This review of “The Dance of Molecules : How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives”, by Ted Sargent, is published in today’s edition of Nature. The published version differs slightly from this unedited text, which is reproduced here by permission of Nature, and should not be further reproduced.
Every field needs its founding genius; the appropriately mythic figure for many in nanotechnology is Richard Feynman, on the strength of his 1960 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”. Yet this particular canonization is entirely retrospective; there’s little evidence that this lecture made much impact at the time, and Feynman rarely returned to the topic to develop his thoughts further. Perhaps a better candidate to be considered nanotechnology’s father figure is President Clinton, whose support of the USA’s National Nanotechnology Initiative converted overnight many industrious physicists, chemists and materials scientists into nanotechnologists. In this cynical (though popular) view, the idea of nanotechnology did not emerge naturally from its parent disciplines, but was imposed on the scientific community from outside. As a consequence, nanotechnology is a subject with an existential crisis – is there actually any firm core to this subject at all, any consensus as to what, at heart, defines nanotechnology?
This is the problematic territory that Sargent has tried to map out for the popular reader in “The Dance of Molecules”. How then, does Sargent deal with this tricky question of definition? “Nanotechnologists”, he says, “have as their goal to design and build matter to order, specified by a functional requirement”. This is fine, but it may leave followers of an earlier new discipline – Materials Science – puzzled, as this was their slogan too. He begins by maintaining the centrality of quantum mechanics, but really this is just an assertion of the centrality of chemistry. The title “The Dance of Molecules” might suggest the idea of Brownian motion, but this idea isn’t pursued. In the end he is forced to conclude that nanotechnology’s central theme isn’t scientific, but sociological – a new culture of interdisciplinarity that searches for convergence between increasingly atomized scientific fields.
There is one version of nanotechnology that does have clarity – K. Eric Drexler’s vision of scaled-down mechanical engineering. It is this revolutionary vision that underlies much of the popular image of nanotechnology, promoted through science fiction, films and computer games. Yet very few scientists take this version of nanotechnology seriously. This leaves a problem for popularizers who wish to reflect the scientific consensus. One can rebut these claims in detail, or one can simply dismiss them with appeals to the authority of distinguished scientists like the late Richard Smalley. Sargent takes a third course; he simply does not mention them. This seems to me to be the most unsatisfactory approach of all; if one thinks the Drexler vision is wrong, one should say so, otherwise the reading public, who are extensively exposed to these ideas, will be left very confused.
Lacking a strong science core, the book is written thematically, as a tour of application areas in health, environment and information. Quantum dots make frequent appearances, there’s quite a good description of molecular electronics, which is duly circumspect about the balance of potential and practical difficulty. The descriptions of bionanotechnology carry less conviction – the description of molecular motors seems particularly misleading. Many people will find the rather overwrought style irritating – perhaps the oddest of the many strange and strained metaphors and similes is his description of photolithography as being “like crop circles formed when the sun blazes through round partings in the English permacloud”.
Nanotechnology, above all an applied science, has been the subject of a possibly unprecedented push for early consideration of social, environmental and ethical impacts. Here the rhetoric is overwhelmingly positive, and the need for public engagement seen solely in terms of defusing possible opposition. We’re promised an end to cancer, the restoration of sight to the blind, and, via unconventional solar cells and the hydrogen economy, an end to our dependence on fossil fuels for energy. The possible downsides are largely limited to the potential toxicity of some nanoparticles. Even in military applications, the emphasis is on defensive applications and on the possibility that nanotechnology will make it much easier for the west to wage a “clean war”, in which combatants are easily distinguished from non-combatants. I don’t think you need to be a radical anti-technology activist to greet this claim with some scepticism.
The current difficulties of nanotechnology include its incompletely formed disciplinary identity and lack of clear definition, the overselling of its immediate potential economic and societal impacts, and its association with extreme utopian and dystopian futuristic visions. A good popular book could contribute to overcoming these difficulties by setting out a clear set of core scientific principles that underpin nanotechnology, making realistic claims for what applications and impacts will be possible on what timescale, and presenting a more sophisticated understanding of the relationships between science, the economy and society. This book does not fulfill this need.