Travelogues from Lilliput
The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our
Lives. Ted Sargent. x + 234 pp. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006. $25.
Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz. David
Berube. Foreword by Mihail C. Roco. 521 pp. Prometheus Books, 2006. $28.
Nanotech! What is it? The term nano (as used in such
compounds as nanoscience and nanotechnology), once
an obscure adjective found primarily in discussions of electronics,
has come in recent years to be identified with exciting discoveries
in the physical sciences. The proponents of nanoresearch have ranged
from thoughtful, conservative scientists to the most ardent of
enthusiasts, and the claims for it have ranged accordingly.
Most new areas of study start life swaddled in optimism; but at a
certain point in their adolescence, it is important to have some
sense of whether their promise to change the way we think and live
will ever become reality. It is still not clear what nanoscience
will grow up to be. Two recent books—The Dance of the
Molecules, by Ted Sargent, and Nano-Hype, by David
Berube—are, in different ways, efforts to explain the field to outsiders.
The Dance of Molecules is the ideal book for your favorite
science-infatuated high-school-age niece—someone in love with
the potential of science, someone who wants to be amazed and
excited, someone who is not too concerned with such picky adjectives
as "accurate" or "realistic." In contrast,
Nano-Hype is for those who would really like to know the
history of nanoscience and nanotechnology, to understand the social
structure of the discipline and to think about how it is
communicated. Berube asks, not "What is nano?," but
"How did this field so flourish and attract so much
attention, whereas others that started with equal promise, and in
equal obscurity, have remained safely cloaked in that obscurity? Who
pays for this research, and why? What kinds of people and businesses
are promoting it, and for what ends? How does public policy deal
with it?" Neither book is intended to be a hardnosed,
technically detailed assessment of current nanoscience and
nanotechnology or of the economic opportunity and social cost and
benefit of the activities that fall under "nano" headings.
The Dance of Molecules is a kind of tone poem, a paean to
the idea of the limitless wonders of technology. It is organized
into chapters with titles intended to catch the attention of the
general-science reader: "Diagnose," "Heal,"
"Grow," "Energize," "Protect,"
"Compute," "Humanize." Although its subtitle is
"How Nanotechnology Is Changing our Lives," it mixes what
nanoscientists would agree falls in the domain of "nano"
with subjects—chemistry and materials science and
biotechnology—in which the application of a conventional
definition of nano is sometimes a stretch. The book is a
collection of vignettes describing areas of science that have
still-unrealized ambitions to become technologies. It focuses on
potential applications, some real and some farfetched: an electronic
"dog's nose" to sniff explosives, "quantum
corrals" showing ripples in an underlying electron sea,
molecular beacons and quantum dots illuminating the machinery of the
cell, liposomes for delivery of anticancer drugs, stem cells for
what ails you, solar cells and conducting polymers to generate and
transport energy and information. All these wonders are there, and
A smorgasbord of subjects is a fine strategy for this kind of book:
What counts are a sense of excitement and examples of what
might be opportunities for a new field of science and
technology. The academic questions of what departments in
universities should house the researchers and of how their funding
and oversight should be arranged, and the small technical details of
probability of success and what size really qualifies for the label
nano are not very relevant if the objective is to convey a sense of
why science is so engaged with small things. I personally do not
think that many of the ideas that are so enthusiastically sketched
in the book will ever become significant technologies, but that is opinion.
Sargent is associated with M.I.T., and The Dance of the
Molecules has something of the quality of a photoalbum from a
research-group picnic: "These are my friends, and let me tell
you what they are doing and how cool they are." That's fine:
There is cool stuff done at M.I.T. That parochialism
notwithstanding, this book is very well written for a
general-science audience—much of it is lovely, transparent
prose, employing engaging and quirky analogies and displaying a real
grace in choice of words. "The year Greta Garbo died of kidney
failure in New York was the year I made up my mind to become a
nanotechnologist," it begins, and then sweeps the reader along
on a rollercoaster constructed of mixtures of fact and fantasy. The
book is entertaining and very easy to read. It conveys a real sense
of the range of the subject and of the enthusiasm of its
practitioners. The author's evident love for the research he is
writing about illuminates the book.
The nanohyperbole meter runs from nanopanic to nanopanacea: If -10
is one end of the scale ("Nanobots and the ‘assembler'
are the end of humankind as a species and, indeed, of life on
Earth") and +10 the other ("'Nano' is the next turn of the
great wheel of technology that powers civilization—akin to the
discovery of fire, the integrated circuit or carbonated soft
drinks"), I would rank this book at about +7. Still, its tone
is not so much hyperbolic as optimistic: Something important
might come from these activities, if one waits long enough
and is not too fussy about tracing where the ultimate good ideas originated.
Nano-Hype is a more sober and scholarly work. For the most
part, it is a useful, evenhanded, detailed history of the
development of nanoscience, as viewed through the eyes of a social
scientist. Berube clearly has followed the field from its beginning
and has paid close attention to its details as they have appeared.
The book is extensively documented; it offers the most encyclopedic
account of the development of nanoscience and technology that I
know. I am certain that it will be mined for references by
generations of future graduate students in the sociology and history
of science. Its prose is clear, if prolix, and better at conveying
information than excitement.
Exhaustively documented history can sometimes be a little tedious,
and, perhaps to avoid this quality and to add color, the book seems
to have had one (or several) human-interest stories grafted onto its
scholarly trunk. These grafts have not quite taken. The sections
that focus on "hype" tend (at least from the vantage of
someone working in the vineyards of nanotechnology) to overstate
issues, and the squabbles between Eric Drexler and reactionary
establishment science (the late Rick Smalley and I are taken as
representatives of this group) are given a weight that they did not
have from inside the squabble. Issues in ethics and risk in
nanotechnology simply are not as serious and immediate as those, for
example, in biotechnology or nuclear weapons or global climate change.
As a scientist, I was particularly interested in the light shed on
"nano" by the social sciences. It is a very
different spectrum of frequencies! "My goal is to provide the
reader with a better understanding of how nanotechnology has been
communicated to the many audiences willing . . . to listen,"
Berube explains. Later he notes that "Nanotechnology is another
in a long list of media- and government-sanctioned fears." The
chapters are primarily oriented toward processes: "Speculation
and Criticism about Nanotechnology," "Government Actors in
Nanotechnology," "Government Initiatives in
Nanotecnology," "Promotional Reports on Nanotechnology,'
"Nano-Industry and Nano-Entrepreneurs,"
"Nongovernmental Organizations and Nano." There
are chapters on technical and ethical
issues—"Nanohazards and Nanotoxicology,"
"Applications of Nanoscience," "Societal and Ethical
Implications of Nanotechnology Research,"—but these also
tend to focus more on the processes used to explore these subjects
than on the outcomes of those processes. So, the focus of the book
is less on "nano" per se, and more on how
"nano" is perceived, discussed, paid for, regulated and
promoted. These issues are interesting and important ones, and
reading Nano-Hype will give anyone who wishes to understand
the societal machinery that supports scientific research a most
In defining "hyperbole," Berube quotes Bruce Fraser:
"Hyperbole involves the conveying of a proposition that so
distorts the obvious truth that the hearer recognizes the
non-literal intention on the speaker's part." Berube continues
by pointing out that hyperbole can be hard to recognize, and he
notes that "Misunderstanding predicated on the improper
decoding of hyperbole is not all bad." Probably true, but in
science, "hype" has come to mean (my definition)
"uncritical claims for unrealizable potential, sometimes for
reasons that are self-serving, sometimes through an excess of
enthusiasm, and sometimes simply through error or misunderstanding
of the science or the problem." Berube's book serves, among
other valuable purposes, as a kind of Rosetta Stone: Read it, and
perhaps—as a scientist—you might begin to understand how
someone interested in communication thinks about science. It's a
useful and important thing to learn.
Nanoscience and nanotechnology are in a phase of high activity, high
growth and more than a little exaggeration. Sargent gives a
romantic, pointillist introduction to the subject; stand back far
enough from the details of his vignettes, and an impressionist
painting of current research emerges. Berube describes the paint,
the paint brushes, the canvas, the frame and the easel. Both are
important. Neither really focuses on the subjects that, to me, are
the most interesting, large-scale issues associated with
"nano": the ability of evolutionary nanotechnology that is
already rapidly developing in the electronics industry to make the
storage of information effectively free, and the uses and abuses
(for example, the erosion of privacy) of that capability; the
opportunity for nanoengineered catalysts and materials in
global-scale production of energy; the importance of nanoscale
particles and colloids in areas of science ranging from modeling
global climate to studies of the origin of life. But then, they may
be right and I may be wrong; it's too early to tell.
Much of the history of science, as recounted by scientists, is
revisionist. A random walk across ideas and experiments—false
starts and stops, flimsy justifications that are abandoned and
replaced by better ideas, extraordinary technologies grown from
ordinary science almost by accident—is usually tidied up into
a well-planned straight line. These two books are both witnesses to
the real, chaotic, messy process of developing new technologies.
Both are well worth reading, although by different audiences and for