuhr. The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 163.

7  Ibid., 177.

8  Ibid., 124-25

9  Drexler, chapter 11.

10  Keiper, 13.

11  Niebuhr, 298.



© February 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 2