iConrad writes "I first found this book on EDN which described it by saying, 'It collects many ideas about what nanotech is doing and has the potential to do without the breathless hype.' I've read the Drexler books and pretty much everything else I can find about nano, so I already know that nano will save the world, replace humanity, etc., etc. (Sigh.) What I didn't know (and I think this book really told me) is what nanotechnology really is, what it is doing right now, what it will mean for businesses, and why I should care." Read on for the rest of iConrad's review.
In other words, I started this book very skeptical, but it convinced me. I don't know how many of you have heard of Mark Ratner, but he is credited with being the first to speculate on using individual molecules as components in electronic circuits back in 1974. If you read about molecular electronics now (or go to any moletronics conferences) you'll see his name come up constantly. He is also associate director of the nanotech institute at Northwestern University, the first dedicated nanotech center in the country. This is not like reading a lot of the books out there - he really knows his stuff.
The book starts with a general introduction, talks about hype, nanobots, and the big budgets that are out there for nanotech research. It opens a lot of questions, including ethical issues and a little bit of skepticism which I think is very healthy for a science which promises a lot, but has yet to truly distinguish itself.
After the introduction, there is a chapter which gets to the heart of matters -- it explains that nanotech is not just the ultimate level of miniaturization, but that it is special since it is at the interface of bulk properties, quantum properties, and the key elements in life processes (such as DNA). It also sets the stage for the heart of the book -- chapters on tools for the nanosciences (ever wonder why nano wasn't real until now even though Feynman started talking about it in the 1960s?), a grand tour which will quickly dispel any illusions that nanotechnology is all about nanobots a la Bill Joy and Star Trek, and chapters on smart materials, biomedical applications, sensors, optics, and electronics. There is also recap of some basic science, but not many Slashdotters will need that.
While the hype may not be breathless, these chapters left me that way. What the Ratners discuss is real, in context, and discussed intelligently and thoughtfully. They gave me enough science to explain what they are talking about but not enough to distract me and they include a dash of some appropriately wry humor to lighten things up. There are illustrations throughout and a color inset in the middle. The illustrations are clearly from lab work -- their quality varies significantly, but I found them very useful indeed.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the sidebars -- there are sections on DNA computing, quantum computing, swarm computing, nanotubes, lab-on-a-chip, and other applications. These are short, sweet, and, as always, to the point.
The book ends with two chapters on business and ethics. Unlike most nanotech books I've read, there was some substantial thought here. Ethical issues such as intellectual property concerns as well as health issues were treated at some length. The book doesn't come to conclusions on these points -- it attempts to present a balanced discussion and actively encourages readers to enter the debate. The business section was obviously written by someone who lived through the dot-com bubble (I'm guessing this was Mark's coauthor, Dan). Some of the points were obvious, but the analysis for investors is something well worth reading (attention VCs!) and again, the authors set the sights at a reasonable level. They point out that there are fortunes to be made, but not by accident. They also make some predictions about where the money is.
My only complaints about this book were that a few of the pictures were not of ideal quality, and that the companion web site wasn't very exciting (though they promise to update it.) All in all I found the book to be an ideal mix of technical and non-technical, a superb survey of a complex field, and an interesting read throughout. It leaves all of the other "introduction to nano" books in the shade -- perhaps because it is written by a pioneer in the field as well as someone who has thought about how to make it pay. I considered it required reading for anyone who wants to understand what nano is really about.
You can purchase Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.