Nanovision: Engineering the Future

December 11, 2008

A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. It is the size of a fullerene molecule consisting of 60 carbon atoms. Chemists have long been able to manipulate large numbers of molecules on this scale, and cooks have been doing it for several millennia. One of the remarkable developments of modern nanotechnology has been the ability to control individual molecules and atoms on the nanoscale, and then to see where you have put them.

The scanning tunnelling microscope enabled single atoms on surfaces to be imaged, and before long it was discovered how to use the tip not only for seeing them, but also for moving the atoms with sub-nanometre precision. In electron microscopes, aberration correction has enabled resolution of less than a tenth of a nanometre to become routine without causing any damage to the sample.

It is now becoming common to introduce a nanomanipulator into an electron microscope, so that you can see what you are doing as you probe the sample, like someone threading a needle whose eyesight is failing but who has acquired a new pair of spectacles. If you like, you can call this nanovision.

If Nanovision by Colin Milburn were a clear exposition of this process, it could be a stimulating book about an exciting topic. Or it could be a vision for the development of nanotechnology. But it is hard to be sure. "Nanovision," writes Milburn, "is a perceptual apparatus endemic to the era of nanotechnology, molecularising our world only to perform its atomic reconstruction, envisioning ultimate limits only to speculate on their outside, fabricating barriers only to tunnel through them, projecting opaque walls only to find the very project an excuse or an opening for spectacular insight".

Most of the book is similarly obscure, leaving the reader to sense that there may be something very exciting in the relationship between "the technological present and the nanotechnological future" but little wiser about the facts or the underlying concepts.

Nanovision is written from a literary perspective. Quotations come thick and fast. Some are from practitioners, such as a quote from the author's namesake Gerard Milburn who has made major contributions to quantum nanoscience. But statements by Nobel laureates are set alongside assertions by journalists and popularisers, with little attempt either to expound the science that lies behind them or to evaluate their validity. Like a drunken man staggering from one lamppost to another, the author clutches at quotations for support rather than illumination.

Pages on end are devoted to protracted synopses of science fiction, providing a compendium of nanofiction but contributing little to any vision of what the science is or where the field is going. Nanovision could be an account of the exciting potential developments and applications of nanotechnology, such as drug delivery or quantum computing. Instead we are offered a barrage of neonanologisms: nanogoo, nanofuture, nanofiction, nanobacteria, nanodiscourse, nanorhetoric ... All that is missing is a nanoindex.

New graduate students in my laboratory are required to write a literature review in their first year. In John Betjeman's Oxford (originally published as An Oxford University Chest), two examples are given of atrocious writing styles, each constructed to be bad in its own way. I plan to use Nanovision to allow students to see a truly dreadful survey of the subject, in the hope that they will learn to do better.

Nanovision: Engineering the Future.

By Colin Milburn. Duke University Press. 304 pages, £52.00 and £13.99. ISBN 9780822390282 and 42656. Published 25 December 2008

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