Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Old-Fashioned Nanotechnology

Science writer Ed Regis, who can't like his Wikipedia page, offers an Edge answer on "good old-fashioned nanotechnology":

I specify the old-fashioned version because nanotechnology is decidedly no longer what it used to be. Back in the mid-1980s when Eric Drexler first popularized the concept in his book Engines of Creation, the term referred to a radical and grandiose molecular manufacturing scheme. The idea was that scientists and engineers would construct vast fleets of "assemblers," molecular-scale, programmable devices that would build objects of practically any arbitrary size and complexity, from the molecules up. Program the assemblers to put together an SUV, a sailboat, or a spacecraft, and they'd do it—automatically, and without human aid or intervention. Further, they'd do it using cheap, readily-available feedstock molecules as raw materials.

Regis laments the redefinition of nanotechnology to simply nanoscale chemistry and the advent of nanotechnology marketing like nano facial creams. Admitting that I don't have a comprehensive knowledge of nanotechnology's past, it seems silly and confusing to make these sorts of distinctions. Nanoscale engineering seems like a decent purview for nanotechnology. The incorporation of nano materials into everyday products and life is not simply a marketing gimmick and is likely to change many things. Some people are even very concerned about it, as in this worthwhile article Our Silver-Coated Future by Robin Marantz Henig. Beyond lamenting definitions, Regis offers a nice review of nanotechnology and some contemplation of future of the molecular assemblers.

Check out nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler's blog at He has a recent post on these amazing animations of natural molecular machines - bacteriophage assembly and infection (image of one is above, credit Seyet LLC).