Nanovision: Engineering the Future

  • Colin Milburn
Duke University Press: 2008. 296 pp. $22.95, £17.99 9780822342656 | ISBN: 978-0-8223-4265-6

Nanotechnology, we are often told, will change every aspect of our lives. It is easy to hype such claims because of the long timescales for approving a new technology for commercialization. The science itself can sound like science fiction at times, and fears about how nanotechnology will be realized in the future crop up in works of fiction. In Nanovision, historian of science Colin Milburn proposes that such speculation is an integral part of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is often portrayed in fiction as destructive, but public perceptions are more positive. Credit: B. TEMPLESMITH

Milburn examines nanotechnology in a wealth of science-fiction texts, investigating such themes as the manipulation of matter, artificial life forms and the spread of nanobots as a 'grey goo' that ultimately consumes Earth. Many writers portray the science in a negative light, as the enabler of humankind's destruction or enslavement. Other imaginative works simply exploit differences between the physical laws that rule the nanoworld and the macroworld we live in, such as the effect of surface tension on a microscopic fictional organism. Milburn also looks at individuals who have straddled the fields of science and sci-fi, including molecular engineer and futurologist Eric Drexler, and carbon-nanotube discoverer Richard Smalley, who envisioned an elevator made of nanotubes stretching from Earth into space.

The book fills gaps that most nanoscientists have in their knowledge about the history of a field that has evolved so fast as to effectively obscure its founders. However, Milburn tries too hard to prove the mix of science and fiction. In focusing on nanotechnology, he neglects the fact that forward thinking, technology forecasting and hyped claims are common to many scientific disciplines, such as genetics, energy research and space flight. More worryingly, he confuses theoretical science and fiction, missing the point that theories are not just speculation but are underpinned by mathematics, physical laws and reproducible calculations. His analysis also takes too literally the timetables and roadmaps contained in grant proposals and the like; documents that scientists consider to be indicative rather than prescriptive.

Some parts of the book, even the introduction, are difficult to follow. The writing is shrouded in the complex language of postmodern literary theory, and is often as dense as a hard-core physics paper. Milburn's references to gendered themes of male domination, even when discussing scientific instruments such as the scanning tunnelling microscope, are sometimes involuntarily comical. Yet he ignores the large number of women in nanoscience and their views: no female nanoscientists are cited in the book.

Nanovision is not the place to seek clues about where nanotechnology is going, as it contains few scientific developments past the start of this decade. Beyond the hype, many useful applications — ranging from self-cleaning surfaces to sunscreen lotion containing nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, to nanocomposite materials in the car industry — are already on the market. Furthermore, in contrast to fears that the world will be devoured by grey goo, studies have shown that public perceptions of nanotechnology are mostly positive. Although there are real and tangible risks regarding the toxicity of nanomaterials, the scaremongering that fascinates Milburn is not such a pressing concern. But if you like a romp through themes that mix current nanoscience and literature in interesting ways, Milburn's book is a valuable read. Perhaps reality is stranger than fiction.