Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivably Small ,

William Illsey
AMACOM American Management Association
New York
, 2003. $24.95 (306 pp.). ISBN 0-8144-7181-1

Rare is the book that can simultaneously entertain, intellectually stimulate, and critically explore technology at multiple levels that reach novice and expert alike. William Atkinson’s Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivably Small is a delightful romp through the landscape of nanotechnology, detailing the author’s discovery of the fact and fiction of this fascinating realm. The reader should be forewarned that this book is not—nor does it pretend to be—a compendium of the field; instead, it is a collection of vignettes that conveys the excitement and exposes the hype through the author’s close encounters with researchers in the field.

The difficulty our senses have in truly grasping the scale of the nano-realm seems to be a common introduction to any book on this subject. But Atkinson avoids the pedantic approach. He challenges readers to think outside their “weasel space”—a delightful term used by biologist Loren Eiseley to convey the experience-centric bias that any living thing (for example, a weasel) has on its world view. A wonderful example of Eiseley’s concept is Atkinson’s conversation with his aunt, who grew up in a world without electricity and phones and lived to see men walk on the Moon.

Atkinson appropriately acknowledges that all technology or physical science is in some sense nanotechnology. But what differentiates the contemporary focus on “nanotech” is the field’s intent. The author’s impartiality is admirably evident as he gives well-deserved credit to the nanoboosters whose “zany speculations …, bless their goofy hearts,” have advanced the interest in basic nanoscience. The thought-provoking introduction is regrettably followed by what might be the weakest part of the book: a glimpse into the world of 2015. Although chapter 1, “Nanoworld 2015,” contains a few interesting concepts, it includes extrapolations that will undoubtedly grate against the temperament of professional scientists.

Chapter 2, “Nanoscience: Trends in World Research,” is a lively, entertaining series of interviews with selected scientists that illustrates the complex, multidisciplinary aspect of the field. Though one can argue that the scientists, disciplines, and topics chosen do not best represent the field (the book has a decidedly Canadian focus that reflects the author’s origins), such grumbling misses the point: Nanoscience has many faces, all tremendously fascinating to those on the front lines and all linked by a common scientific thread.

It is not by coincidence that Atkinson covers nanoscience and nanotechnology in two separate chapters. Chapter 3, “Nanotechnology: Trends in World Development,” explores various fledgling attempts to commercialize nanoscience and the eternal quest for the Killer App. As in chapter 2, such snapshots do not represent an exhaustive survey; instead, they highlight selected topics, such as why Switzerland has embraced nanotechnology as a potential successor industry to high-value luxury watches, which leads to a dialog on the difficulty of launching new technologies.

Chapter 3 naturally leads to chapter 4’s “Nanofornia” and the culture, according to Atkinson, of “The Young and The Stupid”—techno whiz kids whose hunger for new technology serves as a virulent petri dish for both the good and the wacky. The author attends a “nano-Woodstock,” where he stumbles upon a number of characters (the most colorful being an irreverent compatriot christened Scaramouche) who act as skillful foils for the zany antics arising out of this strange blend of serious science and “thinking out of the brain” nanohyperbolae. This is home turf for the “Church of St. Drex,” named after K. Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986) and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (Wiley, 1992). But rather than resort to indiscriminate Drexler bashing, Atkinson balances appropriate credit for nanoboosters’ popularization of the field with a thoughtful exploration, although at times laced with hilarious lampoonery, of the fanaticism of the church’s disciples. Chapter 4 has wonderfully memorable phrases, such as “they … give snake oil a bad name,” that are sure to enthrall scientists and antagonize devout followers. The reader will find substance in the chapter, both in the specifics of the infeasibility of Drexlerian molecular machinery and in the elucidation of the specious arguments of true nano-believers.

The book wraps up with chapters on characterizing and imaging at the nanoscale—indeed one of the outstanding challenges in the field—and “wet” nanotechnology, that strange blend of nanotechnology and biology. The discrepancy between the scientist’s view of the field and that of the author is greatest in these chapters, which have a clear focus on the “fashionable” areas in nanotechnology. That discrepancy is also evident in the concluding chapter on the nanotech effort in Japan and its focus on commercialization, which sometimes confounds exploratory nanoscience with existing technology at the microscale (for example, microelectromechanical systems). But such disparities are minor flaws in a captivating and entertaining tale of the author’s coming of age in these worlds.

Nanocosm is a wonderful, informative, and timely read, especially because it appeared on the heels of Michael Crichton’s nanotech thriller Prey (HarperCollins, 2002). Atkinson’s book also contains a brilliant epilogue on the absurdity of a “Drexlerian Apocalypse” and its seductive subliminal message—particularly, the horrifying penalty for St. Drex nonbelievers. Atkinson paints a delightfully fresh picture of the world of nanotechnology; and, like a master painting, its minor cracks and blemishes disappear when one steps back to enjoy the entire illustration.