A stimulating tour through current thinking about and future possibilities for nanotechnology, from one of its creators.
A quarter-century ago, Drexler (Future Technology/Oxford Univ.; Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, 1992, etc.) defined nanotechnology as a manufacturing technology using supermicro-scale devices to build products with atomic precision. Unfortunately, the media overhyped nanotechnology’s immediate prospects, and interest flagged and funding dried up. Regardless, advances in micromanufacture kept coming—consider, say, ultraviolet-light photolithography in semiconductor manufacture. Automatically precise manufacturing is to matter what computers are to information—radical and transformative, cutting costs, pushing range and performance, and sustainable in that it uses readily available atomic materials such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon and aluminum to precisely build products from the atom on up. Readers will enjoy Drexler’s tone: enthusiastic and energetic yet soberly realistic (“what stands out is that advanced nanomachines can closely resemble the machines that have enabled the Industrial Revolution”). The author is a good storyteller, too, for this is the journey of an idea, one that starts with an interest in space and investigations into molecular biology, chemistry and genetic engineering, as well as the inquiry/design tensions between scientists and engineers. There is so much that lies behind the word nanotechnology, and Drexler takes readers into that landscape, explaining mechanical scaling, thermal energy, the vast difference between analog and digital, the crazy, counterintuitive world of self-assembly and the dark magic of crystal-structure prediction. He never looks down on readers—go look it up if you need—and he obviously wants them to enjoy the prospects and understand how they work.
A crackerjack piece of science and technology writing.