Just So Science – Nanotech in 1995

By Elf Eldridge 28/12/2011

Having had the amazing fortune of some free time over the Christmas period, I’ve just finished reading a rather excellent book re-telling the story behind some of the development of nanotechnology. The book in question is “Nano!” by Ed Regis, and provides an interesting perspective on the life and struggles of K. Eric Drexler, commonly attributed with the conception and drive behind much of the development of nanotechnology. Drexler, along with Feynman, was one of the few who was able to succinctly and eloquently express his vision for the future of mankind, should the manipulation and control of individual molecules become possible – the idea at the heart of true molecular nanotechnology. And what a future they imagine! A world where perfect molecular control is achieved (or so they say) would be a world without material needs, without hunger, without disease or aging. A veritable utopia.

Many critics would argue, that such a world would have its own set of problems: boredom, unemployment and sloth amongst the highest on the list. Perhaps. Although one can also argue that science’s nature is curiosity, and seldom is one problem ever solved without creating at least one or two more questions. Critics could also argue the dangers of nanotechnology, the ‘grey goo’ hypothesis that i have mentioned before. Yet most critics seemed to arise from the angle, boring and oversimplistic that it is (in my humble opinion at any rate!), that nanotechnology was simply impossible.

‘Impossible’ to design a functional motor that was too small to see with the unaided eye. This, it turns out, was achieved in 1960. ‘Impossible’ to manipulate and move individual atoms. This was achieved in 1981 with the development of the first Scanning Tunneling Microscope. ‘Impossible’ to write the first page of a book on the head of a pin. This was achieved in 1985 with the first page of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities“.

That said, many of the dreams and vast societal changes described by the book as being ‘just around the corner’ (N.B. it was originally published in 1995), have yet to be realised. One cannot read these imaginings without an air of disbelief, as many of the claims do seem entirely ridiculous and outlandish at first. However, this does not change the fact that the basic ideas behind molecular nanotechnology still hold. And that, despite technical hurdles along the way, unless we encounter some as-yet undiscovered physical law that actively prevents us from assembling objects from the molecular scale, at some point in our future this technology will become readily available.

And I for one, can’t wait to see that day. But for the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with our imaginations, and books such as these that tantalise us with glimpses of a possible future, very different to the world we know of today. The next post will attempt to delve a little more into a specific example of genuine, nanotechnological engineering.