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A one thousand-year-old history lesson awaits those who would deem the cutting edge wicked

Damascus steel was forged using a process of carbon doping iron in a smelting and quenching process.  This steel became famous almost a thousand years ago; it was said a Damascus sword would cut through falling silk, a rock, and then another piece of silk while still keeping its razor sharp edge. 

The ability to make the Damascus steel was lost with the ages.   Blademasters would often take the secret of the forging process to the grave rather than reveal its mysteries. Many were persecuted as heretics, others heralded as deities.

A study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that more than 70% of 1,015 surveyed Americans deem nanotechnology morally repulsive.  Professor Dietram Scheufele attributes this repugnance for technology to American reliance on religion. 

It's easy to say that perhaps the 1,000 Americans surveyed are just not that bright.  Scheufele disagrees, stating, "They are rejecting it based on religious beliefs. The issue isn't about informing these people. They are informed."

Scheufele believes that Americans who disprove of nanotechnology do not want humans "playing God."  That is, man manipulating structures of one nanometer, one billionth of a meter, is akin to God manipulating the forces of the universe.

In 2006 German researcher Peter Paufler discovered (with the aid of a sub-nanotechnology, the electron microscope) that a four hundred-year-old Damascus steel sword gained its incredible properties from carbon nanotube structures within the blade's edge.  Fifteen years earlier NEC created the world's first synthetic nanotube. One year later it was awarded the patent for one of the sharpest materials on earth, a plasma polished carbon nanotube blade.

Science has always bordered on the fence of terrifying and mysterious.  Civilization lost the secrets of Damascus steel making when then modern thinkers deemed it a practice of deus ex hominis.

Attempting to describe the morality of natural phenomena leads to an exercise in natural fallacy. Not once, in the history of mankind, has science ever been proven immoral -- and conversely -- nor has it ever been proven moral either. 

Will society deitize nano-researchers as modern day Damascus blademasters, or will it learn to look beyond the meta-ethics of natural phenomena for a change?


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As an aside...
By masher2 (blog) on 2/23/2008 2:31:38 PM , Rating: 4
> "The ability to make the Damascus steel was lost with the ages..."

The above is an excellent example of the value of the patent system. Rather than protecting your invention by keeping it a trade secret, you can choose to patent it...but in so doing, you ensure that (after a very brief period) it enters the public domain, free to humanity forever.




RE: As an aside...
By jbartabas on 2/23/2008 2:47:46 PM , Rating: 2
Good point about the patent system, but it does not apply to the example. No way that the only 'protection' for a 'revolutionary' weapon can be a patent ...


RE: As an aside...
By masher2 (blog) on 2/23/2008 2:51:55 PM , Rating: 2
But Damascus steel wasn't kept secret for a military advantage. It was kept so for economic reasons -- a skilled metalsmith had a strong incentive to make sure no one but him (and perhaps a few apprentices) knew his secrets.

Fast-forward to today, where modern metallurgists don't keep their alloys and methods trade secrets. They patent them...and thereby open them up to the entire world.


RE: As an aside...
By jbartabas on 2/23/2008 3:20:19 PM , Rating: 2
You're right about the economic motivation for secrecy.
But that's not the point. The point is would a patent system would have prevented this secrecy and the loss of knowledge that resulted. Let's imagine for a second that a generous and visionary metalsmith would have decided to patent his technique, and that a decent copyright legislation was in place locally. I doubt that at a time of war with neighbors (or even at time of internal war)... the patent would be of any effect. The patent system has some stringent prerequisites to be really efficient.

I don't know exactly what's the situation nowadays, but I'd be surprised if even the most advanced pieces of military equipment were patented ... Some stuff are just meant to stay relatively secret.


RE: As an aside...
By masher2 (blog) on 2/23/2008 3:53:43 PM , Rating: 2
> " Let's imagine for a second that a generous and visionary metalsmith would have decided to patent his technique"

That's just the point. A person doesn't need to be "generous and visionary" to be motivated to patent their innovation. The system rewards them for doing so. It's a win-win situation.

> "I doubt that at a time of war with neighbors (or even at time of internal war)... the patent would be of any effect"

Quite obviously, if the patent isn't protected, the system fails.

> "I'd be surprised if even the most advanced pieces of military equipment were patented "

They aren't. The government has an alternative reimbursement system, however, for innovations which it protects via secrecy, rather than patents.


RE: As an aside...
By jbartabas on 2/23/2008 4:17:54 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
That's just the point. A person doesn't need to be "generous and visionary" to be motivated to patent their innovation. The system rewards them for doing so. It's a win-win situation.


Considering the rarity of knowledge at that time, I am sure people who knew this kind of secret were doing very fine and I doubt that a patent system would have been a win for them...

quote:
Quite obviously, if the patent isn't protected, the system fails.

There are some inventions that are of too critical interest to not have the best system fail. A simple example, imagine that someone discovers a technique to enrich the uranium to weapon grade that is cheap, fast and very hard to detect. Patent it and try to enforce the strict use of the technique by authorized people ...

But enough with that, I agree with your general point about invention and patents, it's just that I am not sure that this particular example would have applied, although we'll obviously never know.


RE: As an aside...
By masher2 (blog) on 2/23/2008 4:37:37 PM , Rating: 2
> "Considering the rarity of knowledge at that time..."

My point was that the rarity was due in large part to a total lack of incentive to share knowledge. Except for sheer altruism, there was no real reason to do so. Damascus steel is just one example of thousands of industrial secrets that were lost throughout history.


RE: As an aside...
By jbartabas on 2/23/2008 4:54:17 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
My point was that the rarity was due in large part to a total lack of incentive to share knowledge.


I do agree with that. Also lots of modern devices require so many people in the designing&manufacturing process that total secrecy would be almost impossible to achieve (not even mentioning reverse engineering of the final product). Therefore it seems to me that the patent system was certainly a critical element to reach the level of technology we've reached today, because it is a much better guaranty that technology innovation will be exploited without being 'stolen' right away ... and after a reasonable time, you can let the others try to do it better, faster and cheaper :-D


RE: As an aside...
By lexluthermiester on 2/24/2008 4:56:29 AM , Rating: 2
Excellent point about the patent system. The copyright system needs to be reshaped to work in a similar way.

Still I think Damascus steel is a myth. Even if you make such metal, and manage to shape it into a sword, once it cools, how would you sharpen it? Back then[as today] stone was used to sharpen swords and cutting tools. If a Damascus sword could cut through a rock wrapped in silk without loosing it's razor sharp edge, how could stone be used to sharpen the very same weapon in the first place? Today we might have a way, but not back then... Simple physics, reason and logic are all thats needed to conclude that Damascus steel is most likely a total myth...


RE: As an aside...
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 2/24/2008 11:09:05 AM , Rating: 2
Well, Damascus steel swords are still around. The Japanese had a very similar technique (watered steel) and that has been preserved throughout the ages.

Check out the forging process. It's totally incredible and explains how the ancients ended up with such sharp edges, even though they didn't know they were building nanostructures.


RE: As an aside...
By masher2 (blog) on 2/24/2008 12:26:08 PM , Rating: 2
Wikipedia entry aside, the criteria I remember for a Damascus blade had nothing to do with cutting rock. A true Damascus blade had to pass three tests:

a. Be sharpened fine enough to cut a silk scarf floating in air.
b. Be tough enough to carve the metal of lesser blades
c. Be able to be bent 180 degrees (tip-to-hilt) without breaking or deforming.


RE: As an aside...
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 2/25/2008 11:58:04 AM , Rating: 2
The reference is from Al Kindi's "Metaphysics"

It's a fantastic but difficult read about astronomy, religion, politics, science, technology and mathematics; authored in 800 AD. He was a true Renaissance man hundreds of years before his European counterparts.


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