Don't read Crichton's Prey for the science--or the story
By Chris Phoenix - December 2002
Let's imagine a horror story about baseball, in which the batter keeps hitting the ball hard enough to kill the fans. Stephen King might be able to turn that into a good story. But, after reading that story, you probably wouldn't put on protective gear the next time you went to the stadium, and you certainly wouldn't write to the baseball commissioner and demand higher fences to protect the fans from lethal flying baseballs.
Now, suppose a lesser author wrote the same story. In the middle of page 23, you realize that he doesn't know the difference between a ball and a strike. Would you put the book down, or slog through to the end? Would you even care, at that point, if someone gave away the plot? Suppose you kept reading, and in the climactic scene, someone poisoned the drinking fountains by dropping a virus into the toilet. Hey, it's all plumbing, right? It doesn't make any sense, but by that point it doesn't matter, because you've lost all respect for the author. No baseball fan could take that book seriously.
This is what it's like to be a scientist reading Michael Crichton's latest book, Prey. The book is not just wrong; it's stupid. The science is bogus. The technology is broken. And even the real-world stuff is impossible. Melting one fire sprinkler does not set off the whole system. That only works in the movies. In fact, the whole book would work great as a screenplay. And that's probably the reason Crichton wrote it--to make a mint on the movie rights. But it doesn't work as a book, and you certainly can't learn any science from it.
The rest of this article will contain spoilers. Trust me, you're not missing anything. Even the horror scenes are borrowed. A black cloud passing from one person's mouth to another: right out of The Green Mile by Stephen King. Nano-entities taking over people's bodies: Greg Bear did it a lot better in his novelette "Blood Music." The bad people melting in a spray of water: all the way back to The Wizard of Oz. The "nest" where the evil alien entities grow: borrowed directly from Aliens, right down to the icky spherical masses in ranks on the floor surrounding the central whatever-it-is.
By this point, I hope I've convinced you that Crichton does not deserve respect as a writer. Now let's check his sense of reality. As I mentioned above, you can't set off a whole sprinkler system by melting one sprinkler. Crichton also uses welder's thermite to destroy the clouds of nanobots. Bad news, Michael. According to the welding supply company I called, thermite is used for welding because it burns hot enough to melt metal--but it does not explode. I was told it probably wouldn't even ignite a sheet of paper three feet away. One more blooper, from page 133: "At the molecular level, glass is like Swiss cheese, full of holes. And of course it's a liquid, so atoms just pass right through it." So how come a glass TV tube can maintain a vacuum for decades?
Now let's look at Crichton's logic. The cloud is supposedly composed of nanobots, created by assemblers, using chemicals created by bacteria. To solve a supposed engineering problem, the bacteria were attached to the assemblers. But somehow, the bacteria snuck into the humans when they were infected by the nanobot cloud. It gets worse. When the people are splashed with a virus that attacks bacteria, not only the bacteria but the nanobots are shut down--and the people physically melt in seconds. Huh-uh. But it'll look great on the big screen!
How about the science? Well, on page 23, he confuses a "scanning probe microscope" and an "electron microscope." These are two of the most basic tools in nanotechnology, and they're not even remotely similar. He does it again on page 133. It's as bad as a baseball writer confusing balls and strikes. He writes about a nanobot that's "one ten-billionth of an inch in length." This is the size of a single atom, not a whole robot; it's like our baseball author writing about a sonic boom from a well-pitched baseball. And he consistently confuses "piezoelectric" with "photovoltaic"--again, a mistake no scientist would make.
So Crichton isn't a scientist. Am I expecting too much? The trouble is, he's writing about science, and doing his best to scare the readers about real-world nanotech. He wants you to believe that nanotech could actually be dangerous, so he's done his best to build a scenario that sounds plausible. Quick, write the baseball commissioner! The thing is, he just might succeed in scaring people. A friend of mine who's a geneticist told me that Jurassic Park set back public perception of genetic engineering by a decade. And in Prey, Crichton is deliberately trying to scare people about nanotech. By the end of this article, I hope it's obvious that Crichton has no clue what he's talking about, and his book can safely be ignored.
There isn't nearly time to cover every one of Crichton's bloopers, such as imagining that a device the size of a cell could fit inside a synapse (p. 256). But I should comment on his evolution theme, because that's the part that sounds most scary. See, Crichton would have it that a swarm of nanobots can reproduce and evolve just like bacteria can. And while evolving, they can learn; the most successful things survive, and the less successful things don't. This is a grade-school understanding of evolution. But he takes this grade-school understanding, and pretends that it can allow the swarms to learn in real time--to avoid thermite bombs after another swarm is blown up. Well, the swarm that was blown up didn't survive to reproduce. And the swarm that "saw" it happen didn't reproduce either. How could it learn? Well, it couldn't. It's more only-in-the-movies magic.
Speaking of magic, how about the way these swarms, that couldn't even stay together in a stiff breeze, were able to infect humans almost immediately? Remember, they learn by evolving--by creating new swarms. But once inside the human, they have no opportunity to do that. New swarms come from a green-glowing cave with icky wormy spheres on the floor. Nevertheless, the infecting swarm manages to make neural connections and--get this--make the people appear healthier, with no trial and error required.
Am I saying that nanotech is perfectly safe? No, of course not. The possibility of "gray goo"--self-replicating nanobots--has been raised right from the beginning. But gray goo would be very difficult to design. It would be far more complex than a car--probably more complex than the Space Shuttle. General Motors recently made headlines by taking only a few months to design a car. It's completely implausible that a failing company could engineer a gray goo in a matter of weeks, when they can't even solve a simple problem like keeping the swarm together in a breeze. Also, a gray goo needs raw materials to reproduce. For example, these particular nanobots used gallium arsenide photodetectors. Gallium is not something you find lying around the desert; neither is arsenic.
In Crichton's Hollywood universe, all scientists are mad--all but one who moans about how "nature will find a way" and "we should not play with things we don't understand". In the real world, it's the other way around. We won't have nanobots for years, maybe decades, but scientists have already written a code of practice, the "Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology," that would prohibit anything remotely like what Crichton has invented. And let's not forget the fact that evolution doesn't work the way Crichton says, so scientists wouldn't even be tempted.
If you want to read a derivative, impossible, scary story, with cardboard characters and borrowed scenes, by all means read Prey. Just don't think you're reading science. If the explanations scattered through the book don't make sense to you, it's because Crichton didn't understand them either. If you want to read something scary about real science, try The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston. Smallpox isn't as trendy as nanobots, but unlike nanobots, smallpox already exists, and could easily be used by terrorists. Publisher's Weekly says Preston's book is "...as exciting as the best thrillers, yet scarier by far, for Preston's pages deal with clear, present and very real dangers." If you want to get scared by something, at least pick something that's actually dangerous.
Chris' interest in nanotechnology began when he took Eric Drexler's class "Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering" at Stanford University in 1988. He has followed the field continuously since then, attending numerous nanotech conferences, contributing frequently to several on-line discussion lists, and helping to review a major book and a Ph.D. thesis on nanotech. He is a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute and co-moderator of the sci.nanotech newsgroup.
Other papers by Chris
See also these other articles on Prey and Nanotechnology:
Michael Crichton is very, very afraid of technological progress—again.
Reason.com December 11, 2002 Are Crichton's horrific fantasies based in reality? What evidence is there that humanity rushes headlong into misusing powerful new technologies? Practically none. Instead of using computerized probes for mind control, physicians implant them to control Parkinson's disease. Instead of carelessly bringing space viruses to Earth, NASA set up elaborate containment and decontamination systems for astronauts returning from the moon and any future remote explorers bringing back samples from other planets...
Falling Prey to Science Fiction "...so I'm going to point out something almost as obvious about Crichton's book: the factual situation that he relies on for his story is one that could only happen if the researchers in question were (1) stupid; (2) criminally negligent; and (3) willing to violate the consensus ideas about nanotechnology safety." Glenn Harlan Reynolds on Michael Crichton's new novel Prey.
Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology |
The future dances on a pin's head |
Forward to the Future: Nanotechnology and Regulatory Policy |
Small is evil |
Responsible Nanotechnology: Looking Beyond the Good News |
the complete review |
Trouble in nanoland