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Book Review: Nanocosm

From Annual Letter 2005

 

Nanocosm
Nanotechnology and the Big Changes coming from the Inconceivably Small

William Illsey Atkinson
Amacom, New York, 2005 Edition

A survey of nanotechnology for laymen, targeted to potential investors and the merely curious, i.e., the typical Scientific American subscriber. Bonus: a nice foreword by Richard Smalley, co-discoverer of buckyballs.

William Atkinson is a less charitable sort, and he cuts Drexler zero slack.

Nanocosm, by Bill Atkinson, is an excellent dose of common sense for those of us who want to cut through all the crap and just find out what's going on. Why are buckyballs so important? Atkinson tells us, in plain comprehensible language. Like most writers in the pop-nanotech genre, Atkinson has a section on predictions, but they are all very safe bets, grounded on real work that is now being conducted in labs worldwide.

Bill Atkinson accurately identifies the computer hardware and pharmaceutical industries as the places where nanotechnology holds the most immediate promise for capital investment. After all, the free market is actively compelling these industries to deliver applied systems on microscopic scales. This is why nanoscale materials science holds so much promise for the computing and pharmaceutical industries in the short term.

Atkinson makes no attempt to pull his punches when it comes to the more fanciful types of misinformation that are being bandied about. This is understandable; the book is supposed to be a primer for potential investors.

He saves his hardest uppercut for the self-professed Father of Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler. Atkinson says that Drexler's universal assembler is unworkable. He is probably right. He says Drexler sounds more like a televangelist than a scientist. This claim probably does insult to televangelists. Atkinson says Drexler's adherents are true believers. He calls them Drexlerians, and he calls Drexler's religion Drexlerianism. I think this ascribes too much piety to the movement. Drexlerians remind me more of pasty-skinned Trekkies than your typical brainwashed cult member. Be that as it may, Atkinson is probably being too hard on Drexler and his groupies. Whatever Drexler's faults, one cannot deny that he has galvanized a movement, and that nanotechnology would not be a movement without his contribution. It is easy to imagine Drexler being flattered by the criticism. The pups love to pick on the top dog, and the top dog just smiles.

Atkinson's attack, for all its stridency, is arguably misplaced. If his book had gone to press just six months later, he would have had a much better target at his disposal. A target with few (if any) redeeming qualities, coupled with a godlike arrogance. A target, namely, like Raymond Kurzweil.

Nanotechnology as Science Fiction (the ultrafantabulous end of the spectrum):

     Book Review: The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

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