Following my recent rather negative review of a recent book on nanotechnology, a commenter asked me for some more positive recommendations about books on nanotechnology that are worth reading. So here’s a list of nanotechnology books old and new with brief comments. The only criterion for inclusion on this list is that I have a copy of the book in question; I know that there are a few obvious gaps. I’ll list them in the order in which they were published:
Engines of Creation, by K. Eric Drexler (1986). The original book which launched the idea of nanotechnology into popular consciousness, and still very much worth reading. Given the controversy that Drexler has attracted in recent years, it’s easy to forget that he’s a great writer, with a very fertile imagination. What Drexler brought to the idea of nanotechnology, which then was dominated, on the one hand by precision mechanical engineering (this is the world that the word nanotechnology, coined by Taniguchi, originally came from), and on the other by the microelectronics industry, was an appreciation of the importance of cell biology as an exemplar of nanoscale machines and devices and of ultra-precise nanoscale chemical operations.
Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation , by K. Eric Drexler (1992). This is Drexler’s technical book, outlining his particular vision of nanotechnology – “the principles of mechanical engineering applied to chemistry” – in detail. Very much in the category of books that are often cited, but seldom read – I have, though, read it, in some detail. The proponents of the Drexler vision are in the habit of dismissing any objection with the words “it’s all been worked out in ‘Nanosystems'”. This is often not actually true; despite the deliberately dry and textbook-like tone, and the many quite complex calculations (which are largely based on science that was certainly sound at the time of writing, though there are a few heroic assumptions that need to be made), many of the central designs are left as outlines, with much detail left to be filled in. My ultimate conclusion is that this approach to nanotechnology will turn out to have been a blind alley, though in the process of thinking through the advantages and disadvantages of the mechanical approach we will have learned a lot about how radical nanotechnology will need to be done.
Molecular Devices and Machines : A Journey into the Nanoworld , by Vincenzo Balzani, Alberto Credi and Margherita Venturi (2003). The most recent addition to my bookshelf, I’ve not finished reading it yet, but it’s good so far. This is a technical (and expensive) book, giving an overview of the approach to radical nanotechnology through supramolecular chemistry. This is perhaps the part of academic nanoscience that is closest to the Drexler vision, in that the explicit goal is to make molecular scale machines and devices, though the methods and philosophy are rather different from the mechanical approach. A must, if you’re fascinated by cis-trans isomerisation in azobenzene and intermolecular motions in rotaxanes (and if you’re not, you probably should be).
Bionanotechnology : Lessons from Nature, by David Goodsell (2004). I’m a great admirer of the work of David Goodsell as a writer and illustrator of modern cell biology, and this is a really good overview of the biology that provides both inspiration and raw materials for nanobiotechnology.
Soft Machines : Nanotechnology and Life, by Richard Jones (2004). Obviously I can’t comment on this, apart from to say that three years on I wouldn’t have written it substantially differently.
Nanotechnology and Homeland Security: New Weapons for New Wars , by Daniel and Mark Ratner (2004). I still resent the money I spent on this cynically titled and empty book.
Nanoscale Science and Technology, eds Rob Kelsall, Ian Hamley and Mark Geoghegan (2005). A textbook at the advanced undergraduate/postgraduate level, giving a very broad overview of modern nanoscience. I’m not really an objective commentator, as I co-wrote two of the chapters (on bionanotechnology and macromolecules at interfaces), but I like the way this book combines the hard (semiconductor nanotechnology and nanomagnetism) and the soft (self-assembly and bionano).
Nanofuture: What’s Next For Nanotechnology , by J. Storrs Hall (2005). Best thought of as an update of Engines of Creation, this is a an attractive and well-written presentation of the Drexler vision of nanotechnology. I entirely disagree with the premise, of course.
Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz, by David Berube (2006). A book, not about the science, but about nanotechnology as a social and political phenomenon. I reviewed in detail here. I’ve been referring to it quite a lot recently, and am increasingly appreciating the dry humour hidden within its rather complete historical chronicle.
The Dance of Molecules : How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives , by Ted Sargent (2006). Reviewed by me here, it’s probably fairly clear that I didn’t like it much.
The Nanotech Pioneers : Where Are They Taking Us?, by Steve Edwards (2006). In contrast to the previous one, I did like this book, which I can recommend as a good, insightful and fairly nanohype-free introduction to the area. I’ve written a full review of this, which will appear in “Physics World” next month (and here also, copyright permitting).