On my nanotechnology bookshelf

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).

10 thoughts on “On my nanotechnology bookshelf”

  1. Hi!

    Interesting vibe about Nanosystems! 1992!

    Wow, have things moved on in the Nanosphere. Especially on the computing side.

    Thinking back to your previous posting regarding books on Nanotech. It is worrying that there is no CLEAR philosophical debate on the technical issues outside of Foresight and the singularity crowd! My biggest worry is the lack of co-ordination!

    Why is it that mainstream science does philosophy/public outreach so badly? (Let’s face it, why is the ‘face’ of nanotech someone like Drexler rather than say Mr Kroto of Buckyballs fame?)

    Ideas for a book I think!

  2. Another interesting set of books is Robert Freitas’ Nanomedicine series. Volume 1 in particular can be read as an update of Drexler’s Nanosystems and focuses primarily on the basics of mechanical nanotech mechanisms and systems rather than medicine as such. Volume IIA I did not think was so good, it is supposedly about biocompatibility but doesn’t really address the recent issues and concerns which have risen in that area.

    The books are available online in full at http://www.nanomedicine.com/ .

    A related online resource which touches on Drexlerian nanotech ideas is Freitas’ and Ralph Merkle’s Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, readable online from http://www.molecularassembler.com/ . This is an encyclopedic description of historical and modern ideas about self-replicating systems, including nanotech based assemblers. Self-replication is a key concept in Drexler’s model. This book includes a new “entry level” assembler design which is estimated to produce product at $100/gram.

  3. Zelah, your question about why mainstream science does outreach so badly is an interesting one. The rather boring but nonetheless true answer is that outreach is pretty much a full-time job, but doing science itself is all-consuming, if you want to do it well in today’s very competitive climate. A more poetic answer would be to quote Yeats’s suitably apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

    Hal, indeed the Freitas Nanomedicine books are interesting and I’ve referred to them online; my criticism would be that they are almost too encyclopedic and perhaps not quite critical enough. I’ve not had a chance to look at “Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines”.

  4. Thanks for the list. The thing that jumps out is that books from the Drexler “school” of nanotechnology seem to far outstrip other applications of nanotechnology. I wonder what the reason behind that might be.

  5. Deepak, is that entirely right? I list eleven books, of which only three are from the Drexler school. One can add the three books that Hal mentions on the Drexler side, but I missed out a number of other books taking the non-Drexler line – for example, the Dummies book, the Scientific American book and the other production from Ratner and son. And of course there is an uncountable number of technical books on various aspects of academic nanoscience.

  6. Richard

    I am not sure if my obersvation is entirely right, but I find that the average technical person is more familiar with “Engines of Creation” and some of the Merkle-Freitas work than with other books on nanotechnology. I think that the reason could be that the molecular manufacturing community has some rather visible people that are excellent communicators and great champions. On the flip side, most chemists (the group I am most familiar with) tend to look at nanotechnology as a natural evolution of what they have been doing.

  7. Indeed, I think there’s something in what you say, Deepak (though I would observe that I think Drexler and his school is a little less well known in Europe than in the USA). As I said, Drexler really is a very good writer, and his message is very direct and compelling. Academic nanoscientists, on the other hand, try to paint a more nuanced picture, with an emphasis on continuity with existing science (particularly the chemists, as you say), and this is a more difficult sell.

  8. Hi eric,

    I have a copy, unfortunately no equations but some great pictures.

    Interestingly I am looking at surface physics / chemistry courses many of which are free downloads from the web! When I read these lecture notes, it yet again show where Drexler is brilliant, which is his ability to show how different parts of chemistry / physics and biology come together!

    An amateur mathematician.

  9. I’ve not got your brother’s book, Eric, but the sample chapter looks very nice.

Comments are closed.