Nanotechnology

Eric K. Drexler, “Radical Abundance”

radical_abundance
Eric Drexler catalyzed the nanotechnology craze in the 1980s with his popular book “Engines of Creation” and numerous lectures around the world, promising that the limits to growth predicted in the 1970s could be overcome, and society transformed, by a nanotech revolution. Now, in 2013, Drexler has finally published another futurist account of the (still) coming nanotech revolution. How has his vision changed?

Read More...

Report Finds Nano-Energy to be "Greenwashing"

This extensive 2010 report, released by international environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth, surveys many nanotechnology products being researched, developed, or already on the market related to energy production and storage. The authors of the report note that nanotechnology advocates have been promising huge gains in energy generation and storage efficiency and flexibility for many years; for the most part, these gains haven’t been realized. More troubling, according to the authors of the report, are the lack of life cycle analysis of various nanotech products, and “greenwashing” that take the form of claiming great gains in energy conversion in the field while completely ignoring the energy costs that have gone into the making of the products themselves, as well as the environmental risks associated with releasing nanoparticles into the environment.

Read More...

Travis Bradford, "Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry"

Bradford argues in “Solar Revolution” that a transition to a worldwide energy economy based primarily upon solar collection is not only inevitable but in fact imminent. This is a surprising stance given that solar energy accounts for less than 1% of today’s electricity generation, is critically underfunded with regard to its competitors, and is generally considered to be economically uncompetitive. Bradford’s argument, however, is predictive rather than prescriptive...

Read More...

K. Eric Drexler, "Engines of Creation"

Drexler's now-classic text, which Ray Kurzweil claims (on the back “cover” of etext-only Version 2.0) “established the revolutionary new field of nanotechnology,” presented, upon its first publication in 1986, an astonishingly comprehensive vision of a nanofuture that he claimed would be ushered in by a “replication breakthrough,” forever changing how humans interact with each other and the world at large. Drexler's book is written for a popular audience, and its clear intent is to help bring about the transformations he envisions. That is, by envisioning them he provides a roadmap, a dream, a nano-imagining that can be transmitted to others, taken up as a cause, worked toward as an enabling (science) fiction.

Read More...

Wil McCarthy, "Bloom"

Wil McCarthy's 1999 science fiction novel explores nanotechnology that has escaped humanity's control, become its greatest enemy, or rather competitor, for in the future vision nanotech is very much alive, and taking over the solar system. As the novel opens, the humans have already been defeated: decades earlier nano-replicators ran amok on Earth, leading to an emergent living system known as “Mycora,” a substance that—at least in the presence of heat—consumes most forms of matter it comes in contact with, transforming it into more of itself. The emergency evacuation of Earth to escape the spreading Mycosystem has left the remnants of humanity...

Read More...

Robert Heinlein, "Waldo"

Heinlein's 1942 novella prefigures (and according to Colin Milburn, partially determines) the scientific field of nanotechnology. It chronicles a series of strange happenings that seem to defy scientific understanding, and the attempts by the titular character to account for, and control, them. Set in the future, the text posits a time ruled by absolute scientific rationality. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle has been explained away; physics is back on course as an exact science, able to explain physical phenomena at all scales without encountering any indeterminability. This thematic move on Heinlein's part is interesting, for it is precisely at the subatomic level—the level that nanotechnology is concerned with—that we currently understand matter to behave in indeterminable ways...

Read More...

Colin Milburn, "Nanovision" Part I: Science and Fiction

Nanovision, Part I: Science and Fiction Colin Milburn tackles nanotechnology from a cultural/science studies perspective in his whirlwind 2007 book, “Nanovision.” He is particularly interested in nanotech discourse; that is, how and why nanotech narratives are produced by scientists, popular news media, and science fiction writers. His basic thesis is that when we trace these narratives out, we find them inextricably linked to one another as mutually constitutive. While certainly not claiming that nanotech research is unscientific, he does claim that such research is prescribed by the nanotech discourse—that the form it takes arises from discourse that is as much fiction as science. The two cannot be separated.

Read More...

Colin Milburn, "Nanovision" Part III: Gray Goo

Nanovision, Part III: Gray Goo In charting out the various futurist strands in nanotechnology discourse in his book “Nanovision,” Colin Milburn devotes a great deal of space to the “gray goo scenario.” This is the inevitable corollary to the dream of complete control of all matter: namely, that self-organizing nanobots, drawing no distinction between different sorts of matter (organic vs. nonorganic, for instance), could devour the entire world, turning it into amorphous, non-differentiated soup. This homogeneity and indiscrimination is meant to be captured by the term “gray goo,” and it figures prominently in nanodiscourse, both in scientific literature and science fiction novels. Milburn asks, “what kind of cultural work [this] fantasy [is] performing?” (119)

Read More...

Christopher Newfield, "Nano-Punk for Tomorrow’s People"

Christopher Newfield reports his thoughts on the Tomorrow's People Conference at Oxford in March 2006, focusing on “enhancement of the human” through future technological advances, particularly in the field of nanotechnology. Newfield notes that while many scholars presented well-developed scientific narratives of transhumanism, they largely failed to provide sufficiently robust social narratives to complement them. Other presenters and audience members spoke of the socio-political side of transhumanism but focused primarily on dystopian narratives.

Read More...

Christopher Newfield, "Is Nanotechnology Changing Scientific Collaboration? Survey Evidence from a Nano-Oriented Campus"

This article presents and interprets the findings of a 2007 survey of 1,939 individuals involved in nanotechnology-related research at a large university in the Western United States. Nanotechnology had long been described by policymakers and researchers themselves as a particularly interdisciplinary field. The survey sought to discover how widely this perspective is held by rank-and-file researchers, and to characterize the nature of the collaboration. The project's three hypotheses, all of which were confirmed by the survey results, were...

Read More...

Patrick McCray, "From Lab to iPod: A Story of Discovery and Commercialization in the Post–Cold War Era"

McCray traces the history of “giant magnetoresistance” (GMR)—a phenomenon resulting from the nature of electron spin—from its simultaneous discovery in 1988 by Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert (2007 Nobel Prize winners) through its commercial development and application within the electronics industry. Early on, engineers at IBM harnessed the basic science of GMR to develop a “spin valve” that dramatically improved the performance and size of their hard drives, a technology they licensed to all leading hard drive manufacturers, leading to a revolution in that particular industry. This early success lead to the perception within the broader electronics industry that GMR could be exploited in a wide array of portable electronics, dubbed “spintronics”.

Read More...

Ray Kurzweil: “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence”

Celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil's second book of predictions, published in 1999, charts a narrative of exponential technological change from 1900 to 2099. The author here elaborates his theory of “accelerating returns,” derived from his more encompassing “law of time and chaos"...

Read More...

Lyon Workshop Videos

These videotaped sessions are from the "States of Innovation: Research Policy and Practice After 10 Years of the National Nanotechnology Initiative" Workshop held in Lyon, France, April 28-30, 2010.

Read More...

When the Public Shapes Science: a Bibliography

Books and articles that examine paradigms of public and non-profit scientific problem solving and knowledge acquisition.

Read More...

Greg Bear, "Blood Music"

“Blood Music,” now twenty-five years old, was one of the first science fiction novels to explore the hypothetical consequences of nanotechnology run amok. It concerns the emergence, rapid development, and eventual planet-wide takeover of a new race of microbiological organisms called “noocytes.” They are created in a laboratory by Vergil Ulam, but are not entirely the product of his mind. He creates the creatures, “intellectual cells” or “cellular computers,” by creating an RNA-DNA feedback loop, effectively activating the introns...

Read More...

Ed Regis, "Nano"

Ed Regis' book is part historiography, part science popularization, part exuberant futurology, and mostly a biography of Eric Drexler. Ostensibly an exploration of the history and significance of the nanotechnological boom just recently materializing (the book was published in 1995), Regis chooses the story of Drexler and his books as the narrative backbone of his own. This is immediately apparent when the book opens with...

Read More...

B Von Roedern, H Ulal, "Critical issues for commercialization of thin-film PV technologies"

This article serves as a summary of the state of thin-film photovoltaic cell technology, circa February 2008. It notes that thin-film technology is rapidly taking increasing its share of the solar market (from 6% to 44% in the US in under three years). Particular attention is given to First Solar's 40MW solar field, in the process of being installed at the time in Saxony, Germany...

Read More...

Colin Milburn, "Nanovision" Part II: Beyond Fabrication

Colin Milburn, in his 2007 book “Nanovision,” closely examines the tropes of nanotech discourse, which does not merely arise out of nanotech research, but also shapes the form that research takes. Milburn claims that this holds true right down to the primary instrument used by nanotech researchers, the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). This device is envisioned by researchers as both an imaging device and a probe, an extension of sorts of the human hand.

Read More...

Charles Weiss, William B. Bonvillian, "Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution"

In this thoughtful, comprehensive book, Weiss and Bonvillian argue for a coherent, long-term approach to U.S. energy policy that balances market/demand pull and technology push. The former, they insist (embodied in a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system) is not sufficient to fundamentally change either U.S. energy independence or GHG emissions. They call for "a new integrated analytic framework." The framework would need to be technology neutral; it must stimulate private sector competition, not promote or require any particular technology. It must also take into account that new technologies don't face an open, new market, but rather one saturated with cost-effective, politically supported, popular incumbent technologies; we should think of this competitive space as an "anti-commons."

Read More...

Christopher Newfield, "Risky Business: Why Public Is Losing to Private in American Research"

Newfield here explores how narratives of public funding function within public and political spheres, while at the same time analyzing the role that public funding plays in technological innovation networks. He articulates the interplay between the two and tracks changes in each over the past thirty years through his own narrative device: a multi-generational extension of the central narrative of the 1983 film “Risky Business.” Newfield begins with an analysis of the film itself, noting that it provides a snapshot of the political, economic, and educational zeitgeist of the early '80s, as well as a popular hero narrative appropriate to that milieu...

Read More...

Christopher Newfield, "Avoiding Network Failure: The Case of the National Nanotechnology Initiative"

Christopher Newfield discusses the role of the federal government in correcting “market failure” by acting as an investor of last result for high-risk technologies that may have large eventual payoffs for society, yet which require many years—or decades—to develop. He uses the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as a case study for this form of government research. Drawing on David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old, he emphasizes that the amount of money spent nationally on R&D does not correlate with a higher GDP.

Read More...