Nano Pop

Nanotechnology is gradually, quietly edging into our daily lives—in sunscreens, computers, tennis rackets, and much more.

By Cyrus C. M. Mody | December 5, 2017
Electron-tunneling molecular motor powered by static electric fields

An electron-tunneling molecular motor, powered by static electric fields.

Wikimedia Commons

David M. Berube. Nano-Hype: The Truth behind the Nanotechnology Buzz. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006. 521 pp. $28.00.

Steven A. Edwards. The Nanotech Pioneers: Where Are They Taking Us? Weinheim: Wiley-VCH Verlag, 2006. xiii + 244 pp. $34.95.

Ted Sargent. The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006. xvii + 234 pp. $15.95.

The nanotech revolution is here! And by “here” I mean your local bookstore. Nanotechnology is gradually, quietly edging into our daily lives—in sunscreens, computers, tennis rackets, and so on. Indeed, industrial nanomaterials have been in tires and inks for a century, not to mention the quantum dots in medieval stained glass and the carbon nanotubes in 8th-century Damascus steel. But ever since Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology appeared in 1986, a steady stream of popular and semi-popular books has been trumpeting the imminent arrival of a more revolutionary, paradigm-shattering, venture-capital-grabbing version of nanotechnology.

Ever since the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative was created in 2000, new waves of authors have been frantically clambering over each other to explain nanotechnology to the public. Most of these books target an elite “public” of policy makers, regional development offices and local governments, university administrators, and, most of all, investors. Investors have been cautious about nano, and in many of these books this caution is chalked up to lessons from the dot-com bubble: beware of hype; beware of companies with no real product; beware of new, trendy, high-tech movements. At the same time there is fear in the nano community that investment will be disrupted by a public outcry against nanotechnology along the lines of the European backlash against genetically modified organisms.

These books tread a fine balance between hyping a new high-tech movement to get investors and the public in the door and ritually warning readers that there’s too much hype in nano and that potential risks need to be addressed before investment and development can begin. The three books reviewed here play out this balancing act on every page—Ted Sargent’s from the perspective of a practicing scientist; Steven A. Edwards’s by a scientist-turned-journalist; and David M. Berube’s by a social scientist analyzing, but often exemplifying, this dilemma.

All three books show signs of having been assembled quickly. Misspelled names abound, especially in Nano-Hype, which is more a massive compilation of nano-sources than a narrative. More disconcerting are the number of factual errors, especially in sections on the history of nano: Edwards asserts that the scanning tunneling microscope was the first instrument to “see“ individual atoms (the field ion microscope was doing this 25 years earlier), while Sargent claims that the inventors of the scanning tunneling microscope, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zurich, used the instrument to spell out “IBM“ using individual xenon atoms (actually this was Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer at IBM Almaden).

Of the three, Sargent’s is the most conventional, hewing close to the popular genre of light, popular books for the potential investor seeking a comforting airplane read. As an intrepid explorer of the nano-domain (note the heroic, eyes-to-the-horizon photo of the author on the back cover), Sargent brings back exotic tales of nano derring-do in the same way that Richard Burton and David Livingston thrilled Victorian audiences with tales of African adventures. But even if unoriginal, the book is a quick, mostly engaging survey of some very interesting science.

Berube’s contribution, on the other hand, is utterly genre-defying: part list, part commercial prospectus, part hagiography, part critique. Berube lays out the whole universe of hyped visions, positive and negative, for nanotechnology and gives often colorful portraits of the people and organizations behind those predictions. But it’s difficult to tell where his presentation of hype ends and analysis begins. Berube’s habit of integrating quotes seamlessly into his argument, with attribution given only in the endnotes, blurs the lines considerably. Nano-Hype is a handy desk reference for those trying to understand the broad social phenomenon of nano, but as a narrative it only succeeds in sections where Berube describes issues in which he has been personally involved (e.g., the toxicological issues he dealt with routinely as communications director for the International Council on Nanotechnology).

Finally Nanotech Pioneers strikes a nice balance between the other two. It’s an easy roadmap to the science and applications of nano, à la Sargent; it’s also a celebration and considered critique of nano futurism in the vein of Berube. Edwards sometimes strays into a technophilic wonderland (for instance in his description of a “space elevator” from earth to geosynchronous orbit to be made possible by carbon nanotubes) but he does so with a welcome tongue-in-cheek attitude. The descriptions of inventors and entrepreneurs are especially colorful, if a little credulous. And while Edwards doesn’t describe the technical details as intuitively as Sargent, he does give a more contextualized, comprehensive account of where nano came from and what’s driving it.

If you’re vaguely interested in finding out more about nanotechnology, there are plenty of choices. Pop nano is a crowded field, and these are three of the better offerings. Between them they illuminate the fascinating complexities of nanotechnology: the hope, the hype, and even some of the potential harms.