Hacking Matter, Wil McCarthy

Basic Books, 2003, 222 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-465-04428-X

Oh sure, you know all about nanotechnology. The science-fiction you read describes atoms being rearranged all over the place and you’ve already put a pre-order on Amazon for the first prototype of the HomeNano universal assembler brewing kit. Good for you.

But wait a minute: Not only is high-end nanotech a while away from Wal-Mart, it’s not even clear if it will solve everything we expect it to fix: Issues of energy requirements, information transfer, safe control and speed of operation continue to confound even the sharpest thinkers on the subject. Even when you’re done doing all you can, nanotech simply rearranges atoms around; it can’t create new elements and probably will take a while to work.

Programmable matter is something else. A theoretical concept based on real-world research in the strange properties of quantum dots, it bridges the gap between straight-up nanotech and coarser material sciences. In theory, one could end up with a silicon material that could be programmed at will to emulate the characteristics of other elements, maybe even elements we haven’t yet discovered. While the actual real-world implementations of the technology are still a far way away, the theoretical underpinning seem reasonably solid. Hacking Matter is an overview of the subject, from the labs to the theory to the speculations.

Fortunately, a uniquely qualified author is at he helm. Wil McCarthy is best-known in some circles as a capable science-fiction writer, one whose career has progressed from run-of-the-mill SF adventures (Aggressor Six) to meatier fare (Bloom). But McCarthy is also a tech journalist and an engineer and Hacking Matter is the ideal book for someone at the intersection of those three fields: Not only is he capable of vulgarizing the subject matter, he’s able to speculate on where it’s going, and even make useful contributions to the field himself.

After a whiz-bang intro featuring some of the most outlandish speculations about programmable matter (including what happens when you bash artificial iron with a golf club), McCarthy settles down to the painstaking business of explaining the science behind the speculations. Don’t worry if your high-school physics are too far away to be useful; just keep reading until you reach the conclusions. It boils down to an arrangement of silicon in such a way that electrons are made to behave in unnatural ways. How unnatural? Well, unnaturally enough to recreate the properties of other elements that don’t exist. Unnaturally enough to change behaviour at the flick of a switch.

Thanks to descriptions of the Boston-area research centres where this is taking place, interviews with the concerned scientists and the other usual tools of good scientific journalism, McCarthy efficiently illustrates the field’s current state of the art. But the book truly hits its stride when McCarthy-the-journalist cedes the stage to McCarthy-the-SF-writer. After a meaty chapter on how architecture (houses, cities, etc.) will be revolutionized by programmable matter, it’s hard not to wish for these cool toys, right away. There’s more good stuff squirrelled away in the last chapter (along with a comparative examination of other life-altering technologies currently inching out of laboratories), and if you want even more, well, there’s always McCarthy “Queendome of Sol” science-fiction trilogy.

How credible is that stuff? Though it certain sound credible, that’s not neally for me to say. But simply consider this: McCarthy-the-engineer has his name on a patent application for a “Wellstone”. He obviously believes in it, and so do the scientists currently working on the field. (Check the latest version of the “Programmable Matter FAQ” for more details.) The history of science has progressed from far less likely concepts.

And so Hacking Matter remains a tease of bigger things to come; clocking in at 175 pages without appendices and the index, it’s leaves us hanging just as things get interesting. A fitting impression for a book describing cutting-edge tech: How are we going to perceive this book in twenty years? As an overly-optimistic pop-science work, or the first mention of a commonplace technology?

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