Nano, Ed Regis

Little Brown, 1995, 325 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73858-1

If you don’t find the future terrifying, you haven’t been there. Yet.

I just made up this epigram, (write to me if you use it) but maybe it should be the motto of every serious futurist. More and more, the pace of progress is increasing. The old adage about how things change to remain the same simply doesn’t hold true anymore: What we’re seeing in the crystal ball is that we’re on the brink of massive, irreversible and completely alien changes that will forever alter the face of the human race.

I’m overreacting? Barely. Consider Genetic Engineering. In maybe a decade (probably less), we’ll be able to fiddle with genes well enough to correct most of humankind’s worst flaws. Myopia? Diabetes? Arrhythmia? Crooked teeth? Gone, gone, all of them! You’ve heard it from elsewhere; let’s not go in more detail here. Genetic Engineering has the potential to do… well… almost everything.

(Digression: Genengineering might be, evolutionary speaking, the only way for a sufficiently advanced civilization to survive. Reason being that civilization stops natural evolution, and there must be something -short of eugenics- to ensure the betterment of the species, right?)

Even before reading Nano, I thought that nanotechnology might have an even bigger impact. Now I’m sure of it.

Nano is a layman’s account of the new proto-science of nanotechnology. I say proto-science because it’s fairly young, and it’s not a “traditional” science that fits in easily with physics, chemistry or biology. Nanotech is, simply, the study and manipulation of objects at the atomic level. What can you do with it? Everything.

Machines able to rearrange matter atom-by atom could be tailored to build any imaginable object. Repair your body. Kill viruses. Provide food from dirt. Power your car. Completely destroy any object and re-use the raw atoms to make a brand-new (or well-thumbed) copy of Dune. Whatever. Nano explains it in crystal-clear details. Make no mistake, Nano is a book-length pamphlet about nanotech and why you should be prepared for it.

But Nano is also very much the story of Eric Drexler. Drexler, while still an undergraduate, hit upon the theoretical notion of manipulating atoms. The remainder of his life so far has been dedicated at making this concept a reality and Nano describes the obstacles he had to face, from incredulity to lack of academic recognition.

The book advances more or less chronologically, following Drexler’s career and occasionally looking into parallel tracks. We progressively get caught in the excitement of the subject, and by the end of the book, you should be as much a convert to nanotech than Regis wants you to be. A few photos (not enough) illustrate this book.

The two biggest assets of Nano are its mind-blowing subject, and a limpid style. Ed Regis should get kudos for an exceptional job of bringing a heady subject to everyone’s level. I learned stuff, and I had a good time while doing it. I can’t think of higher praise for non-fiction books.

What’s more, Nanotech is important. It’s the wildcard of all of our future, it’s the siren song for most SF, it could be the last technical innovation. When it will happen (and there are few theoretical reasons why it should not), everything will change. Read Nano.  Be prepared. Preview the future.

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