Big Science, Small Miracles


By George Alexander, Illustrations by Josh Dorman

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:05 AM

The California NanoSystems Institute's headquarters is seven stories and 188,000 square feet of space that includes labs, clean rooms, and specially engineered space to house, among many other wonders, an Atomic Force Microscope. There are also vast community areas to stimulate collaboration among researchers, six outdoor terraces, a 260-seat theater, and 11 conference and break rooms equipped with kitchenettes.
Photo by Reed Hutchinson '71.

A Small (but Select) Nanotechnology Reading List

Scientists aren't the only people entranced by nanotechnology. Writers love it too, particularly science-fiction authors. The science of the super-small is featured in a long and growing list of books, mostly as a catch-all explanation for any number of fantastic abilities or future worlds. A sampler of some of the more noteworthy:

1956: "The Next Tenants," by Arthur C. Clarke. The science-fiction icon's short story isn't about nanotechnology per se, but it does feature tiny machines that operate on a microscale (a millionth of a meter). That's gigantic compared to nanoscale (a billionth of a meter), but the idea is basically the same.

1959: "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," by Richard Feynman. This famous talk given by the legendary physicist at Caltech isn't fiction, but it explores what Feynman described as "the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale." Some cite this speech as the first public discussion of the concept.

1985: "Blood Music," by Greg Bear. In this best-seller, a fired and maladjusted cellular biologist injects himself with his own creations — what one reviewer describes as "microscopic biological computers." Not surprisingly, things go very, very wrong.

1986: "Engines of Creation," by K. Eric Drexler. This is nonfiction also, but it makes the list because it is considered one of the general public's first introductions to nanotechnology itself. The book looks at implications for engineering, medicine, the economy, the environment and other areas, and ponders how nanotech will play out in the future.

1993: "Assemblers of Infinity," by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason. Many works of fiction explore how humanity might misuse nanotechnology. This novel dives into an even weirder concept: What would alien nanotech be like?

1994: "Queen City Jazz," by Kathleen Ann Goonan. A nanoplague threatens humanity in this twisted vision of the future, in which a strange young girl searches for answers in the "enlivened" city of Cincinnati. This is the first of four novels in Goonan's "Nanotech Quartet" series.

2002: "Prey," by Michael Crichton. In the late author's best-selling thriller, a swarm of killer nanobots break free of the scientists who created them and wreak havoc.