Into the Nanoworld
Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life. Richard A. L.
Jones. viii + 229 pp. Oxford University Press, 2004. $29.95.
Conversations about nanotechnology invariably wander, ranging
variously from science fact, on to scientific speculation, and often
into science fiction. These are truly the glory days for nanoscale
science. Scientists and engineers, artists and authors, dissidents
and dreamers all make important contributions to nanotechnology,
stretching its potential and defining its limitations.
Nanotechnology has opened a new world filled with possibilities: new
realms of discovery, new avenues for technical development and
endless scenarios for storytelling. I am reminded of 20th-century
space science, which captured the imagination of experts and
amateurs alike, turning scientific progress into a source of
national pride and making the starship Enterprise seem
every bit as real as Apollo 11.
Richard A. L. Jones, a professor in the Department of Physics and
Astronomy at the University of Sheffield, has provided a new entry
to the burgeoning literature on nanotechnology. In Soft
Machines: Nanotechnology and Life, he touches on a variety
of subjects in this ever-widening field. These include, to use his
classification, top-down methods (such as photolithography of
silicon), which are now reaching nanoscale levels;
bionanotechnology, "the 'Mad Max' or 'Scrap-heap challenge'
approach to nano-engineering"; biomimetic nanotechnology, which
takes its lead from biology but uses the tools of chemistry for
construction; and the "radical nanotechnology" of
mechanosynthesis in the style of K. Eric Drexler (author of the
influential 1986 book Engines of Creation).
Like a knowledgeable host making dinner conversation, Jones moves
from topic to topic with a stream of lively banter. We ask
"What is it like down there?" and our host tells us about
Brownian motion and dispersion forces, using Raquel Welch in
Fantastic Voyage to spice up the conversation. When the
discussion turns to molecular electronics, we get a healthy dose of
a recent science fraud scandal. When the topic is diamondoid
structures, we all smile, put in a quick plug for our favorite
science fiction novel and move on to more serious topics.
The book sparkles when the author turns to his own passion, the
properties of polymers. You can feel his excitement as he presents
the odd behavior of responsive gels and block copolymers. We watch
chains unfold and refold as rubber is stretched. My favorite part of
the book is his description of India ink. In a graphic paragraph, he
shows us how chains of gum arabic keep those messy black carbon
grains mixed into a smooth, flowing solution.
The description of biological nanomachines is less compelling,
however, because it is framed in the most general terms. Jones never
delves into the nanolevel details, in spite of the fact that many
biological molecules are characterized at the atomic level. Graham
Johnson's beautiful illustration of myosin function is one of the
few glimpses the book provides of the thousands of molecular
structures that are currently known. However, the reason for the
cursory description is clear: Jones has set himself a lot of ground
to cover and has only a few pages within which to fit it. Amusingly,
he recounts that biologists working in cell signaling "seem to
have completely lost their grip when it comes to nomenclature,"
citing such names for signaling proteins as Groucho, Hedgehog and
Dishevelled. It's easy to become mired in the fascinating details
when studying the biological realm, but Jones manages to avoid this
The book's mantra is its continual return to Brownian motion. Jones
states that "Brownian motion is a feature of the nanoworld that
nanotechnology will just have to learn to live with." He revels
in the way biological nanomachines harness this randomness—in
motors, in pumps, in assembly, in transport—and he chides
Drexler-style nanotechnology for ignoring it and instead imposing
macroscale physics on the nanoscale.
By the end of the book, Jones's vivid descriptions and diverse examples
have made me a believer. He tells us again and again to look inside
cells for inspiration, for methods and for raw materials when faced with
this challenging new world. Biological evolution may not have found the
best possible solutions to problems of nanoscale engineering, but as
Jones says at the close of the book, "I would be very surprised if
we can do better."—David S. Goodsell, Molecular Biology,
The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California