I’ve just done a brief interview with a journalist for the BBC’s Focus magazine, about the three popular science books on nanotechnology that have most inspired me. I’ve already written about my nanotechnology bookshelf, but this time when I came to choose my three favourite books to talk about it turns out that they weren’t directly about nanotechnology at all. So here’s my alternative list of three non-nanotechnology books that I think all nanotechnologists could benefit from reading.
The New Science of Strong Materials by J.E. Gordon. To say that this is the best book ever written about materials science might not sound like that high praise, but I was hugely inspired by this book when I read it as a teenager, and every time I re-read it I find in it another insight. It was first published in 1968, long before anyone was talking about nanotechnology, but it beautifully lays out the principles by which one might design materials from first principles, relating macroscopic properties to the ways in which their atoms and molecules are arranged, principles which even now are not always as well known as they should be to people who write about nanotechnology. It’s a forward looking book, but it’s also full of incidental detail about the history of technology and the science that has underlain the skills of craftsmen using materials through the ages. It also looks to the natural world, discussing what makes materials of biological origin, like wood, so good.
The Self-Made Tapestry by Philip Ball. Part of the appeal of this is the beauty of the pictures, depicting the familiar natural patterns of clouds and sand-dunes, as well as the intricate nanoscale structure of self-assembled block copolymer phases and the shells of diatoms. But alongside the illustrations there is an accurate and clear account of the principles of self-assembly and self-organisation, that cause these intricate patterns to emerge, not through the execution of any centralised plan, but as a result of the application of simple rules describing the interactions of the components of these systems.
Out of Control by Kevin Kelly. This is also about emergence, but it casts its net much more widely, to consider swarm behaviour in insects, economics and industrial ecologies, and flocks of insect-like robots. The common theme is the idea that one can gain power by relinquishing control, harnessing the power of adaptation and evolution in complex systems in which non-trivial behaviour arises from the collective actions of many interacting objects or agents. The style is evangelical, perhaps to the extent of overselling some of these ideas, and some may, like me, not be wholly comfortable with the libertarian outlook that underlies the extension of these ideas into political directions, but I still find it hugely provocative and exciting.