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Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivabley Small / Edition 1

Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivabley Small / Edition 1

by William Illsey Atkinson, Richard E. Smalley


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"Since the dawn of technology, many tools have grown steadily smaller even as they have grown more powerful and complex. Now nanoscience takes technology beyond most popular definitions of reality, to a realm of astounding possibilities. With Nanocosm, William Atkinson reveals a spectacular view of the immediate future of nanoscience and its applications in:

• medicine — drugs whose effective dose is only a few molecules and thus have minimal side effects

• computing — quantum processors triggered by a single photon of light

• engineering — megastructures woven from hollow nanotubes 200 times stronger than steel and countless other arenas that affect our world, redefining how we work, play, and live.

President Bush recently signed a $3.7 billion nanotechnology bill, the largest government-funded science program since Kennedy started the space race. Nanocosmshows why."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814472774
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 08/15/2004
Pages: 306
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.98(d)
Age Range: 17 Years

About the Author

William Illsey Atkinson (North Vancouver, BC) is the author of Prototype, a finalist for Canada’s National Business Book Award. He is president of Draaken Communications, which interprets technological issues for universities, institutes, and private firms.

Read an Excerpt


By William Illsey Atkinson


Copyright © 2005 William Illsey Atkinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-7277-X


Lower, Slower, Smaller Toward a Workable Nanotechnology

The wise man looks into space and does not regard the large as too large nor the small as too small, for he knows there are no limits to dimensions. - The Upanishads

The most amazing thing about nature is her inexhaustible variety. Scientists, technologists, and theologians speak about "nature" or "the world" as if it were a unit. But there are limitless worlds and infinite natures. Every human brain, its loves and hates and memories, has been correctly described as a three-pound universe. The Pennsylvanian biologist Loren Eiseley, as great an essayist as he was a scientist, invented the concept of "weasel space" to describe the world a nonhuman mammal sees. In weasel space humans, to our own self-centered minds the pinnacles of creation, don't matter at all.

Merely varying your dimensional scale creates new worlds. Karl Marx is justly discredited as a social philosopher, but one of his points was incontrovertible: Quantitative difference creates qualitative difference. In other words, scale matters-change the number and you change the thing. That premise underlies this book.

For example, our usual human view, looking out from the surface of a rocky planet, differs from what we see from the orbit of the moon. All cosmonauts and astronauts agree the most conspicuous thing about viewing earth from space is the invisibility of national borders. The earth appears as a single entity, bearing humans not as a hodgepodge of warring clans but (in Carl Sandburg's wonderful phrase) "travelers together on this bright blue ball in nothingness."

Reality alters further at still larger scales. Imagine the world of the Milky Way-a glowing Catharine-wheel of stars that light takes tens of millennia to plod across, haloed with ancient globular clusters and wrapped around a huge star-swallowing black hole. A common computer screen saver called Star Fields projects white dots onto a black background. The dots emerge from screen center and accelerate out toward the edges; looking at them, you feel you're gazing out a starship's forward viewport. If Star Fields were real, you would have to watch that screen for eighty years just to fly by every star in the Milky Way. And there are, by best estimate, as many galaxies in the universe as there are stars in our mid-sized galaxy, a trillion or so. That's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars altogether; eighty trillion years of Star Fields. Scale matters.

As a writer specializing in technology and science, I've always loved Douglas Adams's introduction to The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "Listen," it goes. "Space is big. Really, really big. You have no idea how mind-bogglingly, stupendously big space is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the street to the chemist's (i.e., drugstore) but that's nothing to space...."

This strikes the perfect note. As you read it, you realize that what at first seemed silly is instead deeply earnest: a near-hysterical attempt to convey what words cannot. The numbers are just too large.

You may not realize, however, that even this galactic macrocosm pales when we reverse the direction of our imaginative voyage. All we need to do is turn inward rather than outward, and peer with ever-higher magnification into the world of the small. The traditional Chinese conception of our everyday world is exact. It is ch'ung k'uo, the middle kingdom. It, and we its inhabitants, are poised delicately between the unimaginably immense and the unimaginably minute.

To illustrate: The number of stars in our galaxy is less than half the number of cells in an adult human body. "I am large," Walt Whitman sang, "I contain multitudes." So do we all. You, reader, exist in finer detail than all the stars and nebulae in the Local Galactic Group. Your structure and function are more complicated; at any given instant your body hosts a greater range of chemical events than all the visible stars. Shakespeare's Hamlet said it best about humanity: What a piece of work! The poorest, most broken-down human represents a product, a process, and an achievement that are beyond our comprehension, let alone our imitation.

Below the middle kingdom, which we measure in yards or meters (40 inches), a series of subworlds exists in nested shells. Each subworld embodies an alternate reality. A scale of millimeters brings us to the world of the insects. These mobile computers (the insects) are perfectly adapted to the intricate ecosystems they occupy, from lawns and trees to walls and mattresses. Drop down a notch and you enter the world of the micrometer or micron, a unit of length that is one thousandth of a millimeter. This subworld is, literally, the microcosm. It is the world of the cell-autonomous units such as amoebas and zooplankton, as well as specialized "social" populations that make up skin, bones, and brain.

Below the microcosm comes creation on the scale of the nanometer, one millionth of a millimeter. I call this the nanocosm. It is a finely detailed, completely structured cosmos, or organized universe, that exists around and within us. All that is-microbes, humans, planets, stars, totality-is built up from the nanocosm, atom by atom. This subworld is as varied and complex as any other level of being: a place unto itself. Its rules are neither those of galaxies nor those we see within the middle kingdom. This simple truth has puzzled many a would-be nanotechnologist.

It's hard to convey the strangeness of the nanocosm. What we know about our middle world is only a point of departure for understanding it. What Einstein said is true: The laws of physics are everywhere the same. At the same time, while basic laws don't change, their appearance can be wildly variant. Science and engineering get into trouble when they forget this. In fact, most of what they call "physical law" is not irreducibly basic. It's a jumble of empirical summaries, rules of thumb, and ad hoc adjustments that, just, well, work. Even quantum electrodynamics, whose predictions about the sub-nanocosm have so far proven accurate to 18 decimal places, uses a "normalization procedure" that cleans up bad data mathematically. When I took engineering, we called this type of thing Cook's Constant. High-energy physicists don't know why normalization works. Even its inventor could never explain it, which cost him no end of grief.

All this to say that in practical terms, the nanocosm is utterly different. To study it we must take a detour through another realm, that of measurement. Unlike the nanocosm it gauges, this world is synthetic and conceptual. It is a human product: intangible, yet as much an achievement as any building or book.

Le Système internationale des unités, SI for short, has its headquarters in a four-story building in Paris, France. The SI convention is responsible for maintaining and continually redefining the yardsticks by which science and technology record things.

The United States still uses the old, user-friendly, human-scale units of the British Imperial System: pounds and ounces, feet and miles. These units have become uniquely American since the Britain that evolved them abandoned them three decades ago. It's Britain's loss. Since the ancient units spring from everyday use they are easy to understand and apply, and so are very useful. One pound per square inch (1 psi) is a force you can feel; fourteen of them make up air pressure at sea level. A pascal, on the other hand-the corresponding SI unit of pressure-has the force of a hummingbird's sneeze. It takes 100,000 of them to make one atmosphere and 200,000 of them to inflate a car tire. The same reasons that make Imperial units natural, intuitive, and immediately useful also make them more poetic. As one disgruntled poet said, "Kilometers do not scan."

At base, though, even Imperial-U.S. units now define themselves by SI. Scientifically SI is all but universal; a pound is merely 454.00 grams. The whole structure of U.S. science uses SI entirely. A lab worker may buy her meat in ounces and drive to work in miles per hour, but she'll record her bench observations in meganewtons, kiloparsecs, and (yes) pascals. When push comes to shove, the whole might of American industry rests on a narrow street in Paris.

SI, as befits its origins in the Age of Reason, proceeds by what are called orders of magnitude. One OOM equals a factor of 10. A factor of one hundred is two OOM: 100 = 10 x 10 = 102. Three OOM is a thousand, and so on. SI considers every three orders of magnitude to be a step that's important enough to rate its own prefix. A gram is the weight of an eyedropper full of water, about a fifth of a teaspoon. A kilogram (103 = 1,000 g) is 2.2 pounds. A megagram, one million grams, weighs as much as a U.S./Imperial long ton. Up go the prefixes till you reach an exagram. At a trillion metric tons (1,000,000,000,000,000,000 g) an exagram approximates the combined weight of all buildings in the continental United States.

As well as reaching for the immense, SI delves in the opposite direction: down into the tiny. One thousandth of a gram is a milligram; one thousandth of that-a millionth of a gram-is a microgram. A thousandth of a micro-unit, one billionth of something, is expressed by the prefix nano-from nanos, classical Greek for dwarf. But whereas a human dwarf might be half the weight of an average adult, a nanometer is but one billionth of a meter. That's the diameter of a small molecule.

Here's an image, a la Hitch Hiker's Guide. If a nanometer were scaled up to the width of your little fingernail, then your fingernail would be the size of Delaware and your thumb would be the size of Florida. Yet the smallest manipulable element inside that monstrous hand, an atom of hydrogen, would still scale up to only one twenty-fifth of an inch. The nanocosm is a serious kind of small.

Small it may be; unknown it is not. Higher, faster, better, boast the Olympics. This could also be the motto of science, which constantly seeks to extend its understanding. But science adds other comparatives: lower, slower, smaller, less obvious. Johannes Kepler, the Renaissance astronomer who showed the earth revolves around the sun, put this endless quest for new knowledge in an arresting phrase. To be a scientist, he said, is to think God's thoughts after him.

In every new area of enquiry, science uses inference. There's not much science about science in a discipline's early stages, oddly enough. It goes mostly by guess and hunch. Scientists use their noses before they use their brains. A good scientist, said the Nobel laureate Gerhard Herzberg, can sense a pattern when only a few of the facts are in, and are badly distorted and swamped by noise, to boot. In this way, the first discoveries of the nanocosm came from logical inference based on indirect observation. At the outset of investigation, the tools for directly observing the nanocosm did not exist.

In 1808 John Dalton, an Englishman, concluded that every atom of a given chemical element was identical. These interchangeable atoms, he announced (to great skepticism from the scientific establishment), combine and recombine to create the infinite variety of compounds we observe at our everyday scale. Dalton's insight came nearly two centuries before individual atoms-or at least their outer electron structures-were directly inspected through a modern imaging device called the STM (scanning tunneling microscope).

Sixty years after Dalton, a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel noticed how certain traits in pea plants-flower color, for example-obeyed strict rules in how they transmitted themselves from parent to offspring. Since the long DNA molecule that instigates these miracles is only 2.3 nanometers wide, the best laboratories in the world were still 130 years away from imaging a living gene. But by an astonishing mental leap, Mendel had detected many of the overall structures and functions of heredity. Genes (he deduced) must exist with certain properties; otherwise his observations would have been different.

There were, and are, precedents for such imaginative star travel. Scholars knew that the world was round for two millennia before Magellan gave their theory a practical demonstration in the sixteenth century. Eratosthenes of Alexandria had deduced our planet's shape from the length of noontime shadows at different latitudes in Egypt. Similarly, scientists have known for generations that the nanocosm must exist. Something had to be down there like Atlas, holding the visible world on its back. Yet it's only in our own time, and especially in the past seven years, that we've begun systematically to explore the nanocosm. Future ages will record the twenty-first century as the Renaissance of the Nanocosm, when the first great voyages of discovery were made into this bizarre interior realm.

While the word nanotechnology has gained wide currency, its use to mean something already in existence was initially premature. Even today the nanocosm has not generated much solid technology. It's about to; that's inevitable. But the bulk of it is a few years, and in some cases more than a decade, away. We've only begun to sail, chart, and record; we still haven't undertaken systematic trade or colonization. Today the nanocosm is like electricity in the age of Faraday, or heredity at the time of Mendel. We are still a long way from complete scientific explanations, let alone the robust economic sectors that these insights will generate.

Still, nanoscience has recently made such staggering gains that it is undeniably on the brink of a true nanotechnology. We have now mapped enough of the nanocosm to let us make educated guesses about the type of world it will soon support. These estimates range from the merely surprising to the wig-flippingly outrageous. Some very big changes in business and leisure are about to come to us by way of the very small.

Unfortunately, whatever does arrive will have to overcome a vast amount of hyped-up public expectation. Nanotechnology may be the first new technology that gained a large and vocal community of boosters before it was even close to existing. Twenty years ago while pursuing his doctorate at MIT, K. Eric Drexler wrote what some consider the first journal paper on advanced nanotechnology, envisioning what it might be. Dr. Drexler boldly foresaw a world of molecular manufacturing, where macroscale objects were assembled atom by atom by nanoassemblers the size of molecules. Ten years ago Dr. Drexler greatly expanded this initial vision in a full-length book, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.

Dr. Drexler's book is radical only in its subject matter-namely, making nanoscale machinery.


Excerpted from Nanocosm by William Illsey Atkinson Copyright © 2005 by William Illsey Atkinson . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Lower, Slower, Smaller—Toward a Workable Nanotechnology

1.Nanoworld 2015

2.Nanoscience: Trends and Targets in World Research

3.Nanotechnology: Trends and Targets in World Commercial Development


5.Quantum Weirdness

6.Seeing Things

7.Wet Nanotech

8.Fullerenes, Buckyballs, and Hundred-Mile Elevators




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