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Nanotechnology 114

Posted by timothy
from the specks-of-good-and-evil dept.
iConrad writes "I first found this book on EDN which described it by saying, 'It collects many ideas about what nanotech is doing and has the potential to do without the breathless hype.' I've read the Drexler books and pretty much everything else I can find about nano, so I already know that nano will save the world, replace humanity, etc., etc. (Sigh.) What I didn't know (and I think this book really told me) is what nanotechnology really is, what it is doing right now, what it will mean for businesses, and why I should care." Read on for the rest of iConrad's review.
Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea
author Mark Ratner, Daniel Ratner
pages 188
publisher Prentice Hall
rating 9
reviewer Conrad
ISBN 0131014005
summary A (mostly) non-technical introduction to nano

In other words, I started this book very skeptical, but it convinced me. I don't know how many of you have heard of Mark Ratner, but he is credited with being the first to speculate on using individual molecules as components in electronic circuits back in 1974. If you read about molecular electronics now (or go to any moletronics conferences) you'll see his name come up constantly. He is also associate director of the nanotech institute at Northwestern University, the first dedicated nanotech center in the country. This is not like reading a lot of the books out there - he really knows his stuff.

The book starts with a general introduction, talks about hype, nanobots, and the big budgets that are out there for nanotech research. It opens a lot of questions, including ethical issues and a little bit of skepticism which I think is very healthy for a science which promises a lot, but has yet to truly distinguish itself.

After the introduction, there is a chapter which gets to the heart of matters -- it explains that nanotech is not just the ultimate level of miniaturization, but that it is special since it is at the interface of bulk properties, quantum properties, and the key elements in life processes (such as DNA). It also sets the stage for the heart of the book -- chapters on tools for the nanosciences (ever wonder why nano wasn't real until now even though Feynman started talking about it in the 1960s?), a grand tour which will quickly dispel any illusions that nanotechnology is all about nanobots a la Bill Joy and Star Trek, and chapters on smart materials, biomedical applications, sensors, optics, and electronics. There is also recap of some basic science, but not many Slashdotters will need that.

While the hype may not be breathless, these chapters left me that way. What the Ratners discuss is real, in context, and discussed intelligently and thoughtfully. They gave me enough science to explain what they are talking about but not enough to distract me and they include a dash of some appropriately wry humor to lighten things up. There are illustrations throughout and a color inset in the middle. The illustrations are clearly from lab work -- their quality varies significantly, but I found them very useful indeed.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the sidebars -- there are sections on DNA computing, quantum computing, swarm computing, nanotubes, lab-on-a-chip, and other applications. These are short, sweet, and, as always, to the point.

The book ends with two chapters on business and ethics. Unlike most nanotech books I've read, there was some substantial thought here. Ethical issues such as intellectual property concerns as well as health issues were treated at some length. The book doesn't come to conclusions on these points -- it attempts to present a balanced discussion and actively encourages readers to enter the debate. The business section was obviously written by someone who lived through the dot-com bubble (I'm guessing this was Mark's coauthor, Dan). Some of the points were obvious, but the analysis for investors is something well worth reading (attention VCs!) and again, the authors set the sights at a reasonable level. They point out that there are fortunes to be made, but not by accident. They also make some predictions about where the money is.

My only complaints about this book were that a few of the pictures were not of ideal quality, and that the companion web site wasn't very exciting (though they promise to update it.) All in all I found the book to be an ideal mix of technical and non-technical, a superb survey of a complex field, and an interesting read throughout. It leaves all of the other "introduction to nano" books in the shade -- perhaps because it is written by a pioneer in the field as well as someone who has thought about how to make it pay. I considered it required reading for anyone who wants to understand what nano is really about.


You can purchase Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Nanotechnology

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  • Nanotech (Score:5, Funny)

    by big_groo (237634) <groovis&gmail,com> on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:01AM (#5973243) Homepage
    I wish I had some Nano-probes to get rid of my awful hangover.

    Tits up to the Trolls(tm) !!! fp

  • worms? (Score:4, Funny)

    by SHEENmaster (581283) <(travis) (at) (utk.edu)> on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:03AM (#5973252) Homepage Journal
    Could they make nanites like the worms in futurama, or do I have to eat the special sauce at a space diner?
    • Re:worms? (Score:2, Funny)

      by javelinco (652113)
      "Hmmm.... nanobots." - Homer Simpson
    • FYI, it was a sandwich bought from a truck-stop mens room food dispenser, labeled "fresh" egg salad sandwich
      • Well yes, but later in the same episode, Fry is talking with the leader of the parasitic worms, who informs Fry,"One day you'll be eating a fast-food burger and BOOM, you'll be crawling with us again. Ever wonder what makes special sauce so special? Yo."
    • nope, long as you could live with carrying a rat brain around.
  • by burgburgburg (574866) <splisken06NO@SPAMemail.com> on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:07AM (#5973289)
    nanotechnology is all about nanobots a la Bill Joy and Star Trek

    What about Mystery Science Theater 3000 [mst3k.com]? The nanites [scifi.com] on that show were really great, though they did have an unfortunate habit of blowing up planets when rattled.

    • I'd love to see the EULA that comes with the nanites.

      In the event of planetary destruction I agree not to hold the manufacturer responsible for any loss of life, property or infringement of DMCA yada yada yada
      Please call this number 888-8888888 for more information
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:09AM (#5973316)
    What I don't get about nanotech is how do you power these things?
    • They are locked into a perpetual state of EATING each other for power! Canabalnanobot!
    • by Animats (122034) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:26AM (#5973465) Homepage
      That's not a dumb question. It's the main reason that free-floating assembler nanobots probably won't work. They have the same energy constraints as biological life. Biology can build big, solid objects like trees, but it takes years. Drexler used to talk about vats of nanobots building things like rocket engines, but that takes real power and it has to come from somewhere.

      Nanomachines on an IC substrate, attached to external power, look much more feasible.

      • by _xeno_ (155264) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:56AM (#5973756) Homepage Journal
        I wonder if it would be possible to power something as small as nanobots using radio waves. If you think about it, all an antenna does is collect radio electromagnetic energy and translate it into electrical energy for the radio to then retranslate into sound.

        Nanobots are small - they shouldn't need too much power. I don't know about the real feasibility of this, hardware not being my department :), but I wonder if there is a way to power nanobots "wirelessly".

        • by Klaxton (609696) on Friday May 16, 2003 @02:12PM (#5974919)
          I've seen articles that suggest microwave radio transmission as one way to get power to lots of small-scale machines. Actually, simply illuminating them with any kind of electromagnetic radiation that would generate electricity via something like solar cells might be a simple way to convey power, that way you can juice them as much as neccessary. In fact, you could just put them in a field of alternating magnetic force and have their onboard motors be driven directly. Another way might be for them to have small fuel cells onboard. You put them in a pressurized atmosphere of hydrogen and oxygen to allow them to tank up.
        • Actually, there has been some discussion of using small cubes of Iron and sulfur. On that contains 8 atoms to form a battery. Then you could link several of these together into a supramolecular assembly to create a larger (and more usefull) battery that is still on the nano scale.

          This seems pretty exciting to me. Since it would run off of reduction/oxidation states, one could recharge in with a chemical reaction, light, or just by applying a voltage accross the solution that the machines are in. Yeah,
        • This sounds like a Tesla vision. But instead of using radio waves to power large cities, we are talking about molecules here.
        • Actualy, I don't see how you can use a wavelength larger than the receptor; this means you can't use w.l. much higher than IR (~ 1 micron) (most definately not radio).

          From the other end, you're limited to non-ionizing radiation (or your micro-machines will break ...). It means that the w.l. is lower-bounded somewhere in the UV domain (say, ~200nm).

          This means you can use carrying radiation along the visual regime (400..700nm) or a bit further, not too much though.

          (IANAB, but I guess these are roughly the
      • biology, or rather evolution, has come up with some fairly novel ways for cells to create energy, ie. metabolize stuff via reduction, etc. cockroaches don't seem to have any problem, do they?

        reproduction, on the other hand, probably isn't desired of nanobots. certainly not uncontrolled reproduction (ask Bill Joy ;). biological organisms spend huge amounts of energy on reproduction. lift that requirement and the bot may be able to scavenge enough to survive.

        when it comes to building jet engines, or any oth
        • biology, or rather evolution, has come up with some fairly novel ways for cells to create energy, ie. metabolize stuff via reduction, etc. cockroaches don't seem to have any problem, do they?

          reproduction, on the other hand, probably isn't desired of nanobots. certainly not uncontrolled reproduction (ask Bill Joy ;). biological organisms spend huge amounts of energy on reproduction. lift that requirement and the bot may be able to scavenge enough to survive.

          Right. And "free-floating" nanobots wouldn't

    • I remeber seeing a story (either /. or techtv) about charging wireless devices using a little pad. All you had to do was set it on top, and it somehow charged the battery. I suppose you could just slap all the bots on one of them. Prolly wouldn't need a whole lot of power either...
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:52AM (#5973715)
      Chemical storage and conversion of power is pretty scalable - I mean, our cells contain mitochondrial power plant organelles which are pretty darn small. But it is a reasonable issue to bring up - the more "fuel," of whatever variety, a self-contained nanomachine has to carry, the less "nano" it is. Or else it has to have some kind of refuelling station. Something might be done with solar (the chloroplast, again, is pretty nano-scale) but we're a long way off of effective solar power generation at the nano scale. This does inject some reason into the whole "nanobots amock," "grey goo" fears some have of nanobots wreaking havoc on all things. The laws of physics put some serious constraints on what a very tiny thing can acheive (the virus, for example, can't do anything without subverting your big ol' ponderous body's equipment for replication - itself another level of caution, because sometimes it's not what the little thing can do but what it could make other things do...)


      However, in a lot of applications I think this is probably a moot point, as nanoscale devices will be components of other devices rather than stand-alone machines, and will thus access the powergrid of the conventional scale device. I mean, sure I want a quantum computer in my cell phone so it can guess who I want to call before I'm finished deciding and save me precious seconds. But I don't want my cell phone to actually be nanoscale. Damn things are on the edge of ridiculously small as it is.

    • How about using ambient light? Obviously, if outside in full sunlight, using photonic energy is not a problem, but even under inside conditions or underwater it seems that there is enough light from fluorescent, ambient and reflective sources to keep a nanobot active.

      Of course, this is not feasible for nanobots working in complete darkness, such as processing oil or sludge, or laboring underground. Maybe those could operate using hydrogen / sulfur pathways.

    • This is actually a fun question, because it has so many answers. The short answer is that the power source depends on the specific application.

      For nanotech in vivo, you want to have sugar burners (the ATP engine used in mitochodria is now fully understood, and it should be possible to replicate that structure in a nanomachine without serious difficulty.) As well, Feynman's daemon describes a device like a turnstyle that converts brownian motion into mechanical energy. Simulations on similiar structures h
  • by bperkins (12056) * on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:09AM (#5973322) Homepage Journal
    Someone I know is a grad student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless. He's doing research that is supposed to somehow be "nanotechnology." However, the size of devices he's dealing with is huge, about 50 to 100 microns.

    We decided that this was "mega-nanotechnology."
    • I have the biggest nanocar in the world in my driveway!
    • They are not huge, just nanobots with an alternative bot image
    • Hmmm...ya know ... my Gentoo box [slashdot.org] has nano [nano-editor.org] technlogy, but really, I prefer vim [vim.org] myself.
    • We decided that this was "mega-nanotechnology."

      In other words, "millitechnology".

    • Funny... I was just wondering on how I could capitalize on the "nanotech" buzzword myself. I was thinking of something along the lines of "Optimizing datasets to increase throughput on nanotechnology driven media using commodity protocols."

      I mean, electrons could be measured in nanometers, and http is in wide spread use... not bad for stripping all of the "newline" character(s) out of a web page...

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Best definition of 'nanotechnology' yet (also heard in the halls of an august research institution...):

      'Money grubbing and wanking by half-assed theorists with neither the brains to understand physics nor the discipline to understand chemistry.'
    • Someone I know is a grad student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless. He's doing research that is supposed to somehow be "nanotechnology." However, the size of devices he's dealing with is huge, about 50 to 100 microns.

      I take your point about using the "nano" buzzword for mindless grant-spamming, but he could be right. The definition of nanotech is typically a material that has at least one dimension containing features that are designed and controlled at a resolution below 200 nanomet

  • by infinite9 (319274) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:12AM (#5973331)
    Mork had Nano technology back in the 70s.

    "Nano Nano"
  • He was the geeky kid from "Fast Times at Ridgemont high" [imdb.com]!

    I'm honestly shocked that you had to even ask...
  • Chapter on Business, first line: "Fire anyone who reads the chapter on ethics."
  • Reference Source (Score:5, Informative)

    by non (130182) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:14AM (#5973362) Homepage Journal
    Most of what I've read about nanotechnology has come from Scientific American [sciam.com]. From a layman's point of view their nanotech section [sciam.com] is probably the best reference there is.
  • I've only known one persnally. I worked with him at the consulting division of [an airline] where he contracted. He was a Liberatarian and one of the strangest people I have ever known. Anyhow, he was very proud of the fact that he had convinced the University of Hawaii to allow him to design a degree plan so he could actually get a degree in nanotech (this was in late 80's.) They did, and he did, and he was convinced that he was the first person ever to obtain the credential. So he had this business card
  • by zephc (225327) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:20AM (#5973402)
    that you monitor the RSS feed for nanodot.org, a slash-like site run by the Foresight Institute, and focuses on nanotech news.
  • by teutonic_leech (596265) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:21AM (#5973421)
    I met Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle at one of the Foresight Institute meetings a few years ago while I was living in Silicon Vally. I had always been a nanotech groupy and decided to shell out big bucks to buy Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation [amazon.com] which unfortunately totally was beyond my level of scientific education (Jim, I'm a doctor, not a physicist ;-) Anyway, this looks like something a bit more becoming for us 'pseudo science geeks' who know the basics about DNA, molecules, Angstrom, MOLs etc.. but don't have a deep scientific foundation. This is going to be the next frontier - well, actually it already is, and the better the wider public is informed the better. I am actually in the planning phase for a 3-part nanotech documentary, if anyone is interested in contributing, please let me know.

    • Please talk to Mark and/or Daniel at some point. They're both busy, but they both care a lot. Mark intended this book to be exactly that--aimed at you and the general public.

      Prof. Ratner teaches the general chemistry class at Northwestern every fall (Chem 101) and is excellent at figuring out how to put material at the right level.

      I think they both put in the science background chapters for those who need them, but aimed the rest of it nicely to balance between those of us who know the field and those wit
  • Prey (Score:3, Funny)

    by positive (12069) on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:25AM (#5973455)
    Everything I know about nanotechnology I learned by reading Michael Crichton's "Prey". Uh.. I should probably find a better reference.
    • Re:Prey (Score:3, Funny)

      by infinite9 (319274)
      Everything I learned about nanotechnology I learned from 7 of 9. Every time someone gets hurt, she injects a little of that nanotechnology luvin' into them and they're better before the end of the episode. I have some microscopic organizms I'd like to inject into her.
    • Everything I know about nanotechnology I learned by reading Michael Crichton's "Prey".

      Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age [amazon.com] is a better book, if not necessarily a better reference. It goes beyond the technology itself and deals with the consequences of a future where mass-production is so cheap as to make basic goods free.
      And the nanotech in it seems to have been inspired largely by Drexler's Engines of Creation, which is an inspiring read until you realize it came out fifteen years ago.
    • Re:Prey (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Crichton's "Congo" is the definitive reference on this topic for those that can imagine really tiny, hairless, non-talking gorillas with no diamonds.
  • by duguk (589689) <dug@@@frag...co...uk> on Friday May 16, 2003 @11:35AM (#5973556) Homepage Journal
    Nanotechnology, the next big thing.
  • by FroMan (111520) on Friday May 16, 2003 @12:04PM (#5973819) Homepage Journal
    I was really hoping this review would cover interesting things. For instance, how nano has pico compatability modes. And, like searches in a file can use regular expressions.

    Sure, some of that isn't teribley exciting nano technology, but it should be said. Nano may not have the best tech behind it, but for a simple text editor, it truly is easy to work with.

    I didn't even see any pot shots at emacs or vi in there. Truly a disappointing review.
  • For a great piece of fiction concerning nanotechnologies, patents, RIAA, virtual reality, quantum computing (e.g. everything people around here love/hate :), read Autonomy - Freedom of Thought [expressivefreedom.org]. It basically talks about a groups of scientists that 'escaped' to a virtual world to flee drastic copyright and patent laws that crippled their research in the 'real' world.

  • the companion web site wasn't very exciting (though they promise to update it.)

    What's this?! A unexciting web site that someone is promising to update? I've never heard of this practice before. Verrry Interesting...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Alpha particles and other such impacting on a chip, changing zeros to ones or vice versa could alter a nanobot's programming, effectively creating a mutation analogous to biological mutations. This could be a big problem with self-replicating types of nanobots. You don't have room to put in radiation shielding.

    Destructive effects don't have to be the result of deliberate malicious programming; they could arise purely by accident.
    • There are plenty of ways to verify the integrity of a piece of software and to repair it if its damaged. One brute force technique, for example, would be to simply have multiple instances of the software in storage and a separate thread of execution for each instance. Then get them to vote on what actions to take. A broken program instance would be "voted off the island" and reinitialized.
    • How, exactly do you propose to make nanites self replicating? It's not like they have infinite energy, you know. Reproduction takes truly huge amounts of energy that has to come from somewhere.

      Besides, you can always put error checking in. Checksums and such could be used to render any 'mutated' device completely inert. Simply hard-wire the checksum and deactivation circuitry into its processor such that if the hardwired checksum doesn't match the checksum from the software, it blows a fuse. Of course
    • To cull the mutations that are not useful, and expedite breeding of those that are - so really you'll be begging for as many mutations as you can get to make your nanothings more efficient.

      And yes, you do have overseers for the overseers...
    • Alpha particles and other such impacting on a chip, changing zeros to ones or vice versa could alter a nanobot's programming, effectively creating a mutation analogous to biological mutations. This could be a big problem with self-replicating types of nanobots. You don't have room to put in radiation shielding.

      Kind of like the way a collision on the highway can randomly mutate your car into a planet-destroying monster?

      A damaged nanomachine will simply be broken. It would take a lot of extra eff

  • Didn't realize these guys were both here at NU. Based on the directory info Daniel is a visiting scholar in the WCAS (Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences), and Mark is a professor in the same department. I wonder why they're not part of the Materials Science & Engineering department (which I'm an undergrad, studying under).

    The new nanofabrication [northwestern.edu] center is sweet.
    • Mark has long been in the chemistry department (he's been the chairman at least once). So yes, he's part of WCAS--he was also a dean in WCAS once.

      IIRC, Daniel has been lecturing at Kellogg.

      But since Mark is out of the country right now, I can't ask him.

      In any case, there's a distinction between materials chemistry and materials science/engineering. Mark is certainly part of the Materials Research Center here at Northwestern, but lectures the general chemistry (Chem 101) class every fall. Quite good.

      Chee
  • I want to have Assimalation tubulas
  • All I want from nanotechnology are little devices that go into our blood stream and stop ageing so we can all live forever (that is, if nanotech wars doesn't kill us first) in order to witness new technology achievements.
  • What I never understood is why nanotech is actually refered to as a real science, with real products, and real consequences. As of this writing, there is no TECH in Nanotech, just theorizing, a few experiments at angstrom dimensions, but thats it.

    Maybe thats why its called Nanotech, because so little of it actually exists.

    I couldn't finish Diamond Age because it was so ridiculously silly.

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