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the nanotechnology column


Nanoveau is a new column by Nano author John Robert Marlow. This column will cover the science, the speculation, and (occasionally) the politics of nanotechnology and related topics. If you want to know what nanotech is about, and how and why it will change everything we know—Nanoveau is for you. The name Nanoveau is a combination of nanotechnology and nouveau, the French word meaning new. This column is presented in cooperation with Nanotechnology Now. Visit the Nanoveau homepage.

John Robert Marlow
John Robert Marlow

NANOVEAU #001:  Digital Matter—Understanding Nanotechnology
by John Robert Marlow

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"[Nanotechnology is] a development which I think cannot be avoided."
—Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate, Physics


Nanotechnology is not difficult to understand. Though the science is complex, the basic principles are not. Newcomers often have more trouble wrapping their minds around the concept than grasping the details. The coming Age of Nanotechnology might best be described as the Age of Digital Matter, for it will be a time in which it becomes possible to manipulate the physical world in much the same way that a computer now manipulates the digital ones and zeroes on its hard drive.

There are 116 known elements, or types of atoms. The world and everything in it is made up of atoms of one or some combination of those elements. The arrangement and combination of these atoms determines what a thing will be. Consider the element of carbon: arrange a gaggle of carbon atoms one way, and you have a worthless lump of graphite; arrange them a bit differently, and you have a diamond. Combined with oxygen atoms, they become a gas floating through the atmosphere. When arranged in yet another manner, and combined with several additional elements—those same atoms form a human being.

And just as the digital ones and zeroes of a computer's binary code can be arranged to form mathematical formulae, a symphony, an invitation to a hate rally or pornography—any object on earth can be torn apart into its basic atoms, which can then be used to build something else.

In the same way that the hate rally invitation can be deleted and overwritten with, say, Beethoven's Ninth, it will be possible to disassemble a car, a building, or a person—and use their atoms to build something else. It will also be possible (and more common) to gather the necessary atoms from a junkyard, a dump, or the environment itself—and then use those atoms to make something useful.

Nanotech is, at its heart, a technology which will allow us to work directly with the basic building blocks of matter—to manipulate individual atoms at will. Because human hands are millions of times too large to do this, we must construct incredibly small machines, or nanodevices, to do the work for us. Such devices are now being developed.


The scale at which nanotechnology operates is mind-bendingly small. The word nano (which is Greek for dwarf, and in the scientific world means one-billionth) is short for nanometer. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter, which is a bit more than a yard—so it takes one billion (1,000,000,000) nanometers to add up to one meter, which is a little longer than a yardstick. To put this in perspective, the average thickness of a human hair is 50,000 nanometers. A human blood cell, which can be seen only with the aid of a microscope, is about 5,000 nanometers across. The distance across the nail on your little finger (which grows at a rate of about one nanometer per second) is about 10 million nanometers.

Understandably, a lot of effort has gone into explaining just how incredibly small things are at this level, which is called the nanoscale. Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto recently drew the following analogy: if, a moment from now, the scale of all things increased to the point where a human head was as big as the earth is now, one nanometer would be—a moment from now—the size of a human head.

It has been estimated that a free-roving nanodevice (also called a nanite, nanobot, or nanorobot) will be approximately 250 nanometers across. Put another way, it would take 200 of these devices lined up side by side to equal the width of a single human hair. Obviously, building these and other nanoscale devices will not be easy, but surprisingly swift progress is being made. Between 1997 and mid-2003, worldwide government spending on nanotechnology increased 700%. More recently, the United States committed $5 billion dollars to nanotech research and development efforts. Private industry is likely spending as much or more.


The concept now known as nanotechnology was first proposed by Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman in a dinner speech at the 1959 Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society. Feynman, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb, noted that "the principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big." He went on to describe this atomic-level manipulation (the term nanotechnology had yet to be coined) as "a development which I think cannot be avoided." As usual, Feynman was correct—and ahead of his time.

It would be several decades before the means to transform Feyman's dinnertime speculation into reality appeared on the horizon. The first to grasp the fact that those means were coming within reach was K. Eric Drexler. He coined the term nanotechnology, published the first scientific paper on the topic in 1981, and authored several books about it, including Engines of Creation and the technical treatise Nanosystems. Drexler also co-founded the nonprofit Foresight Institute to "guide emerging technologies and improve the human condition." Foresight's primary focus is the science of nanotechnology and its effect on society.

Drexler and Foresight were the primary forces exploring nanotech's possibilities and formulating guidelines for the ethical development and use of the technology, and both remain prominent today. It is largely due to their efforts that nanotechnology has entered the public eye.


The uses (and potential abuses) of nanotechnology are staggering. Nobel laureate chemist Richard E. Smalley, in a presentation to the U.S. House Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Basic Research, said in 1999: "The impact of nanotechnology on health, wealth, and lives of people will be at least the equivalent of the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering and man-made polymers [plastics] developed in this century." Many would call this statement conservative. Indeed, there is no life, no community, no company or nation which will not be profoundly affected by this technology.

On the darker side, Admiral David E. Jeremiah, Vice-Chairman (ret.) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the second highest-ranking military officer in the United States, has said that "military applications of molecular manufacturing [another term for nanotechnology] have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of power." Which may explain why the same national laboratories which developed the atomic and hydrogen bombs are now working to develop nanotechnology. Military or other applications could do more than change the balance of power: Eric Drexler has cautioned that an improperly-handled nanotech could "reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days."

Just a few of the many good things this technology will make possible: pollution reversal (because pollutants can be reduced to their component atoms and recycled); elimination of disease and genetic defects (because the body's cells and DNA can be altered); eradication of poverty (because production costs of nearly all products—including food—will drop to near-zero); microscopic computers faster than today's best supercomputers (because of radical miniaturization); inexpensive space travel (low production costs for lighter and stronger materials), and; the indefinite extension of human lifespan (because cells which grow old or damaged can be completely restored). All of these topics, and more, will be discussed at length in future columns.


Nanotechnology will make possible the realization of Mankind's noblest aspirations—and his darkest nightmares. How we handle, or mishandle, nanotech will determine the fate of this planet, and the destiny of Mankind. Because of this, it is vital that as many people as possible understand the technology's capabilities, both good and bad—and act to ensure a safe and prosperous future for humanity.

For as Albert Einstein once said of atomic energy, "there is no secret and there is no defense; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world. ... In this lies our only security and our only hope—we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not death."


Don't miss Nanoveau #002: The Sound of Inevitability, explaining why nanotechnology will happen, and featuring writer/producer/director James Cameron's exclusive comments on nanotechnology and the future of humanity. Coming June 1st.


Thanks to Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology for vetting this column.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  John Robert Marlow is a freelance journalist, screenwriter, and author of the novel Nano. All columns, fully-sourced, can be found on the Nanoveau homepage - along with a nanofaq, nanolinks, and more. The content of this column is copyright © by John Robert Marlow, all rights reserved. The first column (Digital Matter—Understanding Nanotechnology) may be freely copied subject to the conditions stated on the Nanoveau rights page, which also contains syndication information.

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"Mark Twain once advised his readers: 'Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.' Something similar might be said of nanotechnology - though in this case, the world could die of a misprint, or a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the people charged with making policy in this area often lack a complete understanding of the most fundamental concepts of nanotechnology."

Marlow's work has often specialized in two areas: explaining complex scientific and medical topics in understandable terms for a general audience, and weapons & tactics for law enforcement and counterterrorist publications.

"Simply put, with billions of dollars in government nanofunding about to materialize, and private investors eager to capitalize (and capitalize on) research results, everyone and his brother suddenly claimed (often with little or no justification) to be working in the hot field of "nanotechnology"-something akin to the recent dot-com boom. The unfortunate effect has been to confuse the public as to just what nanotech really is (for a particularly absurd example, see Little Robots In Your Pants, a transcript of a recorded conversation with clothier Dockers' customer service department).

This is of course good for those not really working on nanotech (but receiving funds from those who think they are), and bad for both those actually engaged in the field-who are bound to be damaged in the public's perception when the fake nanocompanies are exposed and/or fail-and those who simply want to see the field advance as swiftly as possible."

Excerpt from the April NanoNews Now Monthly Report on Nanotechnology & Security by John Robert Marlow ... read the entire article and much more.

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