Ed Regisi

Bantam Press, 307pp, 1995, £16.99
A review for Vector by Simon Bisson

We're all familiar with the machines that both make up and manufacture our 20th century world. The engines of industry are large and visible. Now take a step into tomorrow, where a box in the corner of the room provides all your daily needs. Tomorrow's engines of creation are going to be so small as to be invisible: the nanotechnological dreams of the young American scientist K. Eric Drexler. Nanotechnology is the science of molecular machines: molecules moulded into devices that can manipulate individual atoms. If Drexler is to be believed, nanotechnology promises a future of unlimited plenty and almost eternal life. His is a possible future that could exceed the boundaries of even the wildest science fictional speculations.

Ed Regis is a science writer fascinated by the fringes of science and technology. His previous book, Great Mambo Chicken And The Transhuman Condition, was a voyage through the wilder Californian extremes of science - from cryogenically frozen heads to the strange edges of advanced robotics. With Nano! Regis is focusing in, pointing his journalistic microscope at the developing science of molecular nanotechnology. Like his fellow science journalist James Gleick, Regis uses the tool of biography to explore the history of a science. In the acclaimed Genius Gleick used Richard Feynman's life to illustrate the development of quantum electro-dynamics, and so, with Nano! Regis explores the short history of nanotechnology in tandem with the life of its prophet and theorist, Kim Eric Drexler.

Drexler's life forms the centrepiece of Regis' book: from his early days as part of Gerard O'Neill's space study group, to his testimony before a US senate commission. In his exploration of the young scientist's motivations (Drexler is not yet 40), Regis returns again and again to the Club of Rome's pessimistic futurological study The Limits To Growth. Here is the heart of Drexler's dreams - a desire to save the world from stasis and decay. But nanotechnology isn't an instant techno-fix, and Regis isn't afraid to show the dangers of the technology, amongst them the possibility of a world eating swarm of rogue nanomachines.

In the best of journalistic modes, Nano! is happy to look at the ideas of Drexler's critics as well as his supporters. The controversial nature of nanotechnology means that Drexler has many vocal critics across many different fields. As Regis and the critics point out, there are many physical obstacles to the development of nanomachines. Regis uses the criticisms as a basis for a plea for more research into the problems and their possible solutions. Drexler's conflicts with heterodox science make interesting reading, and their resolutions and explanations cast light onto the mechanisms that drive the physical sciences. Of course any modern day work of scientific journalism, especially one dealing with the physical sciences, can't escape the obligatory reference to Richard Feynman. In Nano!, however, Feynman's place is deserved, as in a nine-days wonder 1950s speech, Feynman challenged scientists to think about constructing atomic scale devices; a speech that twenty years later encouraged Drexler to publish his early nanotechnology speculations.

Regis' Nano! is an entertaining look at the development of what could be a truly revolutionary science, one that has inspired many recent works of Sf, by authors who span the alphabet: from Poul Anderson to George Zebrowski. The book is a worthy overview of a complex topic, giving a solid grounding in the scientific background of nanotechnology, and the interested reader can then take the next step into Drexler's own works: the polemical The Engines Of Creation and his textbook of molecular nanotechnology, Nanosystems.