Nanotech intro for the rest of us

nanocover.jpg

Book cover image from Amazon.

Nano, the emerging science of nanotechnology. Ed Regis.

I picked this book up at our Friends of the Library bookstore for a quarter, though when I saw the publication date of 1995 I had second thoughts. How could so old a book, on such a fast-moving aspect of technology, be worth reading?

But when I started it I was immediately drawn in, and after finishing it conclude that for us non-scientists, as well as for those interested in the background and implications of the whole “nano” idea, the book is well worthwhile. The focus is on Eric Drexler, who as an MIT engineering undergrad in 1976 formulated the basic idea of assembling substances or structures one molecule or atom at a time, and became what Apple used to call an evangelist for the idea for the succeeding decades.

Drexler was not the first to discuss the possibility of such constructions––that honor goes to the ingenious mind of Richard Feynman who broached the topic in a 1959 lecture––but he expanded upon it, foresaw not only multiple uses but also some of the social/economic consequences of a technology which could lead to all of us having tabletop “matter assemblers” which could produce anything, from a ribeye steak to car parts, using just about any old “stuff” as raw material. And Drexler organized others into a bi-coastal league of nano-fans to brainstorm, research, and support the vision. At least, he did that after the first few years when anxiety about the social impact, or the possibility of runaway assemblers covering the earth with “grey goo,” led him to keep the idea more or less under wraps.

Ed Regis is an experienced science writer of the sort that used to be dismissed as “popularizers,” because they write for the general reader, one who’s interested, educated, but not schooled in the particular branch of science under discussion. He writes for publications like the NY Times, Wired, and Scientific American, as well as writing books. He’s good at what he does.

This book, for example, explains Brownian motion (the jumping about that individual particles, from atoms to pollen grains, do when suspended in liquid) and the workings of scanning tunnelling microscopes (which proved able to manipulate individual atoms), and other such things, well enough that I was able to explain them to someone else. That doesn’t mean I have any real inkling of the physics or mathematics of it all but I have a degree of layman’s understanding which enables me to follow the discussion, and I can build on it if I wish to read more.

Brownian motion was early raised as a theoretical objection to the concept of moving atoms around to construct molecules: how could you do it if your atoms wouldn’t stay put? An early response was, “If our own cells can make molecules, then it can be done.” A later response was the demonstration that it had been done; researchers pushed atoms around to make letters and pictures. Since then, other researchers have used enzymes or gene-altered microorganisms to tailor-make specific molecules.

Regis includes a lot of what could be disparaged as unscientific human interest detail–personalities, anecdotes–but to me this added more than just readability, it added another dimension. The original concerns about the human future which motivated Drexler to think about fundamental technological change, the ability of a high school student to make his own scanning tunneling electron microscope, the accounts of scientific rivalries and misunderstandings, these have a place in a popular account of a technology that is so mind-boggling and promises or threatens such far-reaching upheavals in society.

As I finished, the question in my mind was “Why haven’t I heard more about huge strides in this technology in the years since the book’s publication in 1995?” I’m looking into that question now, with much more comprehension than I had before reading Regis’s book.

Further information

Books by Ed Regis at Amazon

Nanotech site interview of Regis

Same site’s links to articles, current uses, etc.

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