Skip to main content

Nanoscience - Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey ***

Quantum theory proves the fascination of the science of the very small, and nanotechnology offers the potential for structures and materials at the kind of scale where quantum physics comes into play behaving significantly more impressively than we expect from something as, dare I say, it dull as materials science.

Thanks to the concept of tiny replicators and robots, nanotechnology has some remarkable heights to aim at - and some deadly lows in the form of all-eating 'grey goo' as worried about by Prince Charles. But the reality is that such technology is far beyond us, and may never be possible because of the difficulties of making engineering work at this scale, where all sorts of different influences, from unexpected forces to quantum tunnelling come into play. Practical nanotechnology started with pigments and even now is mostly about small structured particles and tubules, rather than mini-machines.

Peter Forbes and Tom Grimsey provide a good basic introduction to aspects like the self-assembly of structures, graphene and medicine making use of nanostructures in a heavily illustrated book. And sometimes the topics are genuinely fascinating. I have to mention graphene again, but I also found quasi crystals a new (to me) and interesting field.

However, there is a bit of a 'But...' I really respect Peter Forbes as a science writer, and have been very impressed with his previous titles like Dazzled and Deceived. But this book really didn't work as well for me. Although it had strong illustrations, some exceedingly beautiful, the layout wasn't inspiring and the near-coffee table book format made it clumsy to read. I do wonder if Forbes' collaborator Grimsey, an artist, was the wrong person to get involved in the project, as there was far too much focus in the text on the trivial artistic side of nanoscience  and unlike Forbes' previous books there was no real narrative flow, but rather a collection of facts that failed to provide an overall vision of the science.

There's lots of good stuff here, and it's one of relatively few books on a nanotechnology, but the way the material has been put across was a bit of a let-down.


Hardback 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…